Monday, July 28, 2008

Culebra Peak (14,051 ft.)

Red Mountain (A) (13,908 ft.)

23 July, 2008: (Note: I am so tardy in getting this posted.) Trisha and I climbed Colorado’s southernmost 14er (and the only one that’s privately owned and not freely open to the public), along with its 13er neighbor.

Privately owned or not, you have to have Culebra to say you’ve actually climbed all of Colorado’s 14ers. So Trisha decided a few weeks ago that she could afford the expense ($100 a head; sheesh!), and had me phone the Cielo Vista Ranch to arrange a date. They gave me a couple of possible dates when they already had groups going up, and we took the earliest one available.

Following their emailed directions (as well as readily available information from the web and guidebooks), we left town about 9 pm MDT on the 22nd, and headed south to the tiny town of San Luis, on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley. From there we followed a succession of increasingly rural county roads, eventually unpaved, to the gate of the ranch. We made the trip, which is about 160 miles, in less than three hours. When we pulled up at a quarter to midnight, there were three other vehicles already there, presumably all containing sleeping hikers.

Having been told that the attendant (Carlos) arrives at 6 am to open the gate, we set an alarm for 5, put down the back seat of the Forester, stretched out our sleeping bags, and settled down to a partial night’s sleep.

An almost completely overcast sky greeted us when we arose, but it didn’t look like a real storm building. I was hopeful that it would burn off in the morning sun. We slept reasonably well, and had no trouble rousing ourselves. A quick “breakfast” of coffee from the thermos and pop-tarts (courtesy of Trisha’s forethought) served to get us going. After taking advantage of the porta-potty conveniently provided a few dozen yards away, we then packed up our packs and spent a few minutes chatting with the other climbers. They were mostly from various other parts of the country.

Carlos did indeed come driving up the road in his pickup (with two ranch dogs in the back) just before six. He unlocked the gate, and we all drove the roughly two miles in to the ranch headquarters buildings. There, we gave him our signed waiver forms and our fees (they take cash or checks; no credit cards!).

It turned out that, of the nine climbers, only Trisha and I were going to climb Red Mtn. in addition to Culebra. As a result, Carlos recruited Trisha to take his GPS unit up and plot some coordinates on both mountains for him. To our amazement, in return, he refunded her entire fee on the spot! So our day started right off costing us only half of what we had been prepared for.

Beyond the buildings, a medium-quality 4WD road leads south and east up into the mountains. About 3½ miles gets you to an intersection with another road cleverly named “Fourway.” Although the road leads a bit farther on to the upper trailhead, this is where we started hiking, in order to ensure a legitimate, 3,000-foot ascent to the peak.

Fourway sits on a gentle saddle of the long, curving ridge which ultimately leads to Culebra’s summit. It is from the sinuous shape of this ridge, and not from any prevalence of snakes, that the mountain gets its name.

We set off a few minutes before 7 am MDT, and followed the road to the upper trailhead, and then a little beyond. We left the road as it went over a ridge which extends down to the south from the main ridge, and began hiking up across the trailless tundra.

Not far above timberline, we climbed into a solid cloud cover. At the start, we could see sunlight on the San Luis Valley in the distance, but we advanced into soup. The few pictures we took for the next hour or so have extremely limited scopes of view!

Roughly where this route gains the crest of the long, snaking ridge we would follow to the summit, one comes upon what is perhaps the most unusual feature of the whole trip: a cairn roughly ten feet high, built of carefully layered flat rocks. (See the photo album.) I don’t know when it was built, or how much labor it took, but, without clouds, it can clearly be seen half a mile away.

Turning right up the ridge, the average slope relented somewhat, as we hiked over sections of gentle tundra, interrupted periodically by outcroppings of dark, solid rock. The scrambling over these ridge points was actually enjoyable. But the non-appearance of the sun forced me to put on my fleece for a while, despite the work of gaining altitude.

We began to see occasional, and partial, clearing of the cloud deck, and we really hoped it would eventually burn off altogether.

Finally, about the time we reached the major false summit just below 14,000 ft., it did. By that time, we were basically above the clouds, and we could see that they were breaking up all around us. First, we got a clear look at the summit of Culebra and, moments later, Red Mtn. finally emerged from the cloud cover.

