On the trail: The long way up Engineer Pass
September 26, 2011
OURAY, Colo. – There’s a good reason to drive up to Engineer Pass, a four-wheel route that is part of the famous Alpine Loop in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. It’s a long walk.
For years, I’d been meaning to explore the Jeep road that takes off from Highway 550 just outside of Ouray and heads up the pass. Last week I did just that in a trek that went from scenic to excruciating in a matter of hours – eight of them, to be exact. I should have admired the expansive alpine tundra, painted in the earthy tones of autumn and framed by snow-capped peaks, then turned around. I could have walked up for two and a half or three hours, then turned back and spared my body some unnecessary pain.
Instead, out of pure stubborn foolishness masquerading as fortitude, I pressed on, intent on seeing Engineer Pass and taking a photograph of the cold, windswept landscape at 12,800 feet. Near the top, two different parties in four-wheel-drive vehicles offered me rides. Both times I accepted, then wound up getting out perhaps a quarter-mile farther up the road. It was snowy, slushy and muddy at the top and sliding sideways off a narrow shelf of a road was not on my itinerary. I was grateful that no one suggested I was being a total wuss, though people probably thought so.
I’m sure they thought I was nuts for walking all that way in the first place, but they kept silent about that, too. “Wow, you are optimistic,” one driver offered after a prolonged pause when I told the group in the SUV that I’d planned to hike all the way up from the highway.
I finally slogged my way to the sign at the pass, lingered briefly in a bitter wind, and turned to trudge back uphill (the pass is actually beyond the high point), rounding a peak where warmer conditions returned.
The descent wasn’t pure torture, but it was close. By the time I reached the lower section of the road, where vehicles negotiate a narrow stretch made interesting by a deadly drop-off, my feet were screaming, and my knees were joining the chorus.
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I’d been on my feet almost continuously for eight hours. It was, as nearly as I can judge from a map, about a 20-mile round-trip hike.
I’m guessing I won’t see Engineer Pass again, but I don’t need to. I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve got the blisters to prove it.