Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Culebra Peak

Culebra Peak, at 14,047 feet elevation, is the southernmost fourteener in Colorado, near New Mexico, and the first fourteener I've done in the Sangre de Cristo range. It is also the only fourteener that requires a fee to hike: it is on land owned by the Cielo Vista Ranch and is only open for hiking on certain Fridays and Saturdays in June, July and August. The Ranch requires a $150 non-refundable payment in advance by Paypal and a signed liability waiver. The hike begins at the north ranch entrance near Chama, Colorado at 6:00 a.m. the morning of the hike. I found a number of people camped out near the entrance and several vehicles pulled up between 5:00 a.m., when I arrived and the approximate 6:00 a.m. opening. It is limited to 30 hikers, but there were not that many the Saturday morning I did it. My guess is that there were about 15 or 20. 

My pre-hike began much earlier than that. I flew from Los Angeles to Denver on Friday night, arriving in Denver about 11:30 p.m. I caught about an hour and a half of sleep on the airplane. Then I took the off-airport shuttle to rent a Jeep Cherokee and that process was not completed until about 1:00 a.m. Then began a four hour drive on the I-25 past Colorado Springs, through Pueblo, then to Walsenburg, where I took the U.S. 160 west to Fort Garland, then went south on SR 159 to San Luis and then along even more rural roads to Chama. When I arrived at 5:00 a.m., I shut my eyes and rested until the gate opened, then changed from my travel clothes to hiking clothes in the car. 

From the gate we drove a very wet and muddy road two miles for the check-in at the ranch where we provided our proof of payment and liability waivers. We were told that there is no trail and that if we were not signed out by 6:00 p.m., Search and Rescue would start looking for us. We were told that just the weekend before, one man was helicoptered off the mountain and another two people took the wrong route and headed for New Mexico. Search and Rescue had to find them. 

After the briefing, we got in our vehicles and 3.4 miles up the dirt road was the main trailhead at 10,880 feet. I continued another 1.0 mile to the upper four-wheel drive trailhead at 11,240 feet. The majority of the group went to the upper trailhead. 

It was quite wet and mist covered the upper areas. I started to hike the 1,700 feet of elevation gain from the parking area to a long, relatively flat 13,400 foot ridge above us. At first there was a faint trail and sparse trees, but soon I was above timberline and the trail disappeared. My first few minutes of walking were very labored as my body struggled to adjust to the massive change in elevation. As I got higher I noticed 8 to 10 bighorn sheep on a ridge to my left, walking, then running, then standing still. At first I angled toward the north end of the ridge, but as I got higher, I slanted more to the south east and headed up through an area of mixed boulders and grass. As I got to the ridge, it was relatively socked-in in mist and and the summit was not visible. I knew that I needed to head south on the ridge. 
Just beyond the parking area. Sparse trees and the ridge above was covered in mist.
From about 3/4ths the way up toward the first ridge, looking back to the parking area nestled in the trees below. 
The ridge to my left where I saw bighorn sheep. 
Eventually I passed a very large cairn and the ridge began a descent to a saddle at about 13,200 feet. Then began a 700 foot ascent east up a ridge to a false summit at 13,900 feet. Everything was in mist and it was only possible to see about 50 yards or so ahead much of the time. The summit was about a half mile away at this point, but I passed more false summits than I've ever encountered before. This was probably psychologically more difficult because the summit was not visible. I was really tired, my lack of sleep, lack of altitude adjustment and just general lack of shape and fitness started to really take a toll. I really wanted to hit the summit and the false summits were aggravating. I'd made okay time up to the initial ridge, but then my time lagged. When I hit the real summit I was not sure it was not just another false summit. There was no summit register and no survey marker that I could find and another peak along a ridge, above another fairly deep saddle, was conceivably taller to me. But eventually I met others at the summit and the summit was confirmed. One of the hikers showed me a picture of a large bighorn ram he'd photographed a little earlier just beyond the initial false summit. It had a huge curl. 
Hikers ahead of me in the mist. This was near the top of the ridge before descending to the saddle. 
Closer view of the same hikers.
One of the false summits that played with my head.
More false summits.
And another.
Someone ahead of me. I believe it was a false summit as well.
Finally, the true summit.
Looking through the mist at nearby ridges and peaks, trying to determine if this was it.
Was this next point the true summit?
On the way back I found some very large and very friendly marmots. If I'd been inclined, I could have had them virtually eating out of my hand. Then I just started to follow the ridge and kept going. Eventually I saw a large cairn I'd not recognized on the way up and I continued on a short ways and nothing looked familiar. I started to worry that I'd taken a wrong turn. The thoughts of the people the weekend before, heading into New Mexico, came to mind. I notice two hikers following me about 100 yards above me and I started back toward them and shouted out my concern. Then I noticed what I thought must be the very large cairn on the initial ridge way above me and it occurred to me that I'd traveled way too far on this ridge and gone way too low and needed to hike back up the ridge. The two behind me acknowledged they'd just been following me. We looked around, and decided to leave the ridge we were following and angle back up the mountain in a more northerly direction. I followed the two in front of me but had a hard time maintaining their pace. 
On the way back down through the mist.
A friendly marmot. 
A hiker ahead of me in the mist.
A false summit. I believe it was in this vicinity that I should have turned to the right instead of continuing straight.
An unfamiliar cairn. This caused me to start considering I was not in the right place.
We traveled at about a 45 degree angle up some talus and eventually hit the 13,200 foot saddle and ran into another group of hikers and knew that we were in the right place again. By this point my energy was sapped and I was taking frequent rest steps. A young couple and two women hikers patiently waited for me as I lagged behind and we all made it back up to the initial 13,400 foot ridge and began our descent down to the parking area. 
After climbing back up to the saddle. The large cairn is on the ridge near the far right side.
A closer look at the large cairn as we made our way back up the ridge.
A small stream as I neared the the parking lot. 
Most of the hikers were quite experienced. I'd read before that many save this peak for last because they resent having to pay money. As I asked questions of others about about other peaks I was considering, it became apparent that this last group was not impressed with my hiking skills. One had just done Pyramid Peak, one of the most difficult fourteeners. One strongly hinted I do Handies Peak, which is one of the shortest and easiest fourteeners. 

This is one of the easier fourteeners. It is only a six mile roundtrip and 2,850 feet of elevation gain, but it was all I could handle that day. 

As we got down down to the ranch to check-out, there were several people there. A man came up to me and rudely observed that I was the last person off the mountain and that his daughter had beat me. I laughed, but the more I thought about it, it ticked me off. To make things worse, when I got to the gate and entered in the number for the lock on the gate they gave us, I couldn't get it to open. I tried it over and over again, pushing and pulling on a lever. Eventually, a vehicle with the same rude man pulled up behind me. I went back to it and indicated I couldn't get out. Someone in the vehicle repeated the lock combination and I replied it was the combination I was using. One of them got out of the vehicle, acknowledged that I had the right combination, then pushed and pulled various knobs and levers and got the lock to open. I felt really, really stupid. 

I quickly got in the rental Jeep and headed out, feeling quite low, both physically and technologically deficient. I had four more days of potential climbing before my family arrived for our family reunion and I was beginning to doubt that I was up to doing any more fourteeners. What could I do for four days if I didn't climb? 

On the plus side, I'd completed my 31st fourteener, 23 in Colorado, 7 in California and 1 in Washington. And I'd completed the $150 route and would not need to have to attempt it again. 

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