| Culebra - Northwest Ridge
Since late last year, I had been itching to get Culebra checked off the list. I guess I was a little paranoid that they would either raise the access fee beyond the already steep $100 or worse just close the mountain again. When I saw on the 14er board that someone else was doing all the legwork on organizing it, I emailed my hiking buddy "LOVENIT" and we jumped at the chance. My son had been bugging me about going on a 14er with me, so I figured this was as good a peak as any to take him on.
"LOVENIT" drove in from UT to my house in Parker Friday night. We all loaded up Saturday morning and headed on down to the Great Sand Dunes. The drive took about 5 hours but it went by pretty quickly. We secured a camping spot and had some time to kill so we spent a little time exploring the Dunes.
It was very windy so we didn't stay long. We drove outside the park to a little trading post store and they suggested we visit Zapata Falls. It was about 3 miles outside the park and a mile or two up a dirt road. The hike up to the falls was short and sweet. The falls sits deep inside a narrow canyon and you have to walk up the creek a bit to see it. It's amazing how you can go from hot dry desert conditions to cool almost cold conditions within a few 100 yards.
That night we had bacon wrapped chicken, stuffing and of course some brews (Kool-Aid for my son). My son and I pitched a tent while "LOVENIT" slept in the back of his truck. As it turns out this was to be one long sleepless night. The Sand Dunes are formed by the winds blowing in the particles from the surrounding valley. Well that night was no exception and I spent most of the night holding up the sides of the tent so they would not fall in on us.
Sunday morning we got up at about 4:30am, packed up our stuff and headed down to the ranch. It was about an hour drive and we were supposed to meet Carlos the ranch hand at 6am. FYI be sure and have detailed directions handy when driving to the gates there are lots of turns on several different dirt roads. If I were to do this hike again I would just car camp at the gates to the ranch, there is a wide turnaround with plenty of room. In fact, when we were there, they even had a port-a-potty.
Carlos arrived right on time and a caravan of vehicles followed him up to the headquarters. At headquarters we all lined up and paid our fees and headed off to the trailhead. The road past headquarters goes up the side of the mountain and is straight as an arrow and pretty steep in spots. We passed a large herd of Elk on the way up (Elk hunting is the primary activity done on Ranch). Several vehicles stopped at the 4 way intersection in order to gain 3,000 ft of elevation, we continued on to the end of the road.
We hefted our packs and headed up the trail. My son had been coughing all night and the sand had been bugging the cast on his broken arm but he was in high spirits.
The first part of the trail is pretty well defined up the valley but it quickly fades as you reach the base of the first ridge. The group quickly separated itself at this point, each person picking their own route up. As is typical on many 14ers the ridge is steep and you gain a lot of elevation in a short distance.
My son did his best and I proud of him. At the top of the ridge he decided he was done and did not want to go on any further. I would later find out he had a rather nasty case of bronchitis. I feel like I should get the award for terrible parent of the year, taking my 7 year old who has a broken arm and bronchitis on a 14er.
After a short discussion with my buddy it was decided that I would return to the truck with my son and he would continue on to the summit with the group. If time and weather allowed I would then attempt a summit. We made good time back to the truck and he ended up sleeping for the next 3 hours, poor guy.
About 10:30 I started to see the first people returning and at about 11:30 I was able to spot "LOVENIT" flying down the ridge. I had been watching the weather roll in and out all morning long and I was skeptical at making my own attempt. After a short discussion we decided I should at least make an attempt after all we had traveled a long way and who knows when the next time I would be able to swing a trip like this.
I headed out, passing the entire group coming back down. They were all very encouraging and gave me some detailed instructions on how to make the quickest ascent. It was strange to know that I had the entire mountain to myself. The directions I had been given proved to be spot on and I quickly reached the much talked about monstrous rock cairn.
The weather continued to roll in and out and I was forced to add and shed layers regularly. The view from the rock cairn is fairly discouraging all you see is a steep ridge line and if you have done your homework you know that what you see at the top is still the false summit. Not to be deterred I kept moving, one eye on the time and the other on the ominous clouds that kept rolling over.
You actually have to lose some elevation as you make your way from the monster cairn around to the next ridge. My camera had been acting up the past few weeks and true to Murphy's Law it picked half way up the second ridge to finally die.
I was disappointed knowing that I would probably not be able to get a summit shot. I huffed and puffed still making pretty good time to the top of the false summit. The view from here up to the real summit was even more discouraging as I had been really pushing myself to this point. It should also be noted that at this time the weather had decided to quit rolling by and was settling in. I knew I did not have much time so I pressed on. The actual hike from the false summit to the real summit was easier than it looked.
At the summit I made a couple feeble attempts to get my camera working again but the camera gods were working against me and it refused to cooperate. Resigned to the fact that a summit photo was not in the cards, I signed the register, collected a summit rock and began the trek back down.
As I reached the saddle between the false summit and the real one, my body reminded me that I had been pushing it very hard and it had been since 4:30am that I had last rewarded it with fuel. Despite the ominous looking weather I had to stop so I obliged and broke out an energy bar and some water. I was resting comfortably on a rock and was about halfway through the bar when the skies turned ugly, cloud to cloud lighting began to flash and thunder boomed around me as hail began pelting me. I dropped my half eaten energy bar into my pack and beat a hasty retreat across the false summit.
I had just begun picking my way down the ridge when my hiking poles started making a rather loud buzzing noise, instinctively I tossed them in front of me about 30 feet and dropped to a crouching position. Nothing happened so I picked my way down the slope to where my hiking poles had landed, collapsed them and began carrying them by the straps.
I bet I made record time down to the lower saddle and was dreading having to climb back up the ridge (closer to the lighting) in order to meet up with the monster rock cairn. But at least the hail had stopped. I figured the longer I waited around the worse it would be so I stayed low and worked my way back. After reaching the Cairn, the thunder and lighting also seemed ease but the moisture content of the air was on the rise, threatening to open up again at any moment.
At this point I was dead tired and more than ready for the adventure to be over. I dropped off the ridge and quickly made my way back down to the truck. Almost on queue and perhaps as a gesture of good will, the clouds had waited just long enough for me throw pack into the truck before opening up and dumping rain on us.
On the drive out we ran into Carlos, he was coming up to see if we were alright. I am sure it concerned him that it was nearly 5pm and all the other vehicles had checked out well before noon. We chatted with him about having to make separate summit hikes and about the ranch and its history etc. Exhausted but pleased that I had made the summit I settled in for the long drive back to Parker. A big, big thanks to LOVENIT for entertaining my son for all those hours so I could make the summit, I appreciate it more than he knows.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):