Culebra Peak - 14,047 feet
Red Mtn A - 13,908 feet
Culebra Peak - 14,047 feet
Red Mtn A - 13,908 feet
|Culebra Summer vs Winter, plus Red|
I imagine there aren't a whole lot of people who have tackled this particular peak in both winter and summer (though a quick peek at the stats page shows a handful of folks who've been up it a number of times, including in winter) so I thought it might be of interest to some people to see a report combining some details and pictures from both seasons.
My first attempt on this peak was in calendar winter - February 9, 2019 where I reluctantly turned back at just over 13,400 ft. Then on June 22, 2019 (officially the second day of summer) I made it to the summit and also did Red Mountain. This trip report will highlight some of the differences you can expect between the two seasons including showing tracks of how the routes I chose differed and recording times for each season. Hopefully this will be useful especially if you're debating about trying to get a snowflake next to this peak on your list in some coming winter.
The first painfully obvious fact is the rather dramatic change in distance. The official stats listed in the app show a round trip of 14 miles with 5,450 ft gain when starting from the ranch HQ building (which you will almost certainly have to do in calendar winter and possibly even in spring/fall depending on the year). Whereas from the 4WD trailhead it lists a round trip of 5 miles with 2,700 ft gain. But since there's some slop in the potential routes (see gpx tracks at the bottom) these numbers may vary a bit in practice.
The road is not particularly difficult but it does get pretty steep in places. That means if you're hiking it plan for those first several miles of hiking the road to put some hurt on you.
If you're driving it and have a vehicle that doesn't excel on steep climbs then make sure to give the person in front of you some space so you can gun it if need be. I did not put my Renegade into 4-Low but there was a time or two when I almost wished I had, especially since I made the mistake of following the guy in front of me just a little closer than I probably should have. In a couple spots I was almost flooring it to maintain momentum but then needing to let off so as not to end up in the trunk of the guy in front of me. Had I either used 4-Low or kept a little more distance to allow room to gun it I would have been better off. I still made it without issue but my little Renegade was roaring pretty loud a time or two on the steep parts.
One nice thing to note for winter hikers - can't guarantee this will always be so but this year Carlos was pretty good about going out prior to each weekend and packing the snow down with a snowmobile - this helps a great deal on the long, steep trek up that road in winter.
As far as summer goes, it should be noted that this year, with greater than average snow, on the weekend just before I hiked people were only being allowed to drive up to the Four Way - which leaves an extra mile of hiking along the road. Take note of your surroundings as you pass the 4WD trailhead since on the way back, if you're a little off trail, this small lot disappears pretty easily into the background.
The 4WD trailhead has ample, if tight, parking for the quantity of people allowed each day (which I believe is limited to 20 people). I think we had about a dozen vehicles there and could have maybe squeezed a few more if really needed.
Soon after leaving the 4WD trailhead you'll encounter what's likely to be the second main difference between summer/winter hiking (the 1st being having to hike the road). In summer - depending on snow melt - you'll likely find it most efficient to go basically straight or even slightly to the climbers right as that will put you on the shortest line to the summit.
In winter people tend to cut left to gain the ridge on less steep terrain and then follow the ridgline around (see gpx tracks at the end). Even in February, the section from the 4WD to the ridgeline was the only place I encountered what I would consider significant snow (i.e. where snowshoes were very helpful). Once you gain the ridge there's such a wicked wind that seems to blow 24/7/365 that the snow doesn't tend to pile up too much, generally speaking.
On the February climb I was glad that the other hikers that day caught up to me at this point as it was very useful being able to trade off breaking trail up to the ridge.
In June, taking the direct line up the ridge towards the super cairn, there were only a couple small patches of snow that had to be crossed and in the morning they were doable without traction (though microspikes would have been handy).
Regardless of whether you hike in winter or summer they open the gate to the Ranch at 6am. This means, among other things, that the time of day at which you need to pull out your sunglasses will vary.
The trek up the ridge in summer is simple but long. If you spot the super cairn off on the horizon you know you've picked a good line and are getting close to the ridge.
I stuck the photos of the super cairn in again below to highlight a point about the wind. Note the winter photo and the way the snow is sticking out from the side of the cairn from top to bottom. This is a bizarre feature you only ever see in the presence of high winds - typically sustained high winds (I've also encountered this on Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park where the winds are always whipping over Flattop).
The fact that when you're driving south on I-25 coming down here and see several wind turbines along the side of the road should be your first warning that you're in windy territory. From the moment you hit the ridgeline it seems you can except high winds pretty much any time of year. In winter the wind was so strong just past the super cairn where the trail turns and dips down before beginning the assault on the summit that I repeatedly staggered in the wind. In June the winds were a little less strong overall but still shockingly cold and absolutely relentless - never pausing for a moment.
The winds got stronger going over to Red Mountain.
Also take note that I labeled what's seen as Culebra's false summit. It sure does look from here like that must be the real deal but if you carefully study the topo you'll see the real peak is hidden directly behind, perhaps another third of a mile or so. This can be a psychologically useful fact to keep in mind if you're planning to hike this peak - and yes it does dip down a little between the false peak and the real one.
The photos above give a feel for the way the wind tends to sweep a lot of the snow off the ridge. In both February and June the wind was whipping hard and continuous from the climbers right, as you can probably surmise from the way the snow is piled up on the opposite side.
In February I was somewhere just a little below where the main mass of snow stops and you start to see bare rocks on the climbers left. With the time getting late, the wind being psychotic, and signs of a possible storm moving in, everyone else decided to turn back. I stood there looking back and forth between the peak above and the other climbers descending below, then my watch, then the sky and through the whole cycle a few more times before reluctantly turning back - only to make it back to HQ by 4pm (though I was really hauling it on the way back). But upon realizing the extent of the climb left after reaching the false summit later in the year I think, especially with the way I was staggering in the wind, that it would've have been really tight if I had tried to gain the summit and still make it back by 6pm that day.
