Fellow Memphis Mountaineer, Paul McDaniel, had mentioned on a previous cragging trip that he wanted to give alpine climbing a try. After our initial plans for Mount Washington in New Hampshire fell through, we finally made it out to Southwest Colorado’s San Juan Range in late March.
March 18 – My Driving Tour
I arrived a day earlier than Paul was supposed to arrive and took a ride from Durango up the “Million Dollar Highway” all the way up to Red Mountain Pass. This route took me over two high passes on the way to Red Mountain, including the passes used to access Engineer and Snowdon mountians. This had been my first trip using Google Earth as one of my primary beta sources, and it had not occurred to me how much the tool minimizes the mountains until my ride up this day. These peaks were a little bigger and steeper than I was anticipating, and I was a little intimidated.
March 19 – My Engineer Summit
Paul was not scheduled to arrive until this afternoon, so I had booked a day to climb with Southwest Adventure Guides out of Durango. We planned on climbing Engineer, then I’d climb it sometime in the next few days with Paul.
Steep traverse to the crux chimney.
I felt the 7AM start from the trailhead was a little late, but the purpose of this climb was for me to get familiar with the area and I was sure that my guide, Josh, knew what was best. Josh and I were joined by Andrew who was observing Josh for the day and planned to ski down after our climb.
Our approach time was passed by Josh quizzing me on my thoughts of the current avalanche conditions, as one sort of the “training” aspect of our day. In almost 2 hours, we’d snow shoed to the toe of the North East Ridge of Engineer Mountain, where we removed our snowshoes and roped up for the climb. Firm cramponing up initial slopes on firm snow put us onto the ridge proper, which got right to business with a steep, but easy traverse into the notch below the crux chimney of the route.
We pitched out the crux steep snow and rock 30 meters on our half rope to a seated, picket belay then shortened the rope back up for the rest of the ridge to the summit. This portion of the route was great, alternating between super exposed ridge walking, traversing and taking a direct line up the last snow slopes to the summit. The only down side was that it was getting warm and the snow was getting a little too soft to move super efficiently. When we made the summit, there was not a cloud in the sky. This was by far the best weather I’d ever had on a winter or early spring summit.
In the chimney.
High on the ridge.
We descended the summit snow slopes by plunge stepping, until we got down to the knife edge portion of the ridge. Form there it was an easy stroll back over to the crux, where we again belayed our way back down into the notch below the crux, which included a little down climbing. One more quick traverse and the ridge was done, as we arrived back at the toe of the ridge, where we traded our ice axe and crampons for the trekking poles and snowshoes.
After a little more training practice, in the form of beacon practice, we started the slog out to the car. We made it back to the trailhead about 7 hours roundtrip.
Descending the ridge.
March 20 – Cascade Canyon
Paul and I headed to Cascade Canyon to let him have his first go at using crampons, an ice axe and ice tools. After the quick descent into the canyon, we traversed the snow along the walls to stay out of the creek at the bottom of the canyon until we came to a nice 50’ WI2+ slab with some steep snow above it that we’d use for a practice climb. There was a steep pillar nearby, so we figured we could get a couple different climbs in from the same spot.
I led the initial ice bulge using a couple ice screws for pro, then climbed the snow unprotected to the top of the headwall at a short cliffband of rock, dirt and trees. With no good anchor easily at hand, I put a screw in rotten ice then traversed the headwall another 50’ over to a nice reachable tree for an anchor, using a 3 more screws to protect the traverse. From there, Paul lowered me to the bottom of the canyon so I could give him a little instruction for his first ice pitch.
Paul climbed the easy snow and ice route fairly gracefully for someone with a gimp hand (he had just had over a dozen stitches removed from his left hand a few days prior). So after a few inefficient moves, he finally got in the groove and started planting tools and moving up the ice and snow. After pulling the screws on the traverse, he made the top anchor and practiced traversing and downclimbing the slope below to try out French cramponing and other techniques, alternating as the terrain changed on the slope. One more lap up the steep pillar and we were done with this spot by early afternoon.
After practicing ice axe and self arrest skills on a snow slope in the canyon, we made the short, steep hike out back to the car (fortunately finding Paul’s lost camera on the way out).
I had some reservations about taking Paul up Engineer on my own. While doable as a first climb for him, I felt like leading it with a super green partner was a little out of my comfort zone and that if he climbed it with a guide he’d not only have a chance to learn from a pro, but it would increase the safety margin considerably. It had absolutely nothing to do with me still being gassed from the day before :)
! So that afternoon, we stopped by the guide shop and gear store to get Paul lined up to climb Engineer with Andrew and so he could replace his newly shredded shell pants.
March 21 – Paul’s Engineer Summit and My Tour of Ouray
While Paul was on his climb on Engineer, I made my way up to Ouray to scope out the ice park. Having never been there before, I thought I could make a good recon trip up for maybe a more elaborate visit for my next winter trip to the San Juans. After finding the park, I kitted up and went for a hike along the top of the gorge to scope it out. Being a weekday, there wasn’t alot of traffic, but there were alot of nice steep and long ice lines. I sure didn’t see any WI2 on my quick tour, but I didn’t venture into the canyon so my view was pretty limited. I didn’t explore too long, as I still had a two hour drive back to Durango to pick up Paul.
Although exhausting, Paul had a great marathon climb up Engineer with Andrew. At nearly 10 hours round trip, he seemed pretty whipped by the time we met back up that evening. Judging by the amount of limping around he was doing after dinner, I’m sure when he hit up the hot tub at the Durango Lodge it was a welcome relief. He “said” there were some girls in there with him that were headed to the bar... I’m not sure, but what ever it was, there was not much limping when he came back to the room to quickly change to try to catch up with them.
We spent the next day recovering from our adventures and checking out Durango, before heading back to Memphis first thing on Sunday, Easter morning. While the climbing there was a little more than I was expecting, it was still a good trip. Next time I’ll be a little more prepared (physically and mentally) and would love to tackle that ridge on my own, and maybe climb a route on Snowdon and a day at Ouray as well.
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