Peak(s):  Culebra Peak  -  14,047 feet
Red Mtn A  -  13,908 feet
Date Posted:  05/31/2017
Modified:  06/01/2017
Date Climbed:   05/15/2017
Author:  cloudkicker
Additional Members:   Maverick6981, IanWright, Mowgli77, lfishsays, SasMaster22, stevej
 The Serpent & The Gypsy  

Peaks: Culebra Peak & Red Mtn A
Distance: ~11 miles (incl. Red Mtn A)
Vertical: ~4,900ft (incl. Red Mtn A)
Time: 3:30AM-3:30PM at a casual pace. (Summit of Culebra around 9:30AM. Summit of Red around 10:45AM.)
Trailhead: Cielo Vista Ranch, elevation 10,400ft
Route: The Serpentine Ridge


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The approximate route



The Alpine Gypsy


They say hiking is one of the only accepted activities where a person will jump into a stranger's car in a parking lot in the middle of the night and set foot with said strangers into a dark forest, often bearing little or no cellular reception.

You can breathe easy, mom... so far, I haven't encountered any axe murderers using this method, or any murderers at all for that matter! Lucky me, right?!? So far, this questionable method has helped me to find several awesome partners in my pursuits to reach the highest summits in Colorado.

It was in this fashion that I happened to meet Ian this February. Chad and I were fresh off a few modest successes on winter summits, going back to an ascent of Mount Silverheels on New Years Day. We were itching to sink our teeth into another Centennial 13er, and so we decided to go for Mount Buckskin via Loveland Mountain. Ian caught wind of our plans and decided to join, marking our first foray into the wild with The Alpine Gypsy.

In the middle of a cold winter's night, we met Ian at the "trailhead"; also known as an unmarked mining road that splits off from Kite Lake Road a short way up from Alma. We could hear the wind howling through the trees above us, but we weren't spooked. We were here and the mountain was somewhere up there *points vaguely above*. It was time to head out with this newest addition to our crew.

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Chad and Ian fight battering winds on the way up Loveland Mountain and its Centennial parent


One of the earliest questions a climber round these parts tends to ask another is "how many 14ers have you done"? It's kinda like the "so, you come here often?" of Colorado hiking icebreakers. There are probably more exciting questions to open with... perhaps "have you ever been charged by a moose?" or maybe "do you even avy awareness, bro?"

Despite my inability to craft a more intriguing introductory question to my new friend, Ian was happy to respond.

"As a matter of fact, I do come here often. I've got 57 of the 58 Colorado summits above 14,000ft."

You can probably guess which question I asked him after that.

"The last one left for me is the serpent... Culebra."


The serpent, eh? Google translate had to rescue my pathetic monolingual tush here. The Culebra range is named for the way its long ridgelines slither northward for many miles from its highest summit, the snake's head. The route up the Northwest Ridge from Cielo Vista Ranch has a gentle, non venomous bite. It is a wonder of its own; restricted most days of the year, secluded from the rest of the 14ers in more ways than one.

Ian explained that he had tried to lock down reservations to climb Culebra the previous summer. His original plan was to finish in the Chicago Basin. But, the elusive nature of Culebra and the scarcity of reservations approved by the ranch had thwarted his plans.

As I spent more time hiking and climbing with Ian, an idea began to brew in my mind. After some time I shared the idea with Chad. We made a pact to help sponsor Ian's Culebra climb as payback for the mountaineering expertise he's provided to this community. We have witnessed several moments of altruism where Ian helped lead people to heights they may not have otherwise reached, while asking for nothing in return.

We wanted to be there to see him reach this momentous milestone in his Colorado mountaineering career, and so the plan began to take shape. All we needed was for one or two others to chip in, and we'd have The Alpine Gypsy's climbing fees covered.


Booking the Climb


I kept a close eye all winter on the Culebra thread in the Climbing Connections forum on this site. It was apparent to me that Ron, the foreman at Cielo Vista Ranch, was willing to pencil in some off-season climbs for the community. All that was needed was for a person to step up as the logistics liaison, compiling a sufficient manifest of capable climbers that would make the venture worthwhile to the ranch. Oh hey, that's me!

