Tuesday, August 14, 2012

To ABC Or Not To ABC

A couple of years ago, Gineth and I were on our annual Colorado climbing vacation and hitting our first peak of the Sangre de Cristo range - Mt. Lindsey. There, we met a very talented, very fit young climber whose mother was being good enough to chauffeur him around Colorado so he could climb all the 14ers, and he was doing so in a bang-up time. We met his mom at the trailhead as we waited for him to return from the peak - we had passed him on our way down as he was going up (quickly) and in little time as we chatted with his mom he returned, having bagged the Lindsey summit in easily half the time it took us. They were a really friendly family and we continued to talk about 14ers with them for some time. As we were talking about the Sangres - eventually, the subject of Culebra Peak came up. He a tiny bit pretentiously told us he was “Doing the ABC list”.

“The ABC List?” I asked, thinking that maybe this was some fundamental list that excluded or included peaks with less than 300 feet of prominence or something.

“All But Culebra” he declared to me full of pride.

There’s a bit of a philosophical debate amongst some people who do the Colorado 14ers about Culebra Peak. Access to Culebra Peak and the peak itself, is on privately owned land. The owners of the ranch that it resides on charge a fee (as of now, 2012) of $100 per person to access and climb the peak. And so, the lines of the debate fall upon whether it is acceptable or not to pay this “bounty” to climb the peak, or if as a matter of principle the mountain should be bypassed due to this “outrageous” price and limit set upon the peak.

For our own climb of Culebra, much more planning had to be undertaken than any other ordinary class 2 climb would have. I saw a thread on 14ers.com that said the Cielo Vista Ranch - the owners - were starting to take reservations for Culebra climbs back in May. We usually had been visiting Colorado around September, to avoid thunderstorm danger, but due to wanting to bag Culebra and also due to the fact that we were hit with an out of season snowstorm last year, we planned to go earlier this year, the last weekend of July and first week of August. The Ranch is only open on certain days, and only permits so many climbers to enter on those days. So it was imperative for our trip that this arrangement was made first, before we planned any other climbs. After a couple of weeks of busy signals and reaching an answering machine, I was finally able to get ahold of them and make our reservation. They e-mailed us the waiver forms and we were ready to go. I would note that the number in Roach’s 14er guide (I have the 3rd edition published in 2011) was not the current and correct number. That made me wonder about how often the ranch might change hands, and how tenuous it may be for future climbing if we did not do it right now.

You see, obviously I am of the belief that to truly climb all the Fourteeners in Colorado one has to climb ALL THE FOURTEENERS IN COLORADO. I’m really glad no other mountains we have climbed in Colorado have been privately owned or charged a fee. We climbed Mt. Bross, a mountain whose summit is now closed to the public, back on our first Colorado climb, the Decalibron, before we even knew about any controversy. So we get to avoid that facet of the argument. It really doesn’t bother me too much to pay $100 to climb one. As long as it’s just one. So we decided to check it off our list.

So we made the reservation and planned our trip around it. We showed up the Sunday morning of our climb (July 29th) somewhere just after 5:30 am. I had received specific instructions from the ranch that we were to be there promptly at 6am, so I did not want to take any chances. There were about 5 or 6 4X4’s parked in front of us, and a few people with tents camping out in front of us. As we waited for them to open the gate to enter the ranch, a few more trucks pulled up behind us. Since we had slept in a hotel in Alamosa, and headed out here early in the morning, we closed our eyes a few seconds and patiently accepted the fact that we could not start the climb on our own terms - we now were on someone else’s clock. 

Finally we saw movement ahead, and noticed a young man on an ATV had showed up and was checking off a list as the folks moved through the gate. We waited our turn and told him our names, and he told us to just follow everyone else up to the ranch headquarters. The road was dirt but in good condition, and I didn’t want to drive too slow as to make all the Colorado license plates folks think negatively about us California plated trucks. We followed everyone up to the main quarters and parked alongside everyone else. Everyone was filing inside the main house there, and so we knew this must be the place to pay our money. We got in line and paid our money, and gave them our waiver forms. We were told to wait for final instructions before we could go to the trailhead. Everyone working there was very professional and there were no tense feelings whatsoever. Of course, everyone there was like us - maybe not thrilled to pay the $100, but accepting of the fact that this is what had to be done.

