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Culebra Peak
Elevation: 14,047 feet
Climbed: Jul 2, 2007
Mountain Range: Sangre de Cristo Range
Colorado Rank: 41st
Class Rating: 2
Latitude: 37.122200
Longitude: -105.185000

Trip Report

Jul 2, 2007
Culebra Peak and Red Mountain - Combined Trip Report

Culebra Peak was on my list of mountains penciled in for the summer of 2007. Since Culebra Peak is on private property, the only way to legally climb the peak is to make arrangements with the Cielo Vista Ranch. However, two weekend calls earlier in the year to the number listed for the ranch went unanswered. I finally called again on Friday, June 29, and talked to Carole. There were a couple of late July climbing dates still open, as well as an open date for Monday, July 2. I jumped on the July 2 date, since I was on vacation that week and the Monday date worked into my schedule very well. My plan was to climb both Culebra Peak and Red Mountain.

I headed south on I-25 from Colorado Springs on Sunday afternoon about 4:30 PM. At Walsenburg, I connected with U.S. 160 west, which led me over North La Veta Pass and down into the town of Fort Garland. The views of the Blanca massif to the north were awesome, with Little Bear Peak connected to Blanca Peak via a high connected ridge. Just east of Blanca Peak stood the bulk of Mount Lindsey.

Turning south on Colorado 159, I found myself looking in my rearview mirror at the Blanca massif quite often. I followed the straight highway to the town of San Luis, CO, checking out the rapidly approaching peaks to the southeast. Although Culebra Peak is in the Sangre de Cristo Range, the topo map refers to this sub-range as Culebra Range. At San Luis, I turned onto Colorado 152, following my directions through the town of Chama and to the gate near the north headquarters of the ranch.

The public dirt road ended at two heavy iron gates, each blocking roads leading onto the ranch property. The road ended about one mile short of reaching the pine trees. The primary vegetation was sage and other arid, low-growing plants. A Porta-Potty stands just inside the gate, for use by the climbing community who choose the camp at the road closure. The ranch also allows climbers to pitch a tent just inside the gate.

There was only one other vehicle parked at the gate. Rush, the lone occupant of the vehicle, was waiting to climb Culebra and Red Mountain the next day. Rush had climbed Culebra in the past, as well as all the other fourteeners, but had not climbed Red Mountain, one of Colorado's 100 highest peaks. Red Mountain would be Rush's 92nd of the 100 highest peaks. Even though I was not focused on the 100 highest peaks, I was glad I had opted to climb Culebra and Red Mountain.

Rush had climbed all the mountains that I had on my radar, plus he had very good recall of the various routes. I spent quite a bit of time picking Rush's brain and he was more than happy to oblige. About dusk, though, mosquitos appeared and we each retreated to our vehicles for the night. Carlos, a ranch employee, was scheduled to meet us at the gate at 6:00 AM the next morning.

I had brought a tent with me just in case I needed it. Often I sleep in the back of my truck, but since my Ford Ranger topper was at home, the tent was good insurance in case of rain or other adverse conditions. Mosquitos seemed to fall into the "adverse conditions" category. However, I opted not to set up the tent; instead, I would try sleeping in the cab of my truck.

By 2:30 AM, I had dozed a couple of times, but hadn't really slept. Since by then the mosquitos appeared to be sleeping better than me, I threw a sleeping pad and bag in the truck bed and spent the rest of the night under the open sky. I probably slept for 2-3 hours. At 5:15 AM, I was up and getting ready for the day.

Soon another car arrived carrying two men, two women, and one teenager, all of who planned to climb Culebra. They were from Rapid City, SD. For Brad, the father of the teenager, Culebra would be his "finishing" peak, his final Colorado fourteener.

It was around 6:00 AM when a pick-up truck came up the road. It was Carlos, right on time. Carlos opened the gate to let us onto the ranch, instructing us to drive up the road until we reached the ranch headquarters. Carlos locked the gate and followed us.

At the ranch headquarters, we each turned in our liability waivers and paid the required fees. The fee as of July 2, 2007, was $100 for Culebra Peak or $150 for Culebra and Red Mountain. Rush and I were the only ones planning to touch Red Mountain; the five climbers from South Dakota were climbing only Culebra.

Since the South Dakota party only had a car, they hitched a ride from the ranch headquarters to Four Way. The adults rode with Rush in his Chevy Trailblazer, while the teenager rode with me. The road to Four Way was very steep at times, with a few deep gullies crossing the road, but it was straightforward. We all opted to start our hikes from Four Way, even though the road improved and continued another mile to the beginning of the Northwest Ridge route.

After resetting my GPS unit, I started hiking from Four Way at 6:36 AM. The first mile gained about 500 feet as it followed the smooth dirt road. The trail then leaves the road and continues straight where the road curves slightly to the right. There is a parking area near the bend of the road.

From this point, the route ascends grassy tundra slopes. Since the ranch recommends spreading out to avoid trampling the tundra, I mostly stayed left of the visible trail, ascending on high, pleasant slopes. I focused on gaining what appeared to be the low point of the ridge. Rush followed a line to the right, which was just left of several large snow fields and which headed for a higher point on the ridge. The party of five followed my line, but they were well behind me. I only saw them from a distance for the rest of the day.