A secret source provided a private phone number that I could dial to reach Ron. So, in the beginning of May, I made the phone call. It was a little tricky locking down a conversation with Ron, seeing as he rarely had good cell phone service at the ranch. More than one phone call with Ron reached me a little garbled, and most of our early correspondence involved trading voicemails. I had to counter this small dose of phone tag with a larger dose of persistence. Eventually, I was finally able to get ahold of the man.

At first, I asked him if we could schedule something for a Sunday. No dice. Ron offered me two alternatives: we could schedule a Saturday climb or a Monday climb. Chad and I tend to work most Saturdays; our weekends typically entail having Sundays and Mondays off. As such, we realized this climb had to be done on a Monday.

5/15 was our target date, but we were still a little too far off from that date to lock down the climb and I knew the conditions on the peak could change in an instant. One giant snow storm is all it would take to nullify our chances.

Communications went stagnant for a little while between myself and Ron. For a few days, my voicemails and text messages went unanswered. I began to wonder if we would be able to get this climb lined up after all.

About a week before our target date, I pulled out the last two cards I had yet to play. I communicated to Ron the following:

1. Ian and Chad recently reached the summit of Little Bear Peak (visible from ranch property) early May and we can all take care of ourselves.
2. The last remaining 14er for Ian to summit was Culebra, and he had saved this one for last as a special climb.

These two facts got Ron's attention for good, and he greenlit our climb for Monday, May 15! The only condition was that he needed us all to meet him at the main entrance to the ranch by 6pm Sunday the 14th, with payment and waiver forms ready to go.

Now, all I had left to do was gather my party before venturing forth.

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My packing looks way more like a tornado than this



Getting There


We put the vibe out that we'd be climbing Culebra on the 15th. Several people expressed interest in joining, but not everyone could make it happen simply for the fact that we had picked a Monday to climb. To those who wanted to go but were unable, I hope you were able to lock down a reservation when the summer booking window opened up. Every single opening for climbs in June and July sold out just 4 days after the window opened!

Another new hiking pal, Walker, had come sauntering into our lives in April. Once I got the green light for our climb, Walker quickly agreed to pay the remainder of Ian's climbing fee. Finding a third person to cover our buddy was a lot easier than I expected. Thanks Walker!

On Wednesday the 10th, Culebra was hit by a couple feet of snow. Ron assured me the avalanche danger remained low and the climb would still take place. In return, I assured him we would be prepared for these conditions. I let everyone know that snowshoes and/or spikes would probably be a good idea as the conditions warranted.

The forecast for the 15th predicted it would be 20-30 degrees above treeline with a southwestern wind of about 20-30mph. All things go.

By Friday the 12th, our group had grown to a confirmed 12 climbers: Kit (me), Ian, Chad, Walker, Sarah, Lindsay H, Lindsay F, Laura, Audie, Steve, and Glen along with his son Jake. Of the 12, I had only ever hiked with Ian, Chad, and Walker. I was eager for Sunday to come around so I could meet the rest of the party.

I ended up carpooling with Lindsay F, Laura, and Audie. On the drive, Lindsay recounted a harrowing experience from the week prior where her crew was stranded on top of Mount Lindsey in the middle of a thunderstorm. Scary stuff. I'm glad everyone made it safely outta that one!

Other than a quick stop for Chipotle on the way through the Springs, our drive to Cielo Vista Ranch passed pretty uneventfully. Lindsay floored it up and over La Veta Pass, and we ended up making it to the ranch 20 minutes earlier than Google Maps expected. Fooled ya, Google... I wasn't the one driving today!

Nearly everyone else was already there, waiting for us. Two of the ranch hands kept us entertained while we waited for Ron to arrive.

The newest ranch hand, Pete, was hired on at gunpoint a few days before we showed up. He was from Minnesota (complete with a distinctive 'sota accent) and had found himself wandering up to the north gate of the ranch one day. Pete's job interview consisted of him staring down the foreman's double barreled shotgun. Ron and his gun seem to do a pretty damn good job keeping unwanted trespassers away.

