26 January 2010

Culebra Peak

Culebra2 October 2004

This trip actually began long before hitting the road at midnight. Culebra is Colorado's only (for now) pay-14er. You must pay to climb it. Many climbers say the heck with that and designate themselves "ABC"… All But Culebra.

For years, in order to be allowed to even pay to climb the southernmost 14er in the state, you had to be a (long-time) member of the Colorado Mountain Club, and you had to be patient while awaiting lottery results year after year until you finally get drawn. Most of the limited number of lottery winners during one or, on rare occasions, two trips per year had climbed all but one or two of the 52-59 highest peaks, depending upon how you count them.

At least 59 peaks in Colorado reach the magical 14,000 mark or higher. "Real" mountaineers don't consider a peak a genuine mountain unless the saddle connecting it to another mountain is at least 300 feet lower than the summit. By this reasoning, Colorado "officially" has 52 14ers. Speaking from experience, when you've climbed one of the "unranked" peaks from 9,000 or 10,000 feet, trust me, you don't care if the saddle is 299 feet or 794 feet. The mountain still poses a challenge, and the saddle has nothing to do with your ascent.

Unless the saddle connects to another 14er and you climbed both in one trip using that saddle. Then perhaps the climb isn't quite as difficult if you're dropping only 250 feet as opposed to 300. In most cases, though, you have to go back over the first 14er to get back to the trailhead from whence you came. To me, that's almost like climbing THREE 14ers instead of two!

As a result of this logic, I'm in the 59-count crowd.

Culebra lottery winners for many years were comprised mostly of people who had only Culebra left to climb. A few with one peak (typically Capitol because it is considered the most difficult) besides Culebra remaining were allowed to go so they save a special peak for their final peak.

Then some savings and loan scandal forced the owner of Culebra and its centennial neighbor Red Mountain to sell the property. The new owners wanted to allow climbers and hunters to use the land. Culebra finally was open to people who had not finished all but Culebra and maybe Capitol! The price was reasonable, and a big group from the mountain climbing club I enjoyed was planning a mass ascent, so The Lizard and I decided this would be a true adventure.

Arrangements were made several weeks beforehand. After we signed up, I began experiencing difficulty with my sciatic nerve. I thought at the time a nerve might be pinched, and I tried stretching, soaking in hot mineral baths, relaxing, anything I could do to try to relieve the pain. By the time our Culebra climb date arrived, I was not in too good of shape. I had sacrificed our September 11 memorial climb of American Peak because of the pain. But I'd paid to climb Culebra. That was motivation enough to give it my best shot.

We arrived en masse about three hours before the ranch hands would open the gate and allow us to begin our group climb. I took some pain reliever and tried to sleep but was not successful. Some climbers had tailgate parties of sorts, while others just packed gear and prepared for the day.

When the gate finally opened, The Lizard, Ferenc and Steve opted to begin their climb from the ranch instead of driving up the four-wheel-drive road to a distant junction called Four Way where the rest of us would start. My 4Runner filled with excited climbers, and I managed to get the car up to the higher trailhead, even though my pain was relentless.

Tim had accompanied me on my Mount Sherman trip, although we each climbed different peaks that day. An asthmatic, he claimed to be slower than me, so we decided to keep each other company while the rest sped ahead.

About two miles into our hike, The Lizard, Ferenc and Steve caught up to us. And I thought the group ahead of us was fast! These guys were motoring!

Ferenc and The Lizard could see through my pasted on smile and expressed concern that perhaps I was biting off more than I could chew. I still saw dollar signs, though, and I insisted I would be okay and shooed them along. They were out of sight in a flash.

About two hours later, Tim and I finally reached the ridge proper. From there, the summit is about a mile away along a long, snaky, rocky and on this particular day, icy snake-like ascending ridge, which is where the mountain's name comes from. Culebra means snake.

It was late in the season to worry too much about storms, but threatening clouds had gathered nonetheless. Some climbers were already beginning to make their way down the ridge toward us. I estimated the summit would take us at least another two hours, and the rocks were so slippery, I wasn't confident I could make it without falling and being really hurt. Tim was more concerned about the clouds than I was, and he convinced me we had completed a worthwhile ascent and should be proud to say we almost made it, given our physical conditions. The view, although misty, was breathtaking. Miranda Peak to the north and Red Mountain, Vermejo Peak and Purgatoire Peak to the south were all frosted with a fresh dusting of snow. Golden aspens to the west were the only color in the monotone landscape. We snapped a few photos and began our descent.

Before we reached Four Way, a group of climbers caught up to us and asked if I would take them to their cars back at the ranch. I accommodated them then returned to Four Way to pick up my Lizard and his two climbing companions.

Much to my surprise, these warriors did not want a ride back to the ranch. They wanted to extend their hike and keep walking! So back down to the ranch I drove, and I finally was able to catch a few winks while I waited all of about an hour for their return. These guys are absolute speed demons!

As it turned out, The Lizard also had worried about the clouds and opted not to join Ferenc and Steve for the ascent of Red Mountain after climbing Culebra. I was tearful when I told him I wanted to go back some time, even if I had to pay again, because I don't want to miss this mountain. I want to see the summit. I want to stand on the summit. The Lizard wrapped his arms around me and told me he has to pay again, too, because he still wants Red Mountain.

So, Culebra hasn't seen the end of us. We will be back. Some day.Migrating Sandhill Cranes take to the sky above Culebra and Red MountainNote: This trip report is a classic example of why it's important to keep a journal. My laptop computer gave up the ghost shortly after our Culebra adventure, and I had emergency back surgery a month later. When I finally had my senses once again (that is, IF I regained any sense!), I realized I'd lost several days' worth of journal entries when the laptop crashed. Because I was on heavy medication when I realized this, I didn't take the time to rewrite what would have been difficult to remember under such conditions anyway.

Some of the magic of this trip is lost forever because my computer crashed. I remember writing about listening to elk bugle while I waited for the guys, and I remember wanting to explore the valley more. I have no memory of why. I no longer have the words I penned (keyboarded?) that day. They are gone forever.

Who know how many more precious moments and memories were lost to that ill-timed blue screen of death? I was able to piece this together because others from our group wrote trip reports of their own. Other experiences during my missing days don't have the luxury of group reports I can peruse.

The moral of the story, aside from backing up every electronic kilobyte produced, is to write down the special moments while memories are still fresh. Just like that aggravating 404 File Not Found, reminiscing can be difficult to engage and/or interpret the more time passes without frequent replay.

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