Moral of that story: if you're hiking in winter and not on skies then you'd better be in good shape and moving quick to do this hike from the HQ building in the allotted 6am to 6pm time frame.
In February I knew there was a false summit but I had incorrectly thought it was the little hump on the way up to what is actually the false summit. I hadn't studied the map close enough to have keyed in on just how much of a chore would have still been left if I had made it up there already really tired and fighting a wind that was strong enough to make me frequently pause and brace against it. In June I was similarly careless in my inspection of the topo map and so I made a hard push to the "summit" only to have one of those "you've got to be kidding me" moments at the top. The drop to the right was especially disheartening.
In my defense, I had loaded gpx tracks on my phone which obscured the elevation dip between the false summit and the real one - otherwise I probably would have spotted that disheartening dip and not have been taken off guard when I crested the false summit.
Once at the summit Red isn't too far away but based on my experience in June, and other reports as well, it seems common for the wind to be MORE intense on your way over to Red. Keep that in mind if you've already had an especially windy day. The summer trail is so short that you sort of almost need to add in this Centennial peak in order to make it a "real" hike but in winter, if you're not on skies you'd better be a crazy fast hiker in good shape if you want to bag this one as well within the allotted 6am to 6pm window.
When heading back it's also useful to remember that you'll have a dip down and then have to climb back up at least partway back to the super cairn. You don't necessarily have to go all the way to the super cairn but you don't want to drop down to the left too soon or you'll drop into the wrong valley on some steep terrain. If what you're going down seems really steep, check you're map - you probably started your descent too soon.
It was in this section going back up towards the super cairn in June that I encountered Robert (61) who had the good sense to tell me he was feeling a little dizzy and asked me to accompany him to the top of the hill. I often move a little too fast on my own anyways and get myself needlessly tired out so I figured it would do me good to slow down anyways so I stuck with Robert until we finished going up and then probably about half way down towards the 4WD trailhead until we both figured he'd be ok the rest of the way and then I picked up speed for the last little bit, pausing briefly to chat with a couple other guys. I also spent enough time stretching out at the trailhead to be sure Robert made it back to his vehicle ok.
Robert set a great example for everyone out there - if you're hiking alone and don't feel 100% don'e hesitate to ask for someone to stick with you for a while. Much better to slow someone down a bit than to have SAR burn a bunch of time and money pulling you off a mountain...
In winter while we dropped a little lower than on the way up, we mostly retraced our path along the ridgeline since others who tried to shortcut earlier in the year reported sinking up to their waist or more when on snowshoes.
In winter the hike back along the road is very, very long but at least it's mostly all downhill so you can make good time even without skies.
One more random note that people often ask about - there is room for tents at the entrance gate to the property and a porta potty there too (but the lock was broken when I stopped on the way out). Or you can choose the cushy option and get a hotel in either San Luis or Fort Garland (unless you live close enough to make it reasonable to drive down that morning). I did the Mountain View Motor Inn in Fort Garland on both trips and it was a decent spot with a couple good restaurants nearby.
Pro traveler tip: I took off Friday so I could leisurely drive down from Fort Collins, spend the night and hike Culebra on Saturday. So coming down from the north, just a ways south of Pueblo you can take a 30 minute detour to Rye Colorado and visit Bishop Castle. This place is an EPIC castle built entirely by one man!
Bonus for 14er hikers: one of the towers is reportedly almost as high as a 16 story building and there are several spiral staircases going up multiple towers which make for not only some awesome exploring but a great warm-up for hiking your peak(s). Plus it's totally free!
The below screenshot shows my winter tracks in orange (ending just above 13,400 ft) and my summer tracks in purple (note the huge length of road cut off when you're able to drive to the 4WD trailhead!). The hump of orange shows how wide the typical winter diversion over to the ridge is. The purple hump was me not paying attention on the way back and swinging too far to the right.
It's easy to loose track of exactly where you're aiming for in this section if you don't pay attention since the 4WD trailhead is rather hidden in the trees. But once you spot either the trail (or in winter you previous tracks) you'll be golden.
GPX files tip: I use the GAIA GPS app on my phone and access the tracks on gaiagps.com where you can create a folder, move two or more tracks into the folder, then go into the folder and hit download gpx and it will download for you one combined gpx file with the tracks showing up in different colors. I wasn't sure how well it would work here on the website so I included a snapshot just in case but it looks like the gpx also shows the tracks in different colors (though not the same colors as the snapshot).
Here are my stats:
6:08am start from HQ.
8am ~2.5 miles in and at top of first big hill
8:30am ~3.15 miles in starting uphill again.
8:50am at the Four Way
9:40am About 4.5 miles in - end of snowmobile tracks = where summer 4WD trailhead is.
9:50am continue after short break.
10:05am the cavalry arrives - the other hikers who were slower to check in catch up and help break trail up to the ridge.
12:52pm reluctantly abort at ~13,400 ft due to concerns over time constraints, crazy strong winds and impending storm.
2:35pm back at 4WD trailhead
2:55pm at the Four Way
4pm back at HQ.
6:07am start drive up from HQ.
6:38am at 4WD trailhead
6:41am start up
7:45am reach super cairn on ridge.
7:55am bottom of saddle below climb to false summit
8:38am Culebra summit
8:48am start for Red
9:13am top of hump between Culebra and Red
9:37am Summit Red
9:48am start back
10:10am hump between peaks.
10:40am Culebra re-summit (could have skirted to the climbers left but wanted to re-summit to vindicate my aborted February climb)
10:59am back at false summit
12:39pm back at 4WD trailhead
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
|Comments or Questions|
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