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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