Culebra Peak - 14,047 feet
Culebra Peak - 14,047 feet
|Juneuary Turned January on Culebra Peak|
Culebra Peak, being the only privately owned 14er in the state, is kind of an odd duck. The logistics of climbing it are much more complex than its single short, easy route would belie, especially in winter. Honestly the hardest part of the climb isn't the climb itself, it's organizing the climb. You are only allowed to climb Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, you are not allowed to climb solo, despite filling out a waiver form, and you must be lucky with the weather. In summer this usually isn't a problem but with only three days per week to climb in winter, and fewer if you are unable to take the time off to fit a good weather window, things quickly get drawn out and messy.
I will comment on the $150 fee, but not to complain. Quite the opposite, in fact. The area surrounding Culebra is absolutely pristine and the Cielo Vista Ranch does a superb job of maintaining access to this remote peak most of the year (outside of several months when it is closed for elk hunting), going so far as to pre-pack the road for winter hikers. Most importantly their efforts in maintaining the nearly untouched splendor of the area are to be commended. Think not of the $150 as $150 to climb one peak; think of it as $150 to climb 58, because that's what it is. Nobody only climbs Culebra. Your journey to the highest 58 points in Colorado costing such a small amount is miraculous, and we should take note of the ranch owner's efforts to keep the peak open to us.
The decision to climb Culebra, what with its extra layer of complexity, came to me Thursday morning prior to my Sunday climb. Not a lot of time to plan. The weather Sunday looked great for the season - high 20s on the summit and 15-20 mile per hour winds - and avalanche danger, which is not really a concern on Culebra anyway, was comfortably low compared to the rest of the state. I emailed Carlos, the man in charge of organizing climbing at Cielo Vista, and was told that they don't allow solo climbers. Drat. It's an easy climb and I would normally go solo for its own sake, let alone for the trouble of adding another person to the climb. Nobody else I knew in my immediate climbing circle could make it or was interested, so I was happy to stumble upon a "winter Culebra" thread on the forums, where I posted asking if anyone wanted to climb on such short notice. I wasn't expecting anyone to bite but I received a private message within a few minutes from Scott, and we set about making plans and organizing with Carlos. By Friday afternoon we were paid up and ready to hit the road.
Scott and I planned to meet in Alamosa and then on Saturday evening changed that to meet at Del's Diner in Fort Garland. We'd have to drive through Fort Garland anyway so it made more sense to meet there. Prior to this meal we had never met each other but it went smoothly and we would park at the ranch gate, set 4:30am alarms, and then get our hike on. I ate a mushroom Swiss burger and he had a grilled cheese, and we jetted off to the ranch. It took us a little bit to figure out which gate to park at, since there's more than one, but eventually we settled on one and hit the hay.
After an unusually good night's sleep in the front seat of my Civic (thank god I'm a tiny manlet) my alarm went off at 4:30. I started up the car and groaned at the outside temperature, a balmy 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This might be colder than I expected. There was no wind though, which helped put my mind at ease. We ate and I was able to read a little before one of Carlos' sons came and opened the gate for us right at 6am. We parked at the ranch headquarters and checked in before setting off. It was 6:22am and we had to return no later than 6pm; easily doable with the weather as predicted.
The first 5ish miles are on the normal 4WD road to treeline. Carlos and his sons pack the entire road with snowmobiles to make climber's lives easier. Thank god. Though hiking on roads is generally easy this one is pretty long and doesn't see high numbers of boots, snowshoes, or skis to help pack it, and without the snowmobiles would probably be atrocious to hike up. As it were we made quick time in just boots, only putting our snowshoes on about half a mile before Four Way to deal with drifts in clearings along the way. It was just shy of two hours to Four Way, and another 30 or so minutes to the upper trailhead where we finally got good, open views of the route.
We were also able to get spectacular views of the San Luis Valley and the Blanca group from our position.
With the sun coming up and nary a whisper of wind we were starting to sweat. If we moved fast enough we could stay in the shadow of "Punta Serpiente", yet would sweat from generating too much body heat; if we moved slow we wouldn't sweat from movement but would from the sauna caused by everything being reflective. I'd still call that a win considering it wasn't the winter norm of being hammered by the wind. This was our Juneuary weather!
Setting off towards the ridge we were able to follow a narrow strip of mostly solid snow through the now open basin. The only indication of where to walk without postholing to our knees or deeper was a small fin of hardened snow in an otherwise wind-blown expanse.