After dropping a whopping 50 feet or so from the false summit, we made the final, rather steep, rock hop to the actual summit. We got there at 10:20 am MDT, just 3½ hours after leaving the trailhead. We needed to be aware of time, since the ranch only gives you 12 hours—you have to be back at the gate by 6 pm or they assume there’s some sort of emergency. We certainly didn’t want Costilla County SAR to come looking for us! But we felt we were doing fine, and would have no problem making it over to Red Mtn.

All the same, we only spent about ten minutes on the summit, taking pictures and chatting with the other climbers—all of whom had gotten there ahead of us.

The route to Red simply follows the ridge linking the two mountains, and we could clearly see it all from Culebra. There’s a small ridge point at about 13,600 ft. about halfway across, and the low point is only about 13,400 ft. Shortly after we set off down Culebra’s south side, we found a fairly clear climber’s trail leading down the ridge. To our surprise, it continued mainly uninterrupted all the way to Red. The trail was especially clear on the Red side, even sporting a few small cairns.

We could not have gotten lost anyway, but the trail made climbing through the loose rocks on Red a good deal easier than it might otherwise have been. These two adjacent mountains (0.7 miles as the crow flies between the summits) could hardly be more different in their compositions. Culebra is made of heavy, dark, volcanic-looking locks, and very solid. Red is, well, red, and most of the rocks are small, light, and, worst of all, loose.

It took us about 70 minutes to top out on Red. The small stone windbreak on the summit can clearly be seen from Culebra, so there was no doubt we had reached the actual summit. It’s in the middle of a summit ridge a couple of hundred yards long, oriented east-to-west. We also found a summit register, and it was in considerably better condition than the one on Culebra (which I had replaced), due to the fact that far fewer people visit Red. We didn’t have to replace this register, but just signed it, and noted that one of the climbers we had met on Wetterhorn Peak just three weeks earlier had signed in on the previous Saturday. Small climbing world!

This time, we spent about half an hour on the summit, enjoying our lunch (as it was approaching noon) and leisurely taking a good brace of pictures. Trisha took a panorama series, and one of these eons I’ll get around to stitching them together (FLW).

This was turning out to be a great adventure, and in that spirit, we decided not to go back over the summit of Culebra, but traverse across its southwest slopes after descending to the saddle, and re-join our ascent route somewhere around 13,600 ft. This turned out to be the most technically difficult part of the day, as we went sidehilling across relatively loose rocks for most of a mile. The different views we got, however, certainly made it worth it.

When we got back almost to the megacairn, we finally dropped down into the drainage which harbors the upper trailhead. This was about two in the afternoon. On the way up, I had noticed a trail taking off to the north from the turn in the road just before the trailhead, and roughly paralleling the creek north on its west side. This is what is indicated on the map as the “talus route” up to the ridge. We crossed the upper part of the drainage, looking for this trail and a fast, direct way back to the road. We intended simply to follow the road back to the car from that point.

For whatever reason, we never found it. We felt, however, that our view of the lay of the land from here was good enough that we could do a little more spontaneous adventuring. We decided to contour west and re-gain the ridge crest, then simply follow the ridge to the saddle where we knew the car would be waiting. We were back below timberline, with all the steepness and serious rock outcroppings of the ridge behind us, so this looked like a topographically easy way to shorten our journey down.

In the end, we went over more mild ridge points than we had expected, but the strategy worked. After bypassing one dramatic cliff face to our right (Trisha got a nice picture of it), we found wisps of trail leading down to the road just a hundred yards or so short of the Fourway saddle. We had made the descent, all the way from the summit of Red, in just under four hours.

Of course, by this time, it was a warm summer afternoon, and we were hiking in shorts and tee-shirts, hoping that we’d applied enough sunblock. After cleaning up a bit with the water and washcloths we had been sure to have waiting for us in the cooler, we “saddled up” again and made the adventurous descent of the 4WD road, back to the ranch headquarters. There we, the last of the day’s hikers, signed ourselves out on the clipboard left for that purpose, and noted the lock code to let ourselves out of the gate, still another two miles (gentler miles, to be sure!) down the road.

