| Climbing Culebra is like Choosing a Model T Ford
Culebra is a unique climb. We all know the story; the only currently, privately owned Fourteener and the only one that you need to register in advance and currently for which you need to pay a fee to climb by its accepted route without violating any trespassing rules and you're on the clock to get off by a certain time.
This isn’t so much a trip report with route detail and suggestions as it is a discussion on logistics. You only have one option (legally) to climb Culebra so there isn’t much need in discussing route details or route options.
When trip planning for climbing Culebra, keep in mind the quote from Henry Ford when commenting on marketing strategy for the then-new (early 1900s) Model T Ford: “Customers can have any color car they want, as long as it’s black”. So, you want to climb Culebra? You have to pay to play and play by the rules.
After the four peaks and four days in the Chicago Basin earlier that week and then Sneffels, my weary legs and I drove down to Alamosa to crash on a bed, literally and sleep before getting a start on Culebra the next morning. The drive down to the Cielo Vista Ranch from Alamosa is very nice. Passing through the quiet rural area and then through the town of San Luis, the oldest in Colorado, you get the sense of stepping back in time 100yrs coming down here. That morning, I had to pull over and watch a Golden Eagle engage in aerial combat with a pair of ravens over one of the cattle farms. The cows hadn't noticed. If only I had brought my telephoto lens.
Signing in Below at the Gate. I suppose if you're name is not on the sheet, you don't climb or maybe you can, I don't know. From here you drive a mile or two to the Ranch where you formally sign in and get any last minute details for the climb. Note this is the first picture I've ever taken with a smartphone that has appeared in a trip report!
“Gphunk88” – if you're reading this, I think this is your white pickup, no?
If you want to climb Culebra, you must settle on following the rules, which aren't really onerous. The planning is pretty simple and you only have a few months within which to climb typically without making exceptions with a prearranged group so your available time options are also limited also; essentially to that time before hunting season begins when the ranch opens up to other interests. I suppose if you’re willing to shell out the dough ($10,000, $15,000?) for a private guided Elk hunting trip, you probably have the option to summit the peak then…otherwise, pay the other nominal fee to climb it in season.
The road up from the gate leading to the ranch and trailhead - the initial road to the house was smooth and passable in any car. The folks at the ranch commented my rental car would likely not make it though up to the higher parking area a few miles up. Dennis and John - thank you for the ride up! And Krista, thank you for the ride down!
What to do to climb:
1. Register to climb by emailing the Cielo Vista Ranch: email@example.com (Sam was very nice to deal with and made the process pleasant)
2. In your email, state your desired date and how many people will be going
3. Once confirmed on a date, read and sign the waivers, print them out and pack them to carry with you
4. If you need to cancel, inform the ranch, since your unused slot may prevent someone else from being able to climb it on that day.
5. Get there at 6:00AM
6. Check in, pay your fee, drive to the upper trailhead and start hiking (or start a much longer hike from the house)
7. Be finished before 18:00 hours otherwise they will send a search party after you at your expense.
Among the rules on the peak are to follow no defined path and try insofar as possible, not to create one. Instead, walk in individual directions in a scattered fashion so as not to carve a route in this wilderness mountain and to protect the terrain from erosion and the hundreds of boot prints over the course of a season. This wasn’t hard to do.
I was apprehensive about thinking about climbing this peak for a long time. The fee, the registration, the assumed crowds on climbing day...I wasn't sure what to make of it.
The process was painless and as it turned out, was a great day up a remote peak with a real nice group of people.
Given the nature of this climb, the timeline to finish etc., no real rest stops, to try and beat the storms to get it done, etc. I didn't really focus on photography on this trip but took a few shots for posterity
There are a couple of directions you can follow from the end of the road. Either aim directly up from the parking lot (crossing the stream or not) or follow the road a bit more, cross the small creek and head up from there on to steeper green slopes.
Either way you take, the hike itself is very pleasant as it climbs up a gentle grassy hill until its crests out well above treeline where you can see the summit and the remaining “suggested” route direction.
Once you top out of the initial hill you are greeted with alpine views more typical of those on a higher peaks. OK, we ARE really on a 14er here!
The famous giant cairn greets you in case you're not paying attention to the route. Culebra's high bare summit ridge comes into view.
There really is only one way to go, but just in case you're sleepwalking or staring down at your iphone the whole way...
Once you top out from the climb up the grassy slopes, if you came up more to climbers left of the summit as I did, you now veer 90 degrees right and head towards the base of the final sections up to the top. The "route" proceeds up above the remaining snow to the left in the photo. Summit is not visible in this shot. Terrain here reminded me more of a climb in the Sawatch Range.
Now you can see the remaining route and the summit from here. Note climbers for scale. It is at this moment you feel like you are on a mountain now!
In anything but a whiteout, you'd have to try and get lost on this peak.
Climbing up the boulder filled sections. There is actually a bit of a loose route definable in this section here and there, but nevertheless there are a few ways up. I stayed on the ridge proper, though you can walk off to the right up a more grass filled slope for much of the way if you chose to. There is really no exposure here to speak of.
Moving closer, you can start to see the winding ridge of Culebra Peak as you approach the summit, though a false summit or two will impede your progress a bit.
Moving on, then looking back at the route: Note Blanca Peak and the Sand Dunes in the distance.
The remaining route takes you over Class 2ish terrain and consists of boulder hopping until the summit.
Unlike summit photos from many other peaks in the Sangre de Cristos, because Culebra rises from relatively flat plains around it, you don’t see the broad views of jagged peaks like you do from the Crestone Group, Blanca Group, Kit Carson, Challenger, etc. I am sure one can see Wheeler Peak in New Mexico from Culebra's summit, but I wasn't sure which peak it was.
As you can see in the photos, there was lingering smoke in the distance from the recent fires, but nothing that impacted the climb in terms of air quality.
James provided the summit photo of the group of us that summited altogether or within 5-10 minutes of one another.
Looking at the hike back with the initial ridge in reverse direction. The "route" back traverses over three of those subsummits and then descends down towards the parking lot.
Again, there are several options you can choose. We just dead reckoned for the lot and meandered a bit here and there to get there.
As in the climb up, we all dispersed, trying to take a different path up and different from each other to spread the wear and tear on the terrain.
All in all, it was a great day, had great company, beat the weather and got a nice hike and climb in for a pretty unique mountain.
From the night of the climb before driving back to the airport: a view of the Blanca Massif from the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. A nice peaceful place to relax. Two deer were doing the same.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):