I gained the ridge at about 13,000 feet. While the west side of the ridge consisted of grassy slopes, the east side was a series of steep, rocky terrain, overlooking Carneros Lake far below. For the next 5 miles of travel, I would remain at 13,200 feet or higher, either on the ridge line or on the summits of two mountains. For most of the return trip from Red Mountain, I was accompanied by the sound of thunder and darkening clouds to the east. While I never felt imminently threatened, I rarely stopped moving until I was off the ridge.

I followed the curving, high ridge as it lead me toward Culebra. First I climbed southeast, ascending to Point 13,436, the high point on the northern ridge. From this point, the ridge gradually loses elevation, dropping more than 200 feet as it heads south. There is a huge cairn on the ridge at about 13,300 feet. This cairn is located somewhere above the snowfields and represents a shorter, more direct route to Culebra. Aiming toward the cairn avoids some of the elevation gain and totally avoids Point 13,346. I left the ridge on my descent about 50 feet north of the cairn.

The ridge narrows as it curves southeast, dropping to roughly 13,200 feet before turning east to begin the final climb to what appears to be Culebra Peak. The top of this section of the ridge was covered in snow, which was fairly solid during the ascent. During the descent, the snow had softened considerably, so I avoided it by climbing just below the ridge crest on the south side.

As I reached the (not Culebra) summit, I realized this was the false summit that Rush had told me about. Culebra Peak was now visible straight ahead, about 4/10 of a mile away. I descended the false summit, giving back about 150 feet of elevation gain. I was now roughly 300 vertical feet from the summit of Culebra Peak, on a flat section of the ridge just before it begins to reach for the summit. As I looked up at Culebra, I saw the speck on top that I knew was Rush. I watched him disappear as he headed for Red Mountain.

The rock on the ridge changed from talus to longer slabs of solid rock just before the summit. It was an interesting change in geology, though I wasn't sure if the rock was actually conglomerate. I didn't notice the trademark pieces of rock cemented together in the way typical of conglomerate. Either way, the summit of Culebra was at hand.

As I shared the summit with an inquisitive marmot, I applied some sunscreen and took a few photographs. I was conserving water, since I had departed my truck with one less liter of water than planned. I was also not eating, since I didn't want to increase my water requirement. So after only 23 minutes on the summit, I was off for Red Mountain.

As I was descending Culebra Peak, I hear a loud whoop. Looking up, I saw someone on top of Culebra. I assume it was Brad, celebrating his finish of Colorado's fourteeners. Before long, he was joined by others from his party.

At the same time, I could now see Rush on top of Red Mountain. Soon he started descending. We met as we both arrived at the low point of the saddle connecting the two mountains. After chatting for a few minutes, Rush went on, intending to catch up with Brad and his group so he could drive them down the four-wheel-drive road. I knew I would be the last one off the mountain, since no one else was climbing Red Mountain.

The traverse from Culebra to Red Mountain took about one hour. The climber's trail on Red Mountain was surprisingly good, even though it ascended through a lot of steep, loose talus. It was solid hiking, both up and down.

Clouds were developing and I heard thunder in the distance. I took only enough time for a few photos, then I headed back. For the next two hours, I went as fast as I could, reclaiming almost all of Culebra. I didn't re-summit, opting to traverse the east side of Culebra about 100 vertical feet below the summit. The thunder created a sense of urgency and I didn't want to become more of a target for lightning than necessary.

After a combination of descending and re-ascending summits, false summits, and other obstacles, I eventually arrived back at the large cairn on top of the ridge. Just past the cairn, I finally left the ridge, descending on grassy slopes mixed with rock. When I reached the large snowfields, I decided to attempt a glissade. That was a mistake. The snow was extremely soft, which made it difficult to keep snow from bunching up in front of me. I was able to glissade down the upper sections, but eventually stopped and had to posthole my way off the snowfield. In hindsight, I would have just hiked the entire section next to the snowfield.

Finally, after getting off the last snowfield, I stopped to change into dry socks. I had not brought my gaiters, so wet snow had packed around my ankles and gotten my feet wet. I also ate an orange and an apple. Since I had run out of water, the moisture in the orange and apple was most appreciated. It was the first food I'd had since leaving the ranch gate with Carlos that morning. I wasn't feeling too well at this point, but the orange and apple helped revive me.

The remainder of the trip down the grassy slopes was uneventful. I eventually reconnected with my ascent route, which led to the road. After a nice, relaxing one-mile walk down the road, I was back at Four Way and my truck. As expected, Rush's vehicle was gone. I changed shoes, drank water, and took some photographs. I then headed down the four-wheel-drive road toward the ranch headquarters.

On the way out, while crossing the open, flat area below Four Way, a herd of elk crossed the road in front of me, first one, then another, and finally the rest. Other than marmots, this was the only wildlife I saw.

At the ranch headquarters, I signed out. The ranch paperwork states that you have to sign out to let them know you are off the mountain. Otherwise, they may think you are in distress and initiate rescue attempts at your expense. I saw that Rush, Brad, and the others all signed out together.

Based on my GPS, I noted the following times:

6:36 AM -Depart Four Way
7:55 AM -Gain Ridge
8:18 AM -Point 13,346
9:24 AM -False Summit
9:40 AM -Culebra Peak
11:10 AM -Red Mountain
1:22 PM -Depart Ridge at Cairn
2:53 PM -Arrive Four Way

Exploring Culebra Peak and Red Mountain was a different type of experience. Being entirely contained on private property, with access limited to only a few individuals, made it an experience in relative solitude. From the time I met Rush on the saddle between the mountains, I never saw or heard another person the rest of the day.

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