We were both pleasantly surprised by these mountains. It was a great day, despite the weird start, and a really enjoyable climb. We put in just over 9 miles, and, by my figures compiled later, about 3,590 vertical feet. We racked up an often-missed fourteener and a centennial thirteener. We now have six of the nine fourteeners in the Sangre de Cristo range under our belts.

My pictures, and a few of Trisha’s, are at:

Long life and many peaks!

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mt. of the Holy Cross (14,012 ft.)
Still no Cross

Trisha finishes the Sawatch!

10 July, 2008: When I learned that the Forest Service had a plan in the works to close down the entire 8-mile length of the Tigiwon Road—the access road to the trailhead for Mt. of the Holy Cross—in order to do something or other about the massive pine beetle infestation in the area, perhaps as early as 2009, I suggested to Trisha that we really needed to do this peak this year. As faithful readers will recall, I had already climbed MotHC, back in ’05, but I was definitely up for a re-match with this nifty peak anyway. So when I came up with just a single day off for the week, and we needed something that could be done as a day trip to avoid letting the week slide by, Holy Cross was the obvious choice. A recent trip report had confirmed that the trailhead was easily accessible, and most of the snow was gone from the climbing route, too.

So we set off at 3 am MDT, on our first truly summery climb; we didn’t take ice axes or crampons. Thanks (I think) to my own missing a turn on the road just outside of Leadville, it took us longer than anticipated to reach the trailhead so, once again, we didn’t even need headlamps. We had hoped to be hiking by sunrise (about 5:45 am MDT), but as it turned out, it was about 7:30 when we finally shouldered our packs and headed up from the Halfmoon Campground trailhead (10,320 ft.).

The morning was beautiful, calm and clear, and we were jettisoning clothing before we had even gotten to the top of Halfmoon Pass (11,640 ft.). It was only after we had climbed over the pass, and were actually not far from bottoming out at the crossing of East Cross Creek (at 10,670 ft.), that we finally saw anyone else on the trail.

First, we met a party of four guys who informed us that they had summitted the previous day. A lot of people do this peak as a two-day adventure. Then, just before reaching the creek, we encountered a family (two kids and a dog), who had been unable to find an acceptable way across the creek and were turning back.

When we reached the creek, we saw why! There was considerably more water then when I had been there three years earlier, although it seemed that the very same collection of logs was in place to constitute a make-shift bridge, together with some stones. After scouting up and down stream, we decided that there was no better option than to remove our socks (keeping them dry to re-don on the other side), and scamper across as best we could.

I went first, using my hands as well as my feet. My hands got a little cold in the water, but, to my surprise, the logs offered decent traction, despite being mostly submerged. After that, Trisha boldly sauntered all the way across standing up; I was amazed!

Finally, it was time for the real climb: 3,340 feet up. First the trail winds counter-clockwise around onto the west side of the ridge, then ascends steeply in a more easterly direction to top out on the ridge crest. Needless to say, the going got somewhat slower.

It also got hotter. It wasn’t very long before we stopped to shed clothes, hiking for the first time this year is simple summer garb: short sleeves and short pants. Unbroken sunlight continued as we made our way up out of trees, and onto the jumbled but solid rocks of the ridge.

After we got our first close-up look at the summit, it was just a matter of slogging on through the rocks, following cairns along the increasingly sketchy trail. It’s fairly steep, with one respite just before finally tackling the summit block.

Before we came to that respite, we passed a pair of hikers who were also on their way up. They both looked to be about my age, and one of them informed that he had climbed an amazing 49 fourteeners. We chatted for a few minutes before pressing on.

The final push to the summit is a boulder-hop over large but stable rocks, coming up from the west. We were able to avoid virtually of the remaining snow, and topped out just after 12:30 pm MDT. Trisha got to the summit first, and I found her perched on the summit rock (which holds the benchmark) as I came up over the final lip onto the small summit plateau. What a glorious summit! Holy Cross comes in much higher on the prominence list than it does on the elevation list.

Trisha found that her cell phone had service on this summit, so we “phoned home,” to let Suzanne know that we had made and that all was well. With the beautiful weather, we stayed on the summit for about half an hour, soaking up the incredible views. We could easily pick out the summits of the fourteeners of the Elk Range to the west. This confirmed for us that that particular range is still(!) shrouded in too much snow for a summer-type climb, so those peaks are going to have to wait.