After a briefing from the ranch foreman on the rules of the ranch, everyone was ready to drive up to the trailhead. I guessed there were between 25-30 people, and about 12 or so 4X4’s. Pretty orderly, we returned to our vehicles and started driving up to the trailhead. The road was a little rough, but not typical Colorado four wheel drive rough. But it was very steep, and the Colorado trucks in front of me and behind me dictated that I had to drive at a pretty quick speed, at least faster than I’m used to driving up such roads. When we reached the crossroad known as
Four Way, we pulled over to ensure ourselves of a 3,000’ climb. Many of the others continued up the road to the upper trailhead, as the road is easily passable for another mile and a few hundred feet of gain. It certainly was a different experience than any other 14er we’ve been on - everyone basically starting all at the same time. Since we were going for the 3,000’ criteria, we started out slightly behind most.

Climbing up the green untrailed slopes of Culebra

Culebra does not have traditional trails. As we left the road, we followed a scant old road mostly overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. Part of the ranch’s creed is to keep the mountain in a natural state, and this too makes it a unique climb. I was getting my shoes a little wet, tromping through the brush, but I have to admit it was rather neat.

By the time we reached the ridge (this is considered the “standard” route) we had caught up pretty much with everyone else who had opted for the upper trailhead. People spread out fairly orderly though. The clouds were moving in and coming up against the dramatic cliff that falls off from the ridge, somewhat obscuring our views but providing a refreshing backdrop to the climb. 

We walked for a while and I spotted what I thought to be the summit. Turns out it wasn’t. The climb up Culebra is a little deceiving, in some ways due to one’s proclivity to underestimate the climb. By most accounts, the climb is rated a Class 2, and you just don’t go into thinking that you are actually going to have to climb up this mountain. It comes up and surprises you that you are still climbing a 14er, and there is nothing “easy” about that.

We reached the bottom of what I thought was the summit. I saw another climber head around traversing along the side. Why would he do that? He’s just lengthening his climb, I thought. Well, after a little low class scrambling I soon found out. This was only the false summit (does every mountain have to have one of these?) and there was still a good piece to go to get to (what I hoped would be) the actual summit.

The green slopes leading to the actual Culebra summit
But it was a pleasant walk. Very rarely does one walk up to the summit of a Colorado 14er by crossing a beautiful green meadow, but that’s exactly what happens on Culebra. When we finally topped out, the mood on the summit was very relaxed and mellow. Everyone there - and there where quite a few again as the climbers are somewhat bunched up - was just in a happy and good mood. Much like some of the first easier 14ers we ever did, there was much time for photos and snacks and of course, the ever-present marmot watching. One brave little guy seemed intent on getting into another climbers pack, and I had to do my best to shoo him away, lest he get the goodies inside. 

We took a different route on the way down, as recommended by the Ranch as to not disturb the sanctity of the mountain’s semi-pristine state. It was a in fact a much easier and shorter way down, and we wondered if we should have even taken this route on the way up. But no matter, our climb was over and we both concluded it was a fine warm-up for the climbs we had ahead of us, in this the first climb of our annual Colorado climbing vacation.

When all is said and done, I didn’t mind paying the “bounty” to climb Culebra. It was really a pretty climb, and we had a strange sort of bond with the folks we met on the route. All the ranch folks were courteous and professional. It’s definitely a unique Colorado 14er experience. I’m glad no other 14ers charge to climb them, because we probably wouldn’t want to pay that much to climb another easy hike, but on it’s own Culebra is fine by me. We are going to climb all the 14ers in Colorado. There will be no asterisks.