July 4, 2009 - Ascent via "Cielo Vista Ridge Route" from Four Way & Descent via "Cielo Vista Talus Route"
Before starting into the narrative proper, a Thank You is in order for the owners and staff of the Cielo Vista Ranch. But for their willingness to offer the climbing community access to the ranch, the opportunity to climb Culebra would not be available to the vast majority of folks seeking to climbing all of the 14'ers. For the doubters, I'll readily and strongly opine that the fee for the climb is more than reasonable, given the superior quality of the resource to which climbers are granted access. That said, I'll say Thank You to the Cielo Vista Ranch, Bobby Hill, Carlos, Carole, and all the other individuals and organizations, whose efforts allowed me the chance to climb Culebra and Red Mountain.
I "finished" the 14'ers back in the day, meaning the only way to stand atop Culebra Peak was to get into the Colorado Mountain Club lottery and hope for the best. As a non CMC member not seeking one of their 25 or 50 slots per year, I joined the ranks of those whose 14'er tally came with the "ABC", meaning "All But Culebra" asterisk. When the ownership of the Taylor Ranch changed a few years back and the opportunity to climb Culebra once again became available to the general climbing community, I thought I'd give pent up demand time to subside and then pay my fee and finish off the list officially. I meant to do it a year or two before I did, but I could not convince a climbing partner or two to take the plunge and tick the peak off their list as well.
During a Memorial Day trip to Alamosa, my wife and I discussed making a Sand Dunes/Culebra weekend out of the 4th of July holiday and I called to see if there was a single climber spot available. There was a slot . . . so I signed up for both Culebra and Red Mountain, the adjacent Centennial peak. As Debbie is not a climber and non climbers are not allowed on the ranch, I reserved two nights at the San Luis Motel, figuring if the weather was rainy or hot and sunny, I'd climb while Debbie wandered San Luis in lieu of getting stuck alone at the ranch gate to await my return. She and I usually do not combine my climbing with our weekend trips but it was the 4th of July and the addition of Sand Dunes seemed like a viable means for both of us to get out for the three day weekend and for me to climb my last 14'er. The San Luis lodging is reasonably priced though the cost to camp at the ranch gate is $0.00 for the more budget conscious.
We left Cheyenne at about 9:30 a.m. on Friday, the 3rd, and I planned to make the run to San Luis via Buena Vista to allow for the Sand Dunes portion of the trip. I anticipated holiday traffic and sure enough I-70 was backed up right to the junction with 470 heading south from Golden. That was good by me as I was going to take U.S. 285 down through South Park and I was hoping that my chosen route would treat me better than I-70 was obviously treating all the other folks headed to the mountains. I did well until 10 miles short of Bailey where the combination of two traffic lights and road construction provided all the ingredients for a two hour stop and go backup for about 5 miles. After we got through the construction that concluded at the top of the hill leading down into Bailey, the coast was clear and we made good time over Kenosha Pass, through Jefferson and on to Fairplay.
The two hour delay in the manual trani Toyota took some serious wind out of my sails and I was ready for a stop and bite to eat when we got to Fairplay. We got off 285 and went into the historic part of town, parked the truck, and wandered about a bit, getting something to eat and looking in the various shop windows. We saw that the old Fairplay Hotel is now closed and we recalled a two night stay there in about 1991 where the food was good, the bathroom was down the hall, and a ferret came under our door as we prepared for bed, looked at us, ran around the room and then departed. As I recall, the nocturnal visitor was just part of the character of the old place. Well, we lunched and walked out the kinks from the back-up so it was on to Buena Vista and the run down the Arkansas and San Luis valleys to Sand Dunes.
The weather on the Front Range was not supposed to be good . . . thunderstorms and I was hoping that, just like the last ten weekends in a row, the storms would hold at the Front Range or at worst, hold off until the late morning so I could have a good chance to pull off the Culebra climb. The weather in the the upper San Luis Valley was spotty and as we went further south we could see a seriously heavy storm coming across from the west and pushing right onto the sand dunes. I thought about just bagging the trip to the dunes but there was spot of blue sky here and there, so we cut east and went to the park. The rains met us at the parking lot and we walked across Medano Creek in a light shower but wandered no further, not wanting to get dumped on or chased about by the accompanying lighting. We were back at the car little more than twenty minutes after parking and we headed on south to the town of San Luis. The Blanca massif, that had been under bluebird conditions just an hour earlier, was now swathed in heavy scud and the dark clouds were pushing south toward New Mexico in force.
We checked into our room in San Luis, and like the gal told me on the phone, it was a nice place and very clean. The walls are a bit on the thin side if your neighbor should like the TV on the loud side or take a shower early in the morning, but it would do for what we needed for the evening. No problems on the accommodation side and I was content not to be setting the tent up in the rain. My next goal was to make sure I knew where the gate to the ranch was and how long it would take to get there the next morning at 0 dark 30. I had the directions provided by the ranch office when I made my climbing reservation and they were dead on accurate. The trip from San Luis to the gate is a 15 minute run, through a small community or two, that with very little imagination, could be in Chihuahua, Mexico, rather than Costilla County, Colorado. With knowledge of the location of the ranch in hand, we went back to San Luis, got dinner and walked the entirety of the town before calling it a night.
I was up and out by 5:20 and at the gate fifteen minutes later where there were a number of other vehicles and climbers, all awaiting the arrival of Carlos, the Cielo Vista Ranch representative who facilitates your entry onto the ranch and climb of Culebra. Before Carlos arrived, I took the opportunity to chat with a few other climbers and noted that there was no cotton in the crowd. That in and of itself said much of those who had paid the fee to climb and I expected the "touron" factor would not present itself with this group . . . it was pretty obviously a solid group of climbers. The Daves and Eric, who parked ahead of me, had offered another fellow a ride up and given the amount of gear in their vehicle they asked if I had room for a rider . . . of course I did. I knew from five years paddling in West Virginia that when you don't give a ride to someone at the top or bottom of a river shuttle, you will get trounced by the river gods. I think . . . no, I know the same rules apply in the mountains . . . and I had no intention to anger Pachamama when she need send only one electrically charged reminder my way to ruin my chance at a summit.
