Peak(s):  Culebra Peak  -  14,047 feet
Date Posted:  02/04/2013
Date Climbed:   02/03/2013
Author:  pioletski
 Luck, Perseverance and Stupidity on Culebra   

Climb and summit ski descent of Culebra Peak, 2/3/2013
14 mi RT, 5000' climbed and skied (ok, 4967' for picky readers)
Crew: Matt (pioletski) and sundry 14ers.compadres

So... much has been said in this forum about what constitutes a summit ski descent. I have to admit that in the case of Culebra, I am having to bend my own criteria a little and fall back on a strict Clintonian definition of summit ski descent: I descended, from the summit, with skis on. But for the first 300' vert or so, it was a stretch to call it skiing.

The difficulty is that Culebra is so hard to get with snow on it. My understanding from Anna, who put this trip together, is that this will be the only time the ranch management will open up the mountain until the summer hiking season. Thus my dilemma: do I go along on a February trip, knowing full well that the mountain may not be skiable? Do I wait, knowing equally well that I probably won't get another chance this year? (Joke's on me if they do open the mountain for a spring ski trip!)

The weather did look favorable for the last week or so, but there was also a fair amount of wind. The Culebra Snotel site reported a jump from 24 to 32 inches of snow depth between 1/28 and 1/31. I decided to give it a try, and if I found even 2 flakes of snow on the entire mountain then I would billygoat and bunnyhop and make it work somehow. Still, the uncertainty had me pretty stressed out as I drove down the arrow-straight Nazca line known as Highway 17 on Saturday night. Then, at about 10 pm, I saw a brilliant shooting star, and suddenly felt better about the whole situation.

A brief digression about this omen: Silly, yes. Self-fulfilling prophecy, yes. But I have noted that I always enjoy a 14er outing if I see a shooting star the night before or morning of a trip. This is analogous to predicting the weather in New Hampshire. They say that if the cows lie down, then it will rain. It's true: the cows always lie down, and it always rains. By the same token, I (almost) always see a shooting star or two when approaching the mountains, and I always have a good time...

And the Lord did grin

I pulled up to the ranch gate at 4:30 am and took my place in the line of cars. Mr Wilson, the ranch operations manager, arrived punctually at 5:00 and opened the gate. By 5:30 we were checked in, a briefing was delivered, a couple of radios distributed, and we were on the trail. There was a slight halo around the waning crescent moon as we started up the long gradual road. (Apologies, my cigarette-box camera does not take good pictures on low light.) By 7:00 am I was at Four Way; a couple of hikers were ahead of me.


The lower slopes, all the way up to the shoulder at about 13,000 feet, had abundant snow and nice skinning. The ranch people had packed a trail to Four Way with a snowmobile, and the Saturday group had pounded that into a firm trail, so going was easy using short (kicker-sticker) skins. At timberline I took the skis off and booted; most of the folks with snowshoes seemed to prefer traveling without them. View of the Blanca group from the ascent:


Above the 13000' shoulder (home of the giant cairn) it became cold and windy, to the point that I was reluctant to take off a glove to get a picture. Still, I liked what I saw approaching the first false summit (yes, Culebra wears falsies, like so many 14ers). There was enough snow to piece together a decent descent:


Unfortunately, things were really thin above the second false summit:


It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say the upper portion was snow-covered, it was more that the talus blocks were crusted over with rime.

Two of my compadres were at the summit when I arrived, but they didn't want to hang around in the chilly wind any more than I wanted to keep my glove off to take pictures. Here, however, is my boring obligatory shot of my gear at the summit:


View of the Spanish Peaks:


Skis on at the summit cairn/windbreak:


And this, folks, is billygoating at its finest (the "stupidity" referred to in the title). I would slide 5 or 10 feet, step, scrape... If anyone is into Extreme Recycling, there is probably enough P-tex and steel on these rocks to make another pair of skis:


Once past the upper false summit, however, things improved rapidly. Enough snow stuck to the ridgeline to create a reasonable path for skiing. Once I got to the bowl below the 13000' shoulder I was into mixed milled powder and windboard, and skiing was fun (as it's supposed to be). Here's the giant cairn at about 13 grand:


From treeline it was a swift ride down the trail to the ranch. A wonderful trip, if a little ugly at times.

Eight to go, pray for snow!

Thanks for reading. Thanks and kudos to Anna for obtaining permission for this trip. Thanks also to Mr Wilson and Cielo Vista Ranch for letting us be their guests for the day. (For future skiers and winter climbers: the email address to the ranch is

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

02/04/2013 17:49
I bet that was miserable coming off the summit but still something to be proud of. The Ranch is a very peaceful place and this summer when we camped I took the rain fly off my tent and watched shooting stars all night. Beautiful place!


Well done, Matt!
02/04/2013 17:57
Dude, that must have been some serious billygoat rock skiing having experienced that mess the day before! Wow, I'm impressed! Congrats on getting another one done and getting closer to the goal.

I Man

02/04/2013 18:38
Way to persevere. Culebra was a beautiful mountain and even more so covered in so much snow (but not enough for you )

Congrats again. Almost there!


Sure that wasn't the devil grinnin?
02/04/2013 19:40
You feelin alright Matt? Haven't heard from you in ages and then see this.

Just kidding, sounds like you made the most of an ugly situation. Image #4 looks scarier than Hannibal Lecter and his mask, and the intentions those rocks had for the bases of your skis are far worse than Lecter had for his victims.


brings new meaning to the term ”rock skis&rd
02/04/2013 23:00
Congrats bro! 8 more, wow.


Nice Matt.
02/05/2013 00:36
Glad you got that one done. How are the Sangres proper looking?


Mean Green
02/05/2013 02:53
Matt, do you HATE those Salomons!?!?! J/K Good work and I bet you were relieved to get to the big, open slope.

I'm glad I'm not the only one with replacement green AT blocks which don't match the original boots.


It looked good as I pulled into the northern SLV..
02/05/2013 06:31
...but it was just west-aspect ryme. : (

Images 3 & 4 - You're a brave man, Matt.

Congrats on making the best of an on-site decision. And big congrats on just 8 left!!


Seems to be the way down there.
02/05/2013 13:27
It was little better a few years ago in late April, and like your trip it was completely dry until a huge storm rolled in and made it skiable-ish. That range just is no good for snow, good job getting it done.


Thanks gents!
02/05/2013 15:43
And good job, again, to everyone for getting out there and making it a safe trip.

Brian - looking forward to getting out with you and Ben this spring.

Caleb - the northern Sangres look dry, dry, dry. I think the storm last week favored the Culebra range.

Bill - At least my socks match. The Sentinels rocked but they were starting to delaminate, so I glued 'em back together for one last ride before retirement.


Likewise Matt!
02/05/2013 19:37
Got a few plans laid down already . Way to persevere, the descent looks rough off the top. Those skis have certainly seen greener pastures!


Billy goating
02/05/2013 20:03
The first shot of Culebra is very deceiving. Shots 3 and 4 give a whole different perspective. I don't think I hate my skis enough to have skied that. I can see the rime but not the reason. I hope the snow lower down made up for your sacrifices up top

Dad Mike

08/12/2014 23:13
Matt...I was on that mountain with told me what you were going to showed me where you were going to ski...and I still have no idea how you did it. I think you said to me that it's ”part of the game”. That part of the game could not have been fun. Impressive dedication my friend.

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