Long story short, Ron had found out that Pete had some charm to him and he knew a thing or two about a thing or two, so Ron hired him on to work and live at the ranch. Great choice, Ron! This guy was awesome and thoroughly entertaining in conversation. If you get the chance to climb Culebra and Pete's still around, have him tell a tale or two. You will not be disappointed.

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Photo credit: Lindsay Hastings


Ron's pickup truck turned the corner and met us all at the northern gate of the ranch. He stepped out of his truck, dressed in his white button up cowboy shirt and matching cowboy hat and boots.

"This looks like the sterile group."

I still have no clue what he meant by that.

Ron had everyone sign in and relinquish payment & waiver forms. He began by outlining the terms of our stay. We were to be checked out by 6pm the next day, effectively a 24 hour period in which we could begin climbing whenever we'd like. We were granted access to spend the night in a furnished cabin as well as a duplex style bunkhouse. All of us opted to go this route instead of tent camping, although we all had brought tent camping gear nonetheless.

After a few more words, wisdom, and instructions, the gate opened for us and we proceeded to drive through to the headquarters and settle in.

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This is not Ron



The Night Before


We all agreed we would begin our hike at 3:00 sharp Monday morning. Starting this early would allow us sufficient time to reach Culebra's summit in addition to Red Mtn A for the Centennial seekers among us.

As we approached sunset, Ron & Pete took Glen & Jake up the road on ATVs to scout out the conditions. At first, the guys at the ranch were under the impression that flooding over the road would prevent us from going further than 1/2 mile up from the headquarters. Thankfully, some emergency irrigation work had just been completed and we learned we would be able to drive a little under 2 miles up the road, making our start point approximately 10,400ft above sea level.

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Photo credit: Lindsay Hastings

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Photo credit: Walker Hines


While they were off ranging, the rest of us began to explore our new digs. We brought a few party favors to celebrate Ian's finisher trip. Walker brought his bluetooth speaker and he and Chad traded DJ duties, blasting some fan favorite cheesy pop punk and alternative rock hits from the olden days of a decade or two ago. For the second trip in as many months, we had the audacity to sing along to the song Wonderwall by Oasis at varying degrees of talent (or lack thereof).

Someone brought Cards Against Humanity, and you know how it is... when this game is present, it's hard to resist. Every time Chad was the judge he turned the cards into some outlandish story to tell. On a scale ranging from "chuckling quietly to self" to "Santa Claus deep belly chortling" many of us spent the evening laughing heartily at all the vulgarities of this modern classic.

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Ian, Audie, and Sarah holding in the giggles


Pete started a campfire for us to gather around. I reminded those nearby to stay hydrated so that we'd be quickly up and at it the next morning. Some listened, while some decided to get snake bit instead. Some retired early in preparation for our alpine start, and some hung around for extended fireside conversation and merrymaking.

I was one of the last to get to bed. I think I shut my eyes right around 11pm.


The Climb


I have this weird quirky habit of waking up to repeating numbers. So, my alarm went off at 2:22am. I was one of the first up for the day. I quickly dressed, ate a clif bar, chugged some cold brew, and proceeded to visit the other lodging areas to make sure everyone else was awake and getting ready.

About half of us were ready to hit the road right at 3am. The other half took a little longer to make up for lost hydration and to gather all the things.

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We ran out of sports drink so I guess this'll do


Two or three jeep loads sat, waiting at 10,400ft. We began to have doubts that the others would make it through the mud up the road without getting stuck. So we turned around and booked it back to headquarters. I lumbered back into the cabin to find the others were still dotting their t's and crossing their eyes, the venom of lethargy coursing through their veins. It took a little more rallying of the troops, but eventually everyone got going and we drove back up to 10-4.

We finally started hiking at 3:30am. About 10 minutes into the hike I realized I left my phone in Lindsay F's jeep. So, no Strava tracks or Snapchats to send out on this day. The good news was that I had my point & shoot ready to go and wouldn't be missing out on any sweet photos.

