How I Spent $150 Well

Culebra means snake in Spanish, at least according to an old boss of mine who grew up in Mexico.  I couldn’t help but make a connection to the name and the behavior of the owners to restrict access.

But I had reached the summit of 57 Colorado 14ers and every time I tried to tell someone that I had climbed the 14ers, I’d have to explain my rationale for NOT climbing Culebra. After a while, it sounded like whining.  When I learned that I could climb it by merely paying a $100 fee, I signed up and put the 14er list behind me forever.

I registered for Culebra & Red (for an extra $50) and made plans to drive down to the Cielo Vista Ranch the morning of August 18, 2007.  It was a 5.5 hour drive and I had to be at the gate at or before 6am; if I was late, I would miss the gate opening for the morning.  I decided to leave Boulder at midnight to give myself a 30 minute margin for error.  It was a long way to drive by myself, but somehow it felt appropriate that I completed the list alone.

Culebra would be my 22nd solo summit of the 23 14ers completed over the past 5 years.  While I don’t prefer to climb alone, I find that doing these adventures alone adds a thrill that cannot be duplicated when climbing with partners.  Going solo doesn’t make the trip more fun, but does make the adventure more adventurous.

The Long Drive

Oh my God, it was a long drive.  All alone and in the dark.  It felt surreal while I was driving south on I-25.  The highway was so empty, all I had to do was not fall asleep behind the wheel. I couldn’t even call anyone to talk on the phone…everyone was asleep!  I had the strange sense of being alone in space with the capsule window pointed in the wrong direction:  exciting because I was doing something big, but also terribly boring as I was trapped in my seat with nothing to do for a long time before I could do more exciting bits.

Then it got stressful in a hurry.

After not making more than one turn per hour, once I reached an area that looked absolutely 3rd world I had to make a series of intricate maneuvers to find the ranch gate.  And this in the dark; I couldn’t find the road signs keeping a focus on staying on the road. If I made a wrong turn without realizing the error quickly, I would lose the entire effort. But I made it with only one wrong turn quickly corrected.  I arrived to find a few cars already waiting, and I had about 30 minutes to kill while we waited for the ranch staff to arrive.

I used the time to refill my water bottles and get my pack ready to go.  And still I waited.  It was another unreal experience to let the precious morning minutes tick away unused; I sure hoped the weather would let me bag both Culebra & Red.

Just to be clear:  I was not coming back.

The ranch guys showed up and led us up to the Ranch house where we lined to pay and sign our liability waivers in the slowest process invented by Mankind.  I’m not sure they really wanted our money.  It was one more injustice: please take my money and let me go!

Finally I was allowed to hand over my $150 in cash.  I quickly hustled to the truck to drive up to the high parking area so I could finally get started.  However, with people milling about like they had nothing to do that day, I had to carefully maneuver out of the parking lot. Once I was really free, I hauled ass up a very nice dirt road.  I will give them credit for a fine dirt road.

I reached the place that looked like the upper parking lot.  I couldn’t be sure since there weren’t any signs. And then I took off for the ridge line using the “Talus Route”.

The standard Culebra map; I paid $150 for a copy. DO NOT LOOK AT IT UNLESS YOU HAVE BEEN AUTHORIZED BY CIELO VISTA RANCH

The Hike

I hiked east up a trail on the left (north) side of the drainage.  My pace was good while I worked my way around various obstacles and reached the ridge at approx. 13,400′. The long ridge curved east (like a snake?) toward the summit. I hurried south along the ridge crest and past the biggest cairn I ever saw in my life.

Everything was going well except my boots. I had brought some lightweight Timberland boots that turned out to have the slickest tread I have ever had on my feet. They were comfortable, but they were trying to kill me anytime I stepped on lichen. Running shoes would have been better.

I reached Culebra’s summit (14,047’) rather quickly for a 14er; it felt much like Quandary.  On the summit, I stopped for a drink of water and a look around.  It was a beautiful place.

I started down the ridge toward Red.  The terrain was more broken but still easy.  I reached the summit of Red and stopped to watch the people on the summit of Culebra.  I wondered if anyone would make the trek to my position, but none did.  I figured I should head back over to Culebra to say hello.  Besides, I was ready to go home.

When I reached the Culebra summit, everyone was gone.  All that was left was some prayer flags and other miscellaneous trash left behind.  So, I continued toward the trailhead, thinking about the long, long drive home.  I decided to use the “Roach Route” on the way down, just to see if it was any better.  It was.

After working my way back to the dirt road on the far side of the creek, I walked back up to the parking lot where a group of people were chatting.  They asked me what I had climbed, since they hadn’t seen me on Culebra.  I’m not sure they believed me when I told them I did Culebra and then Red before returning to Culebra after everyone had left.  Still, it was as nice a bunch of people as I’ve ever met on a 14er.

Then it was time to go home.  But first I needed to get myself ready for the launch.  I stopped at the Phillips 66 and stocked up on gasoline and caffeinated beverages and used the bathroom with great relish.  Then it was time for blast-off.

And six hours later it was over.  I had finished the Colorado 14ers. It was $150 well spent. Still, it was a muted celebration; it felt bittersweet, like saying good-bye to a good friend who was moving away for a great job.  Good bye, Colorado 14ers list.

So, now what?

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