Following the track as it snaked up the bowl towards the saddle was actually kind of fun, our noses down like a bloodhound, or like following breadcrumbs. Only with these breadcrumbs, if you stepped an inch or two to one side or the other, you'd end up with half your leg punching through the surface. We needn't go all the way to the saddle and ridge crest so we began a right-trending ascending traverse towards the middle of the ridge, which would put us near the top of the shallow gully in the center of the slope. There has been very little snow in the Sangre de Cristo range recently and as a result the sun and wind had sculpted the snow into weird shapes around the abundant rocks on the slopes.
As we neared the ridgetop the winds began blowing, and blowing hard. It went from almost dead calm to raging just by moving a couple of feet up or down in elevation. I stopped to put on a wind jacket and my hardshell pants, a piece of gear I rarely use (mostly out of foolish stubbornness). I put my hardshell pants on backwards and it was too windy and cold to put them on right, so I shrugged and kept going. Scott probably thought I was an insane person. He would not be wrong. The wind was mostly a crosswind at this point, blowing parallel to the ridge, so it didn't hinder our progress except to make things colder. We reached the top of the ridge and Culebra finally came into view.
We had been searching for the famous Culebra Super Cairn, wondering if we had missed it somewhere, and it too finally came into view farther down the ridge.
I understand now why Culebra - snake in Spanish - is so named. We had cut left from the trailhead, then right to the ridge. We would continue right, then down a small saddle to Culebra's summit ridge, and then back left again, before reversing it all, winding back and forth upon itself like a snake.
We were able to keep our snowshoes on until the twist in the ridge, linking up hard packed snow patches and staying off the rocks.
The winds now were really ripping. We were getting pushed away and exposed skin hurt. The rime ice on the rocks and even rime-on-snow gave away how high the winds were here nearly constantly.
We dropped our snowshoes at a small jumble of rocks atop the saddle and continued on foot. There wasn't enough snow to justify the snowshoes anymore, and the ridge narrowed and dropped off the sides, necessitating some Class 2 scrambling on rime-covered but grippy granite.
As we got higher so too did the winds. We go up, the winds go up. We go down, the winds go down. At this point the wind was still at our backs but it was bitterly cold. We hurried along the ridge attempting to stay warm.
We crested what we thought was the summit (we should have known it was not this close) only to discover it was not, in fact, the summit, and that we had a ways to go to the real summit.
By now the wind was absolutely howling. We looked forlornly at Red Mountain, so close yet so far, and quickly decided that it was out for the day. It was just too windy. We certainly could have done it but we would have a headwind back the entire way to the start of the ridge, where we dropped our snowshoes, and knew that a 6pm return would probably not happen if we were to go to Red. As it is I've already done it; Scott will have to return for it if he wants to climb all of the centennials, but neither of us has much desire to bag winter centennials for the sake of bagging winter centennials, so we turned around after a few minutes, this time having to push through what was probably 40 mile per hour winds straight to our faces. So much for the weather predictions, and so much for the Juneuary conditions we had experienced lower on the mountain; January had returned.
We had plenty of work ahead of us with the headwind, and going down into it felt about the same amount of effort as hiking uphill with it at our backs.
Unlike before, the winds did not decrease in elevation. Fortunately they didn't increase, but they were constant and cold. Across the basin I noticed an avalanche crown on the south face of "Punta Serpiente" that looked pretty old.
By now the lenticular clouds were forming everywhere, including directly overhead. It was obvious why, given how windy it had gotten.
We reached the curve in Culebra's ridge, picking up our snowshoes along the way, and reascended the saddle. We only had to descend to the road and then from there it would be easy. Instead of taking the same exact route we ascended up the ridge, we simply took a shallow rib that extended towards the road. We avoided rollover areas and the gully, just to be safe, and quickly found ourselves postholing to our waists in the deep snow. I attempted to glissade but the snow was so soft here that I was wasting more time and energy scooting than I would postholing. Ain't that something? Mid-way down the rib the wind stopped completely - again instantly, stratified by elevation - and we began sweating in the afternoon calm.
All in all it took us quite a while to descend, both due to poor snow and the length of the route, and we found ourselves back at the cars around 4pm. We took off our boots, drank a beer, and attempted to coax some pets and kisses from the two German Shepherds at HQ. One, the male, was an excellent guard dog, barking incessantly at us for half an hour, and the other, his ladyfriend, cautiously came over to say hello and give us licks. She was cute as hell and once she got over her timid nature was very friendly. We signed out of our climb, hoping to ask Carlos about the other Cielo Vista 13ers, but neither he nor his sons were around. We finished packing up and made our way to the gate, where we had been given a temporary combination to the key lockbox to let ourselves out, and departed the ranch.
An excellent winter day in the mountains, and congrats again on your first snowflake, Scott!
Climbers: Ben Feinstein (myself), Scott D. (jahselassie)
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
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