Peak(s):  Culebra Peak  -  14,047 feet
Red Mtn A  -  13,908 feet
Date Posted:  07/28/2019
Date Climbed:   07/27/2019
Author:  HikesInGeologicTime
Additional Members:   mommyhiker
 Recovery, Revenge, Reclamation, and Red-emption   

I had a lot more riding on my third attempt of Culebra than the $150 I'd paid.* I'd attempted it twice in March, hoping to earn a snowflake for my troubles, and come away both times with a sense of...I'm not sure appreciation is the right word, but it's the one I'll roll with...for how maddeningly long the road from Cielo Vista Ranch HQ is and how much harder even simple road walks are with a few feet of snow on them.

19581_01March 2019 was an especially ambitious time for a first snowflake attempt.

I consoled myself for the snowflake that eluded me by telling myself that I could wait until the road up to the 4WD trailhead opened, which would put me in prime position to take a summit victory pic atop Red Mountain A as well as Culebra. But when I emailed Carlos about a promisingly sunny and dry weekend at the end of June, I learned that he was already full up on reservations. The next weekend after that was attached to the 4th of July, which I suspected had long since filled up, and the weekend after that, I would be fresh out of the operating room following my long-awaited top surgery.

I had a brief flurry of resurrected hope for my dreams of summiting Culebra and Red before 2020 on the Tuesday before my surgery. I connected my phone to the wi-fi at Denver Health Urgent Care, where I waited for a medical professional to tell me whether I needed stitches above my eye, and saw that I had an email from Carlos stating that he was contacting everyone he'd been unable to book previously to find out if later in July would work for them, maybe even on a weekday, if the weekends got too full?

I squinted at the email through an eye that was already swollen half-shut, rubbed a cheek that still had flecks of dried blood on it, and seriously contemplated whether I'd be able to make the trip down to Colorado's southernmost fourteener in the next two days. Common sense eventually prevailed, probably as my assigned doctor was pinching my eyelid to ensure the glue he'd applied to the wound on it would hold, and I regretfully responded to Carlos that it seemed unlikely I'd be able to make the trip in 2019.

That Friday, my surgery came and went, and it went well. It went so well that I wound up needing exactly zero of the painkillers I was prescribed, and I went for a walk through my neighborhood on a quest for iced coffee the next day. I waited another day or two to make sure I wasn't experiencing some kind of delayed reaction, and once I was able to put even the ibuprofen away, I emailed Carlos to find out if he had any openings left for the end of July. He did: the 26th, 27th, and 28th.

"The 27th would be perfect," I replied, even though, in many ways, the 27th was the diametric opposite of perfect. The last time I had climbed a fourteener on July 27th, I summited...but I had to be carried down the last mile of the trail on a stretcher, then spent the subsequent two days in the hospital. The scars that linger from what I call the Longs Peak Incident are mental rather than physical, but they run deep enough that 7/27 has, in the intervening four years, been a rather upsetting day for me.

I knew I was not exactly setting myself up for maximum success if I was hoping to avoid a repeat medical visit on the Incident's five-year anniversary. The surgeon had told me to avoid strenuous activity for at least two weeks after surgery; my Culebra/Red reservation was two weeks and one day post-op. But I was otherwise back to my normal energy levels by my one-week follow-up appointment, and Mariya, a fellow Denver-area hiker, was going to join me, so even if I did have a brand-new onset of PTSD spawning from a Culebra Peak Incident, at least I'd have someone around who could send for help.

There was, however, no need for that. I'd felt astoundingly good in the two weeks since my surgery, but I was certainly not expecting to power up Culebra's grassy tundra slopes at what was a thunderous pace by my standards, nor was I expecting to skip across the rocky ridgeline like it was a sidewalk in Cap Hill, albeit one of the older ones that the city really ought to pave over. I'm pretty sure my pace was faster than it had ever been pre-surgery; either that anesthesia has some kind of trace chemical that gives you superpowers, I'm suddenly hitting my athletic prime at 33, or testosterone is some kind of wonder drug.

Whatever the explanation, I had nothing holding me back from Culebra's summit this time, and shortly enough, I got to hand my phone off to a stranger so that I could get the summit victory pic I've been waiting nearly twenty years and 33 Colorado 14ers (35 total) to get: a shirtless one.

19581_03Might need to climb a few more fourteeners before I've got the abs for Grindr, however.

