Culebra Peak
Descent Route: West Ridge To Cielo Vista Ranch
Culebra Peak
April 7, 2006
West Ridge to Cielo Vista Ranch

Today was another spectacular experience in Colorado?s high peaks. Jon Hagman and I skied the West Ridge of Culebra Peak, Colorado?s southern most fourteener, from the summit. Culebra Peak lies entirely on the privately owned Cielo Vista Ranch, an amazing, 80,000-acre parcel of land encompassing many peaks over 13,000? and endless forests, rivers, meadows, and wildlife. In fact, Jon and I spent much of the climb scheming over what we would do if we ever could own this ranch. Most of our ideas involved heli-skiing, cat-skiing, snowmobile skiing, ski touring, mtn. biking, kayaking, and camping. But the current owners are doing a wonderful job preserving the beauty and pristine condition of this land with an attitude towards stewardship and conservation. The ranch operates mainly as a big game hunting preserve in the fall, with climbs of Culebra Peak a secondary priority in the summer and fall. We were very lucky to secure last minute permission to climb and ski Culebra, but it did not come cheap. Winter ascents are rarely granted and cost $200 per person. For us the climb and turns were worth ever penny, and our heartfelt thanks go out to Bobby Hill, Carole Simpson and Arnando, the ranch manager. Arnando actually grew up on the ranch, and his family homesteaded the land over a hundred years ago. We spent a lot of time speaking with him after the climb about the property and its importance to his family and the local Hispanic community. He was very interested in our mission to climb and ski the fourteeners as well, and was happy to provide us with answers to all our questions concerning the mountain we had just skied.

Our day started out at 5 a.m. in San Luis, a sleepy agricultural town that sits near the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado, settled in 1851. The town has a rich cultural history, made up of the original Hispanic settlers, the local native people, and Anglo settlers who came to the valley to farm at the turn of the century. We spent over an hour at the San Luis museum after our climb, talking at length with the museum curator about the history of the area and current local concerns about the Cielo Vista Ranch. I?ll get to those in a bit. We met Arnando at the ranch gate at 6 a.m., signed some waivers, paid our fee, and set off up the access road. We were only able to drive a short while before unloading the snowmobiles for a four-mile ride up the road to 11,300?. From this point we skinned for an hour and a half up to the ridge at 12,000?. The southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains are experiencing their worst drought of all time, according to Arnando, the museum curator, and several weather websites. So the ridge was rocky and mostly devoid of snow. We climbed for another two hours in intense winds and snow. Since a big low-pressure system had passed Colorado just twenty-four hours earlier, the winds were out of the north and very cold. Snow was being blown all around in ?snow devils? or ?snownados?, and visibility was at times down to a hundred feet. By the time we made the summit ridge, blue holes were appearing in the sky, and we could finally see our goal, Culebra Peak, over a mile away.

We made the summit at 10 a.m. and spent only a brief period of time there. The wind was relentless and stung our faces with snow crystals. There is an amazing North Face on Culebra, long and steep. On a day with better weather I might have considered attempting it, but today the visibility and large amount of new snow loaded on the face could not justify more than a split second consideration. So we put on our skis and began descending the West ridge. There were stretches of good snow, and spots where we had to remove the skis to scramble over exposed rocks. Jon tried to film as much as possible, but his hands turned to ice blocks after just seconds. We made our way around the great, snaking horseshoe that is the West Ridge, finally skiing the long West Face back to our snowmobiles. The snow on this face was fantastic, and we savored every creamy powder turn. With massive views of the expansive, dry San Luis valley below us, we felt as if we were skiing into the horizon. Back at the sleds, we toasted our good fortune with food and water, and made plans for a cat-skiing operation on an opposing ridge.

We arrived back at the Ranch House at noon, 4:55 after starting out. We met Arnando again at the post office in Chama, where he and most of his extended family live. As he waved to every passing vehicle (most of them were relatives) we discussed the history of this place. It was easy to see how passionate he was about the land he grew up on. He and his three brothers used to race horses from high on Culebra back to their home, with the last one having to cook dinner. (Which involved collecting water, making a fire, and killing a rooster? no kidding) He has also logged well over two-hundred ascents of Culebra Peak in his lifetime. I would venture a guess that this would easily make him the all-time leader for summits of a single fourteener. Arnando was a gracious and engaged host, and I highly recommend making a trip to the ranch to climb Culebra or any of the thirteeners on the ranch, and to spend time with Arnando. After we left Chama, we visited the museum, as I have said, and had some really interesting conversations with the locals there. Evidentially, when the ranch was purchased in the early 1960?s by one Mr. Taylor, a lumberman from North Carolina, access to the property was cut off to everyone, even the local people who had been hunting and collecting wood there for almost a century. This caused great animosity amongst the locals, and nearly thirty years of litigation began. Now, local families who owned land on the original federal land grant in the area are allowed access to the ranch, thanks mostly to the new owners and their understanding of the situation, but also in part to a court ruling ion Denver. The issues here are complex, and I won?t attempt to deconstruct what I only barely understand.

Now I sit in my truck, high in the Huerfano Valley, at the foot of the Sierra Blanca group of fourteeners, Mt. Lindsey, Ellingwood Point, Blanca Peak, and Little Bear Peak. Jon and I will attempt Mt. Lindsey tomorrow morning.
You'll here from me again after Lindsey... if we can find internet access out here!
Chris





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