Early on, it became obvious that our dirty dozen consisted of hikers of varying paces. I instructed everyone to rendezvous near the four way junction where we would work out the pacing. Upon reaching the four way junction I gave the go ahead for the faster hikers to continue at their own pace. I opted to assume the rear along with Chad, Ian, Lindsay H, and Steve. From this point forward, they became my prime crew.

I got to chatting with Steve and we had a pleasant conversation about the ways the mountains have transformed us as individuals. I won't go into too much detail, unless you meet me at a happy hour or on a mountain. It was a delight, bonding with a fellow that really shares the same love and appreciation for the mountains that I do. It really helped to pass the time as we continued making our way towards treeline.

The snow was holding so well beneath our feet that we ditched our snowshoes and continued on foot.

We made it to the upper trailhead, also known as TREELINE, right at sunrise. By now, the rest of the party had already made great progress ascending to the beginning of the ridge. We estimated we were probably 30 minutes behind them and at least 500 feet below them, and losing time on them by the minute. Each smaller group had a SPOT or Delorme and I knew I wouldn't have to worry.

Just across the creek and above treeline, approx. 11,700ft, we took an extended break. Chad shot some footage for his video report, we hydrated and replenished with a snack or two, and we slipped on our microspikes.

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Steve trudges up the slope at sunrise

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Photo credit: Chad Richardson


The task at hand looked a little daunting. Before us was a giant snow slope that we had to ascend in order to reach the ridge, which was nowhere in sight. We could hear the wind above us but weren't yet affected by it.

If you've read my trip report on California Peak you'll know that I take a pragmatic approach in managing myself during a climb. Instead of one larger goal (the summit) I keep my eyes checked onto the several smaller objectives right before me. On this day, I relied on the views of distant surrounding scenery as my motivation to carry myself up.

The higher I went, the better I found the views to be of the ultra-prominent Blanca massif to the north, regal and proud.

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Blanca reveals herself

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Eventually we were high enough that we could even see the Crestones and the Kit Carson massif far to the north. (They were too far away for good photos)

Continuing slowly up the slope, we found ourselves ground to a halt on a slightly precarious section that may have exceeded 30 degrees in grade. One of our company was feeling nauseous and drained. We were hydrating faithfully, but it was obvious to me that this slope had stolen away my companion's last reserves of glycogen. As an endurance cyclist and avid hiker I've come very close to bonking (hitting the wall) on several occasions and it's never fun. You have to nip it in the bud before it sinks its fangs into you, forked tongue and all.

We provided some Emergen-C and Life Savers Gummies. We let the sugar and carbs sit for a moment, and found it granted just enough renewed vigor to allow us to carry on.

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Feeling larger than life

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The rest of the group catches up


Peering forward, I was finally able to make out the large cairn we were aiming for, per Ron's instructions from the night before. I made for it in haste.

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Aim for the cairn

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The giant cairn!


Ron had given specific orders that we must visit this cairn on the ascent AND on the descent. He recalled several bungled climbs--occurring nearly every year--where a hiker would try and descend from the ridge early instead of regaining the 100ft or so from the ridge's lowest point back to the cairn. The result is people have descended into the wrong drainage on the mountain and end up a valley over, miles away from roads, the ranch, or civilization. Since this mountain is entirely on private property, it means the ranch has to take care of all search & rescue efforts and they will not be happy if you force them to come looking for you.

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A bump in the snake's skeleton


Now that we were on the ridge, the 20-30mph wind forecast seemed real. Really real. It made our break stop at the cairn a little pesky. I could only keep my mittens off for 3 minutes or so to snack. It wasn't the chilliest my fingers have been on a mountain, but since we were on the ridge now we were primed, and that meant no dawdling.

We knew from the get go that the high point in our sights was just another one of the snake's vertebrae, not the head itself. No other choice, then, but to continue into the whipping wind.


Going for it


We met Glen & Jake on the low point of the ridge. They had reached the summit lightning fast and were already on their way back, just as we were beginning to wind our way up the ridge. Jake's 14ers count was now in the mid 40s, many of them with his dad. The two have reached dozens of summits together. We offered our congratulations to them, and they offered "congrats in advance!" to us and continued down. This was the last time I ever saw these guys, though I'm sure they still live to this day.

