Search this blog

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Culebra Peak in winter

Date: February 18th, 2012
Mission: Summit Culebra peak (elevation 14,047ft) in the middle of winter
Length: 14.8 miles from the parking area at the ranch HQ
Elevation gain: 5700 ft.
Starting Temp: 4 degrees F
Cost: $200

Anyone who climbs mountains will tell you that a climb that may be moderate in summer can be a total bitch of a climb in winter. This is a story of one of those hikes.

Culebra is a privately owned mountain. It is only through the kindness of the owners that they allow
climbers on their property. In the summer the cost of this is $100, in the winter it's $200 due to the additional maintenance they do to the road in. In my opinion, the $200 was well worth it.

Carpooled from the Boulder area after work on Friday night and drove 5 hours or so down to the gate of the Culebra ranch. Slept for maybe 4 hours total and at 4:00am Carlos (who works on the ranch) opened the gate for us so we could get an early start.

We paid our $200 and handed in our signed waivers
at the ranch HQ and we were on the trail by 4:30am. There were total about 20 - 25 people from that were all doing this climb.

The snow, while very deep on the 4-wheel drive trail, was packed down pretty well in the early morning cold, and from the snowmobile that Carlos had rode up and down this road numerous times. So, until we were 3.5 miles in and got to where this snowmobile trail ended is when the snowshoes first got put on.

While putting on my snowshoes, I had to take my heavy mitts off, and was just out in the cold with my
glove liners. My hands went numb almost immediately. Here it was still only 6:45am and the sun had not yet hit us, and it was clearly below zero since we had probably gained close to 2000 ft from the start.

After dumping some hand warmers in my mitts, I was on my way, following a train of people up to the ridge. Whomever was leading clearly was concerned with the avalanche forecast which for today was "considerable" and thus decided to gain the ridge earlier than normal to avoid the danger areas.

I hiked up the side of the mountain slowly and even though i was still a bit cold, thankfully my hands had started to thaw a bit.

Once we reached the ridge, the sun hit our backs and it was clear that we couldn't have asked for a better day. Not too many people will look at a forecast that says: "Sunny, high of 18 with wind chills between -5 and -15" and think "Damn that's a beautiful forecast!"

The views started getting interesting at this point:

In that last picture, do you see the hikers that were behind us on the snowy ridge (click on the picture for a larger version)? It sort of gives some perspective. Blanca & Little Bear peaks over 40 miles away can be seen in the right of the photo.

At the treeline I had met up with this guy Jeff, who was hiking about the same speed as me and we ended up spending the rest of the day together. It was good to have company for a change, since I usually do these hikes solo.

Jeff and I plodded along the ridge. The snow was relatively hard and thin in most spots on the ridge. So, Jeff and I stashed our snowshoes under a rock and continued with microspikes. Jeff also educated me on the value of the rest step during this section which I found to be very valuable.

When we reached a spot at about 13,500 or so, I was already dead tired. It was also when I saw the disheartening ridge route in front of us. The ridge basically does a U shape and we were at the start of the U. There were elevation drops in a saddle at the bottom of the U which you can see in the pic to the right.

It was however a downright beautiful weather day, and I had good company so we plodded along towards the bottom of the U shaped ridge.

On the other side of the U the ridge walk was a blast. We were headed up to what I thought was the summit, I started to gain speed with anticipation. It was about the time I was 20 ft away from the "summit" that I realized it was a false summit and we had at least a half mile left to go. It wasn't a U shaped ridge after all. Instead, the ridge was shaped more like a fish hook instead, with that place at 13,500 being the tip of the hook.

Jeff kept my spirits up with some good conversation and humor. We kept our methodical pace with a few brief stops to either catch our breath or just relax our already hurting muscles.

We finally reached the summit and took in some food and some sunshine.

Jeff taking a break in the talus just before the summit.

A look back at the "U" or fish hook shaped ridge.

Summit photo # 1

Summit photo # 2

We began our descent at 12:30pm. The descent was long, and hiking back up to the other side of that U shaped ridge was not at all enjoyable. We made it back to the summer trailhead around 3pm with 4 miles left to go and decided to take a break. Jeff reaches into the snow and pulls out a thermos that he had stashed there earlier. In this thermos which had been sitting in the snow since 6:30am, was hot chicken noodle soup. BEST IDEA EVER!

Jeff was nice enough to share his soup with me and we sat in the snow eating chicken noodle soup and just loving life. Hot soup in the middle of nowhere on a cold day, 3/4 of the way done with a almost 15 mile hike tastes better than anything in this planet.

We snowshoed down the 4-wheel drive trail which seem to never end. It was the longest 3.5 miles ever. We joked about just laying down and hitting SOS on the Spot because we were so tired.

Finally at about 5:15pm after hiking for about 13 hours we reached the ranch HQ again. An amazing day, with great company, but clearly the longest hike and most elevation gain I have ever done in a day. Memories that will last a lifetime though. I'll always remember my 19th 14er for many reasons.