The trip down was mostly uneventful. At the bottom of the summit block, we met the hikers we had passed earlier, still on their way up. We assume they made it. For whatever reason, we dropped off the ridge crest sooner than we should have, and had to do a bit of free-lance route finding to get back on the trail, which we did just above timberline. Then there was just the grunt of re-climbing Halfmoon Pass. Needless to say, this entailed a number of stops to rest, but we finally made it.

Just over the pass, we encountered two parties of people making their ways up. They were doing it the smart way: hiking part way in, camping overnight, and doing the summit on the second day. (This is, in fact, what most people do. We just didn’t have the luxury of a second day, so…)

I had taken numerous pictures on my previous climb of Holy Cross in ’05, but I posted them on Sony’s Imagestation, which has since terminated its existence. So the pictures I took this time are at:

We made it back to the trailhead 10 hours and 14 minutes after setting out. Not too bad, really, considering the 5,600 feet of climbing needed to claim this summit which is only 3,700 feet above the trailhead!

Long life and many peaks!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wetterhorn Peak (14,020 ft.)

1 July, 2008: Trisha and I left home in the afternoon, headed to Lake City, with an overnight reservation at the Silver Spur Motel. (Kudos to Trisha for finding accommodations in a town this small on one day’s notice.) It’s a 4½ to 5 hour drive, and it was nearly 6:30 when we got there. That was just in time to snag a dinner of pizza at the renowned Poker Alice restaurant before settling in. By 8:30, before the end of twilight, we were set to go to sleep.

Our plan was to get a modest night’s sleep—not really a full night, but lots better than none—before arising at 3:30 am to head out of town. I mis-set the room alarm clock, but, fortunately, Trisha’s cell phone alarm went off more-or-less on time. She awakened me at 4:15 (with something of a start!), and we threw our clothes and gear together as quickly as we could. We could only bemoan the fact that there was no place open at which to get breakfast, or even coffee, at that hour, but we were headed out of town up the Henson Creek road by 4:45.

We were too late to start hiking in darkness, as originally planned, and we got to the Matterhorn Creek trailhead, just over 11 miles out of town, at about 5:40. The upside of this was that we never needed our headlamps. Yes, it took nearly an hour, as the quality of the dirt road steadily decreases heading up Henson Creek. The last three-quarters of a mile or so is the true jeep road portion, rough and steep. While the Forester made it just fine, it is necessarily slow going.

As we were getting ready, headlights came up the road below us. Moments later, we met Ellen and Joey, also members, who were setting off on the same hike as us. They were kind enough to snap our trailhead picture before we took off up the trail just ahead of them. They passed us a few minutes later, but we would see them again, as they took the wrong fork at the first trail junction. We later saw them backtracking below us, now behind us.

The trail roughly follows Matterhorn Creek northward up into the basin before leaving the creek to the right at this first junction. Then, already above timberline, the trail levels out substantially as Matterhorn Peak comes into view.

The views open up dramatically here. The much higher Uncompahgre Peak becomes visible to the east, as well as our target, Wetterhorn, to the west. The trail spins around leftward almost 180º, heading basically south toward Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge.

Fortunately, there is a clear and easy trail all this way, and we found only a few small patches of snow to cross. Although we had brought crampons, we didn’t need them, as the snow was well consolidated and easy to walk over.

Somewhere around 8 am, nearing 13,000 feet, we met the other party of climbers on the mountain that day: another member, Nathan Hoobler, and his brother and sister-in-law, both out from Pennsylvania. They had come in on a multi-day backpacking trip via the Cimarron Creek trail on the west, but were headed for our same destination. We hiked in close proximity to them all the rest of the way to the top.

One of the attractions of this climb had been that there is a very clear trail nearly the whole way. Even on the rocky ridge, there are cairns and at least wisps of trail. Thus, even though it gets steeper, and rougher, on the ridge, we continued to make good time.

The last section of the climb is the crux, and the most interesting. After passing the prominent rock tower known as “the Prow” on (climber’s) right, one passes through a notch onto the left side of the ridge. Then one must give up a few feet of elevation, fractioning down a very flat piece of rock—which slopes rather startlingly away into the abyss on the other side!