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A little winded, winding up the windy ridge

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Ours were the only footprints on the mountain


Around 13,500ft, we ran into Lindsay, Laura, Audie & Walker coming down. They complained of unrelenting winds on the summit. It sounded kinda rough but I was wearing my goofy floppy hat which covers my ears and offers maximum warmth, and I knew for all that I had paid to climb this mountain I could continue.

They informed us that Sarah made a solo run up Red Mtn A and would probably be nearing her summit by the time we made ours. Ian asked me to reaffirm my commitment to climbing Red with him after Culebra's summit. He didn't want to go it alone, though it was certainly within his means. The good news is, Ian and I both have a love for these mountains that extends beyond the highest 54. I felt prime for it and I let him know just that.

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Looking north on the Culebra Range, with Spanish Peaks far right.


Not all of us felt prime on this ridge. But... the power of summits compel us! If I knew it'd help, I would have sprinkled water on a forehead or two and chanted this over and over, doling some weird goofy magic unto my companions. We were summit spellbound.


The Serpent's Head


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Taking a deep 14,000ft breath (PC: Chad Richardson)

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Crikey! A wild summit has appeared! Two, even!

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PC: Walker Hines


Revealing itself, Culebra Peak was only a short distance away. To gain the summit, all that remained was to drop 50 feet or less and then gain 100 feet at most. We rallied the troops one last time.

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The forbidden Dark Snake ridge creeps northward from the summit


My crew strolled onto the summit. We made it. We were the last ones to make the summit that day, but our record as a whole was perfect and our day unhindered.

Fortunate for us, just as we reached the summit the wind relented!

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Cloudkicker, The Alpine Gypsy, and Maverick's summit photo

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Steve's summit photo

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Lindsay Hastings' summit photo

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Laura, Lindsay Fisher, and Audie's summit photo

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Sarah's summit photo


The five of us traded hugs and high fives. One of us puked all over the summit and decided to rename the peak "Culebra Puke". I got a chuckle out of the fact that the pre-climb photo said "Summit or bust!" and this companion busted their guts out all over the summit.

Ian was overcome with joy and gratitude. We presented to him a surprise. Our friend Ken wasn't able to come with us on this trip, but he sent along for Ian a finisher medallion in the form of a USGS summit marker. Ken had engraved personalized info on the marker to make it even more special to our gypsy friend.

Ken deserves this shameless plug. Seriously go buy something on Ken's website he sells really cool stuff and I'm making this hyperlink really long just so you'll go to www.highmtns.com and support local mountain goodies.

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Once more, with feeling: visit www.highmtns.com for your own mountain summit markers.


In just under 2 years, Ian touched summit to all of Colorado's 58 highest! This man has inspired me as the selfless, noble adventurer he is. Ian's presence on our hikes and climbs lifts my spirit, and he never hesitates in sharing all his grandest moments with others. Something tells me he and I will be embarking on many more adventures together.

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Triumph


The others were ready to get off the mountain and make for the ranch again, which meant Ian and I were ready to go get us another Centennial. We sayonara'd our crew and hopped on down a southwesterly ridge to a broad saddle.


There and back


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Next stop: Red Mountain

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The skip and the jump


This traverse is pretty menial compared to, for instance, Red Cloud & Sunshine. Only one minuscule bump separates Culebra from Red and it can be done in minutes rather than hours. Just a little bit of scampering and we would be there.

I started to feel less prime having to reascend a little bit of elevation. The wind, having abandoned us on Culebra's summit ridge, found its way right back to us. I leaned into my poles so to not be swept into the rocks.

It's nice having a snack pocket for that quick sugary or salty boost. I try to have at least three snack pockets, that way I've got snacking options that are within easy reach during the suffering parts of a climb.

Before I could chew through a third gummy saver, we were on the summit of Red.

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Ian enjoys the summit of another Centennial 13er

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I can see New Mexico from here!


We didn't stay here for very long. The wind wouldn't have us. I wanted to sign the summit register but it was all wet, rendered useless to its visitors for who knows how long.