Mariya reached the summit after I put my shirt and jacket back on, and as we watched our summitmates head back to the trailhead, we debated whether to go on to Red. The National Weather Service's doom-and-gloom monsoon-season forecast for late morning through the evening haunted my not-so-inner worrywart, as did the memory of my climb five years ago, in which bad weather had taken me from being alarmingly sick and in tremendous pain to being alarmingly sick, in tremendous pain, and hypothermic.

Still, what clouds were on the horizon were thin and high, Red was aglow in sunshine with what looked like a faint trail up it, and the Centennial thirteener had been the consolation prize I'd offered myself as a way to avoid risking another bout of hypothermia in March. Thanks to Mariya's encouragement, I soon found myself scouting a path of sorts down the scree that marked much of the route between Culebra and the saddle it shares with Red.

19581_06Taken on the return, when clouds and fatigue from having navigated its saddle twice made it look way less beckoning.

The clouds started to loom ominously enough to fuel my anxiety as we made our way up what did indeed prove to be a primitive trail on Red. We summited just before noon, and I pointed to the in-progress rainstorm a few miles east of us as my explanation for why I didn't want to spend too long up there. We did, however, spend enough time for me to get more shirtless summit pics, including one with the empty summit register tube.

19581_05Maybe I can use this one for Grindr and claim that the 13 in 13ers represents the size of my...uhhhh...backpack. 'Cause it's 13 liters. Yeah.

I voted to re-summit Culebra in lieu of scrambling up and across the scree coating our side of the ridgeline like dragon scales; there was no way to avoid it entirely, but staying as close to the fourteener's spine as possible at least offered some chances for respite. As we crawled our way back up from the saddle, the occasional cloud passing overhead gave me surges of consternation. Whenever I'd look up to see if the storm had changed course and was heading our direction, however, I'd see that the mere wisps up above were blowing in from the opposite direction, just passing over to say hello on their way to join the rainclouds that were bound and determined to go north - away from us! - or bust.

19581_04Much better appreciated from a distance than from within!

I was finally feeling the effects of the prior two-and-a-half weeks of non-hiking as I sucked wind back up to Culebra's summit. I felt them even harder on the descent as we picked our way across one of those unavoidable patches of scree that intersected the ridgeline. My right knee, host to an IT band that had pitched an epic temper tantrum 3.5 miles from the Crags trailhead on my first summit of Pikes, chimed in with its own complaints about the situation after we reached the Guiding Penis Cairn (thanks for the imagery, Mariya!) and were trundling down the tundra in what looked at first like a direct line to the car.

19581_02Maybe I can post this to Grindr and claim it's a selfie.

Cue Arrested Development Narrator Voice: It was not. We'd taken the direct line on the way up but went too far to climber's right on the way down. This led us to some surprise snowfields that would have necessitated either a short jaunt back uphill or some more rock-dancing to avoid, so we traversed the edge carefully until we came across evidence of a previous hiker's glissade. My knee was happy for the few minutes that we decided to follow in their buttprints.

19581_07Apparently it wouldn't be a July 2019 hike without a little glissading on the way down.

Despite the detour, it wasn't that long until we were back at the car. The drive down seemed longer than the drive up, but I was much happier to subject my Outback than my feet to it. The rain I'd worried about all day didn't start until after we signed out at HQ (though Mariya felt a drop when we were five minutes from the car, and I saw one on my windshield somewhere around Four-Way), and I would learn from talking with Carlos at the gate that someone had canceled their reservation for that day on the grounds of that National Weather Service forecast that had turned out to be much ado about nothing.

Suffice to say that I was glad we had not done the same. I'd still generally prefer to wait for bluebird forecasts to do high-altitude hikes with that many ups and downs, but obviously Culebra and Red present certain logistic challenges that all other fourteeners and most other thirteeners here don't. We didn't avoid weather entirely; the stretch of I-25 from Pueblo to Colorado Springs was a sopping mess. From the safety of my car, however, it was a mere inconvenience as opposed to blue lips in the making.

The anniversary of the Longs Peak Incident might always be a weird day for me, and I'm not sure I'll ever earn a snowflake for a fourteener unless I cheat and resummit Bierstadt or Quandary or something short and easy during calendar winter (which is how I earned my thirteener snowflake...I hiked Mt. Flora, a peak I'd done the prior summer, in early March as training for Culebra). But unlike my last July 27th high alpine climb, this one went a long way to prove that Murphy's Law is not exacting; sometimes, despite worries borne of previous bad experiences, everything that can go wrong actually goes right.

*This, thankfully, was $300 less than it could have been thanks to exchanging rides for access fees on prior trips.

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