Aaron needed a ride and I invited him to tag along with me for the trip up to the trail head along with another fellow who needed a lift as well. Carlos arrived soon afterward and opened the gate at 6 a.m. allowing the gaggle of SUV's and my pick-up to drive the first mile to the ranch office to register and pay the climbing fee. We all parked and lined up to pay our fee, $100 for Culebra and, for the majority,$50 more for the addition of Red Mountain.
Now as for the fee to climb . . . well I think it is fine and I also think it is reasonable. The price of a nice meal in Denver, the price of a lift ticket and lunch, a Rockies game . . . and for the same amount you get access to some of the most beautiful mountain terrain and a climb two peaks. For those who decry the concept, just look to the marginal cost of climbing the 14'ers and remember that the ranch owners get the inconvenience of having you on their land (that they paid good money for and you did not), having to register you in and out, having to deal with the potential liability, having to answer your phone call, having to send you your confirmation and the like. Yes, it is worth it, every penny of it and I will note that there was not a single complaint to be heard among those I climbed with.
The three of us drove to the upper trail head and the 4wd track proved no problem for my 207k mile Toyota Tacoma. There are a few steep hills but its is a cruise for any stock 4wd and we were soon at the sign marking the Four Way junction, where the Daves and Eric were going to start their climb. We opted to continue to the upper trail head basically on the premise that if the weather was going to be a factor, I'd rather score the peak than wish I had but for the premise that 3000 feet of climb alone makes a summit. We pulled into the upper 4wd terminus and joined about 12 other folks who were gathering their last bits of gear before starting up the hill. The first part of the climb was obvious, a long walk up what appears to be a gentle slope to what everyone knew to be a ridge, the long serpentine ridge that gives the peak its descriptive name. Aaron and I got our gear together and with nary a thought set off in tandem for the ridge.
The initial decision lies in whether to head straight up or to trend toward the north and aim to cut the ridge at a bit of a saddle and then climb the peak using the ridge proper for the maximum distance. This maximization of the ridge proper was our choice, in comparison with the more direct approach that land's one in the vicinity of the mega cairn. We started walking and talking and surmised that it would take about an hour and a half to break the ridge, we did it in about 50 minutes. The route is without a climber's trail but we did intercept a segment of old road here and there, first at the bottom and then again just below the saddle. Our route included as much of the west ridge as was practical to climb as compared to the more direct Roach and Dawson routes. Once on the ridge, we set off from a nubbin point, perhaps in the range of 13,400, from which we could see the rest of the ridge, snaking its way to the summit, quite a distance off. We could also see that the climb would be an up and down affair, first to reach the summit of Culebra and then later to drop over and across a subsidiary bump to climb Red Mountain.
Once on the ridge, we took a brief Goo and water break before walking the ridge toward the giant cairn and meeting up with the Daves and Eric who had taken a more direct route. Given that they started at Four Way, they had made very respectable progress so far. We chatted and as is often the case, gathered into a loose grouping of five to proceed to the summit proper. We went to the turn in the ridge, dropped a hundred feet or more in elevation and then climbed the steeper course to the false summit, taking another brief water and snack stop at that point before taking off again for the summit proper. Within a few minutes we were all on the summit proper and for me, the last of the 14'er summits needed to make the claim sans asterisk. I had done it . . . climbed the last of the 14'ers . . . over the course of 25 years.
We all took the requisite summit photos and then the five of use headed for Red Mountain. Following our ascent of the neighboring centennial peak, we returned to the summit of Culebra and took a few more photos, this time holding sparklers and a summit banner offered by a father & son team before departing the summit for the truck. The route back to the giant cairn was a reversal of the ascent but then there was the opportunity to take the more direct route to the parking spot via the last but substantively continuous patch of snow that covered about 2/3 of the drop from the cairn to the car. The day was not too sunny and we hoped that the snow would allow for a glissade or boot ski to the base. I did not have rain pants and I really did not want a soaked ass, so it was boot ski for me. Aaron had his boot ski technique perfected and the two of use made thigh burning good time to the base of the snow, with nary a post hole along the way.
Earlier, when we passed Four Way on the drive up, Aaron had mentioned that perhaps it would be proper to walk past the truck and descend to Four Way and then come back accomplish the "classic" ascent of both mainline guidebooks. We discussed it briefly on the way down and, without further debate, never even slowed down at the upper parking area as we walked on down the road to the lower parking area. We hit Four Way, turned around and hiked back to the upper lot, a complete ascent in hand. The Daves and Eric passed us on our way back up and were a bit surprised that we really did what we claimed we might do when the matter was discussed in the thinner air of the summit. However, they did invite us to stop for a brew on our way down so the extra distance was worth it. I will note that we tacked on requisite elevation at the end in a sporting manner, we did not drive down and add and up and down segment, but instead left the truck at the top so would pay the proper penance by finishing the climb with an uphill leg.
Aaron and I stopped and socialized at Four Way on the way down and then proceeded on down to the ranch office and signed out. We were soon out the gate proper with Culebra in hand, the last one, one of the best ones, and one done with the finest of company.
In closing, thanks to Aaron for great conversation, company and pace, the Daves and Eric for more of the same and the Cielo Vista Ranch owners and staff for the opportunity to claim that I've done them all . . .