The gypsy had his fill, and I did too. We knew we were many hours behind everyone else by now and it was getting closer to hoof-it o'clock PM... that time of the day where picture opportunities were harder to come by.

Dropping back to the saddle, Ian picked a line around and beneath Culebra's summit ridge. The idea was to meet back up with the summit ridge just before it curled out of reach. This involved contouring several steep snowfields at iffy angles. The snow held, but I would have felt way more comfortable brandishing my axe through here instead of the poles. I sensed this was a purposeful test to see how I could handle a touch of spice on the way back. Spoiler alert: I handled it.

By now, my own energy levels were falling rapidly and I was getting pretty sluggish. Finding no break from the wind, we descended doggedly. The lowest point of the ridge had become a wind tunnel and I staggered through it, reaching forward and digging deep. We returned to the great cairn and now everything was downhill. We found our first break in the wind, at the top of that first annoying slope. I stopped for more snackage and we drank our last reserves of water.

Pete later told us he was watching us from the ranch through some binoc's. He said it looked like we fell asleep here. Nope. Just stretching my legs and toasting in the high altitude sun.

We picked up the glissade path set by our companions and followed it down the slope. High noon came and went, softening the snow. Our own scoots down the slope weren't as quick and effortless as the others but we made do.

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After the glissade


Upon returning to the upper trailhead, we started back down the road. The snow became less continuous. Ian stopped at a dirty puddle to filter some water. He and I saluted each other. Ian still couldn't believe he had finished. I confirmed it. We had video proof, picture proof, medallion proof, all the proof. There would be no stealing this moment from him. We will remember it to the very end.

The postholing we endured in the final 2 miles was unpleasant but expected. I came here expecting to suffer at least a little bit. So we suffered, and now we're stronger for it.

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We plodded on and recounted the day's marvels to each other. Fortune had found us time and time again. The weather was perfect. So there was wind, but that part of the story didn't matter now.

Making a beeline for 10-4, we found a white pick up truck heading straight for us. Pete jumped out and said that if we hung on we could hitch a ride in the bed back to headquarters.

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Blooming aspens


Pete said they found some elk sheds while guiding the others back down the road. He gave Walker an antler to take home. Neature souvenirs make me peanut butter and jealous.

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Looking back on the road to Culebra Peak


Ian and I reunited with the rest of the group around 3:30pm. I learned that the earliest group had waited 4 patient hours for our return, and I was incredibly grateful for that. I found my phone again and tried to make quick small talk with the crew, but I felt pretty dazed as I let the day's miles catch up to me.

I packed my things up and jumped into Lindsay F's car. We stopped for a minute to talk to Ron and Pete one last time, offering up our thanks for the hospitality. We were all truly grateful to be given this opportunity and we let the ranchers know just this.

To the rest of my crew still hanging out at the ranch when I left, apologies on that Irish exit! Like I said, I was out of it. There will always be another adventure, and we tend to make it grand on each and every one.


What I learned:


  • Jumping into people's cars and disappearing into forests with them is never a bad idea as long as those people love the mountains like you do.
  • The Culebra Peak experience is absolutely worth doing the legal way, even just to hear Pete tell a story.
  • Cards Against Humanity is a great way to stay in shape, when you pair it with a climb the next morning.
  • The serpent's bite bears little venom on this climb; especially when the camaraderie is strongest.
  • If a U.S.G.S. field agent pukes on the summit, it's still not enough to change the name on the maps to Culebra Puke.


Footnote: Cielo Vista Ranch, along with Culebra Peak and its three nearby mountains are for sale this year for a staggering $105 million. Rumor has it they've found a buyer, and the property may be changing hands before year's end. There is no guarantee that future off-season climbs can be booked through the ranch in the manner I've outlined, or in any manner even. Beyond 2017, it is uncertain whether climbs will be available for reservation even in summertime.



Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
Jay521

Nice!
06/01/2017 09:22
And congrats to Ian!


starsstuff

Great title!
06/01/2017 09:27
And a great report and nice tribute. Congrats to all and especially to the gypsy!


cloudkicker

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06/01/2017 11:57
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cloudkicker

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06/01/2017 11:57
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