The downclimb is easier than it looks, though, as the rock offers good traction and numerous small hand- and footholds. More importantly, it leads to the base of the steep, shallow gully immediately below the summit. This, too, looks a little more difficult and intimidating than it really is, but it will definitely catch your attention. I’m not sure that my photo does it justice.

The rock is actually very solid. But the ledges are narrow, and there is loose scree and small rocks to deal with. Unsure of the rockfall potential, I started up alone, cautioning Trisha to wait until I topped out. I found that the easiest route was basically right up the center of the concavity. Once I got into the rhythm of it, I found the climbing was thrilling. I didn’t do a lot of “looking down,” however. In five minutes or so, I found an exit from the steep stuff, and I could see that I had only a short walk to the actual summit. I called down to Trisha to start up herself.

Despite the abundant sunshine and nearly total lack of wind, I knew this one would stretch her ability to conquer nerves. But Nathan was right behind her, and he graciously coached her from one hand hold to another. He had climbed Wetterhorn before, so he knew well what he was doing, and that confidence helped Trisha make fairly quick work of the climb as well. At 8:55 MDT, just over four hours after leaving the trailhead, we walked onto Wetterhorn’s small, slightly tilted summit.

This is one of the most dramatic summits I’ve been on so far, rivaling Crestone Needle in its feeling of floating in the sky. The views are fantastic. Uncompahgre, of course, immediately grabs one’s attention, towering 300 feet higher three miles to the east. The lower, but nearer, Matterhorn is prominent, too, and the vertical view of the connecting ridge is fantastic eye candy to any rock enthusiast who thinks him- or herself capable of handling it obvious difficulty (undoubtedly 5th Class).

But it is the view to the south, out into the vastness of the San Juans that is really most impressive. It’s just mountains, mountains, and more mountains, as far as the eye can see. So many are visible that I found it difficult even to identify individual summits other than the very prominent Mt. Sneffels to the southwest. Even Handies, Redcloud, and Sunshine, the nearest group of fourteeners, managed to hide in the welter of only slightly lower peaks.

The view, the fabulous weather, lunch, picture taking, and extended conversation with the other five climbers (all of whom came up to the summit shortly after us), kept us on the summit for nearly 50 minutes. I think this is a record for us!

We also brought with us a small picture of Shadow, Trisha’s dog, who had died the week before. We pasted the photo into the summit register next to our names, to serve as a small memorial to this four-legged friend.

Finally, though we needed to start down. We had pretty much already decided that going for Uncompahgre would be unrealistic, as some clouds were beginning to form with a threat of showers later. But I still had hopes of taking the short detour to climb Matterhorn.

Once again, we took the crux one at a time. At the bottom, I found that going up the slanted slab to the notch was easier than going down it, or at least less scary. After that, Trisha waited a few minutes for me while I dropped my pack and climbed to the top of the Prow. It proved to be fairly easy, via ledges which led clockwise around the south side. But it sure looks impressive from the north (where Trisha snapped a picture of me), with a sheer drop of 40 feet or so.

As usual, we didn’t follow exactly our ascent route going down the ridge. We just picked our way through the rocks, picking up cairns here and there, but mostly just looking for the easiest path. We knew that much easier going was just a small distance ahead of us.

We also deviated from our ascent path after we got back to the trail, to take advantage of the remaining snow. Here, we finally got out our ice axes, and followed Nathan’s party through a series of three glissades, which probably added up to 600 or 700 vertical feet. The first, in particular, was steep and fast. It was great! It also saved us a lot of time going down. I regret that I didn’t take the time to unpack my camera and take any pictures or video of this. It was the best glissading we’d gotten in since Castle Peak last year.

Even though a couple of very light sprinkles actually fell on us on the way down, the weather held off and we arrived back at the car completely dry. The sky, however, was completely overcast by this time (12:35 pm), and we heard occasional booms of thunder. And sure enough, only minutes later, the clouds opened up with a pretty decent downpour. Through this, we saw Ellen and Joey coming out of the trees, dashing for their car.

The GPS said we had put in 7.15 miles—actually less than the eight mile round trip that Roach quotes. I credit the glissades with this. And it had taken us only a bit less than eight hours, so we weren’t dog-tired for a change! All in all, great fun! Fourteener #35 for me, #32 for Trisha. Pictures are at:

Long life and many peaks!