Peak(s):  Culebra Peak  -  14,047 feet
Date Posted:  01/07/2019
Date Climbed:   01/05/2019
Author:  justinholle
 Culebra Winter Climb - 1st of 2019!   

Some ideas seem better on paper. Some ideas look HORRIBLE on paper. Like this one... As planned we'd get up at 1:25AM, leave Denver by 1:45AM, drive 4 hours to the CVR Ranch front gate, and nab a few minutes of rest before checking in. Then we'll skin to the summit for ultimate FINAL FOURTEENER GLORY!! We'll finish with a ski back to the car and a victorious drive back to Denver, 4 hours. Total 1-Day Trip Time: 22 hours.

Now, since you're reading this trip report you understand the lengths by which us adventurers will travel to see a mountaintop. Further, if you are doing a bit of recon on this mountain, with its associated fees and protocol for gaining access, then you are a peak-bagger looking to check all the boxes. But tell your friends the itinerary above and you'll get some corner eye balls. All that aside, we executed Part 1. Get our asses up out of bed and down to Cielo Vista Ranch.

Carlos did a great job communicated via email and his staff was punctual on Saturday AM. 6AM and the gate swung open. We checked in and headed up to the ranch headquarters to deliver our waivers and use their restroom (the amount of coffee needed for the trek made this a welcomed amenity). At the gate we met 4 other climbers who elected to camp in their vehicles overnight. Hindsight proves I still like the single day marathon as the temps were between 2-9 degrees when we arrived and I imagine the midnight pee breaks were frigid. After checking in we geared up and were on the snowmobile packed road by 6:45AM. NOTE: the upper trailhead is NOT accessible in the winter and you must travel on the packed road 3.8 miles to the Upper Lot (Four Way) and another 1.1 miles to the "trail" toward the summit. Plan for a solid 5 mile skin with a steady uphill grade.


Our quest to top all of the 14er's included the often-debated idea of this "pay to hike" mountain. Regardless of your position there is something majestic about being one of only a few allowed hikers in an area. We had clear views, silence pure enough to hear snow melt, and a true "adventurer" feeling about being so alone in such remote wilderness.


The packed trail wandered in and out of forest for a good 5 miles before we hit the end of the road, approximately 10AM. From this point on we were to make our own trail. We had trail beta telling us that Summer hikers cross the obvious gully here and track the right side to the ridge ahead. Snow conditions made it seem that we could track the left side, avoiding a more precarious gully crossing here, and cross the gully at a flat spot up higher. Our assumptions proved correct and the rest of the 2019 climbers can thank us for the skin track :) . We made good time through the meadow and by the time I reached the steeper face before the ridge, the group had stretched out a bit. Now fully in my groove, I set a conservative angle for the 4 switchbacks up the face to the ridge. Now here is a very important piece of information: We could NOT skin all the way to the ridge. We had to remove our skis and bootpack through a mix of windcrust snow and rock. The ridge is not accessible through skinning alone. More on this later.

Atop the ridge I now got my first glimpse at Culebra Peak. It was here I also realized that we have quite a day ahead of us as the ridge wanders in a semicircle, dropping elevation through snow, and regaining elevation through a mix of snow and rocky ridgeline (complete route not visible in picture).


Looking back on the group below I learned that we got more than stretched out. 4 of the remaining 5 climbers had yet to start up the face. Knowing Abbe hadn't much experience skinning up steep faces, I pulled my skins and skied back down to her. The turns were AWESOME! There was a river of soft snow all the way down and I relished each drop of the knee! I met up with Abbe just before the meadow and instead of fighting the skin route, we removed skis, tossed them on my pack, and we boot packed the face through areas of snow and rock. The going was a bit slower but consistent and we regained the ridge after 40 minutes. It was 12:05PM. (The picture shows the packed snowmobile trail winding through the forest, our skin track, a lone climber following my track up the face, and the final 3 climbers at the first switchback.)


This is Abbe on the ridge making her way towards me. (Little Bear, Blanca, Ellingwood and Lindsey in the background.) 19230_09

Here was decision time. The remaining route would have to be bootpacked, steps measured, and pace cautious. With sun fall around 4:30-5PM we couldn't afford to get caught around the ridge without daylight to get back. Further, the ranch mandates a 6PM return. Failure to make it back results in a rescue effort sent out and an associated fee. Having already invested into this the risk was twofold: 1) safety. 2) billfold. The other 4 climbers had already gone on and Abbe and I had a spirited discussion (that's what married folk call a full on blowout) about what to do. I was in support of either option. We could bag the plan and head back. Come back in the summer when Abbe isn't stuck using traditional alpine ski boots (yes, my bad. I thought we'd be skinning the whole time and she has a heavy sidecountry setup with Marker Barons and Rossi S7's. Meanwhile I have cushy Scarpa Tele boots with rubber soles. Hindsight: use a light BC setup and boots with considerable grip and a walk mode. Sorry babe.) OR we could continue on but only with determination as though the weather was set to hold, if we ran out of time, the temps would drop considerably, quickly. 4 or 5 do-si-dos, and doubt gave way to summit hunger and we set on down the ridge. (The picture shows the ridge where we made our decision on the far right and the descent down the saddle in the middle. You then regain elevation to the summit ridge.) 19230_04

Huge piece of information here: be prepared for 3 false summits. Yeah, yeah, every peak has them, but when you are fighting 20-30 mph winds, unsteady footing, and the surprise posthole step these false summits can truly deflate even the seasoned mountaineer. Stay consistent. Don't stop. Just keep stepping.


After a little over 2 hours we left the first ridge behind and found ourselves on the summit. 2:30PM.


The celebration brief, the wind fierce, and the sun fading, we took our couple of pics and smashed a handful of sour gummies and bid farewell to this deceptively challenging peak. Honestly, the smile above beguiles the feelings inside. With 5 of us on the summit and a considerable journey back I feared that we could become a statistic if not for a hasty retreat, well placed feet, and the occasional break in the wind. As fate would have it, we received just enough bouts of warming sun and calm winds to keep our pace back to the first ridge. (Though successful, the pic shows that all was required: head, shoulders, knees, and toes.) 19230_01

We reunited with our skis near 1 of only 2 cairns visible to us. 19230_11

After a successful ski down the face. ...proud husband moment here as though Abbe's boots ruined her feet (blisters), shins (bruises), and spirit (fortunately that one bounces back quick) she skied flawlessly down the hill and we cruised through the meadow back to the packed trail. After the initial descent back to Four Way we had a short (5 minute) uphill skin. All downhill from there as they say. 19230_12

We made it back to the cars at the Ranch HQ parking lot by 5:30PM. We made the time cutoff (as did the entire group and 5 out of 6 summited) and checked out inside. The ranch staff leaves a lockbox code on the checkout sheet and we simply let ourselves off the property.

Last step: 4 hour drive back home. With a 1/2 lb cold cut sandwich, plantain chips, and 20 oz of cold brew in hand Abbe and I turned up the radio and saluted Culebra Peak, cheered to a successful day, and relished this feeling of completion. 54 official peaks (many done multiple times) and 10 years of bonding, conversation, arguments, sleepless nights, lazy post-hike tent mornings, and the 1,000's of memories touring our amazing state via the path of the 14er's. Some crazies ask if we are on to the 13er's now. I say: relax people. Let us have this moment. We feel Colorado AF.

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

01/07/2019 19:14
A ski descent for final 14er is extra style points!


01/07/2019 20:36
Well done!


01/08/2019 22:37
Thanks for the detailed report - I'm eyeing this one as a possibility this winter. Sounds like the alloted time might be rather tight if you do it in winter without skis...

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