“A man does not climb a mountain without bringing some of it away with him and leaving something of himself upon it.” Martin Conway
My hike of Culebra Peak is a day that I will never forget for the rest of my life. It is a hike I will cherish and a hike that I hope to never relive for the rest of my life as well. I say that not because of the mountain but what happened to me on the mountain. There was a lot of irony in some things I said last week and the things that happened to me during this hike. Specifically, after I climbed Mount Massive I gained wisdom and insight about how I had a change in priorities and objectives. I identified that I love to hike and be above 14,000 feet but the most important thing to me (my priority) is to return home safely to my loved ones. It also provided knowledge that the true value and purpose of a climb for me is what I experience from the ascent and descent (my objective) instead of placing my priority and purpose solely on the summit. Today’s hike of Culebra Peak and Red Mountain had me questioning if I would return home safely.
To begin, this 14,047 foot mountain is located only 9 miles from the New Mexico border and is the southernmost 14er in the state. Culebra Peak, which is situated on the 77,000 acre Cielo Vista Ranch, is one of a kind for 14ers as it is the only privately owned 14er in Colorado. With its private ownership, Culebra Peak is also unique due to its great history that is accompanied with great controversy. The mountain is shrouded in argument stemming from agreements and land grants established in the 1840’s to its present day private ownership. One of the major issues pertains to the original rights to utilize the natural resources generated by the property, which were removed with private ownership. Access to the resources for over 30 years was cut off by private ownership. I could go more detail; however, additional information regarding the mountains history and the controversy of the land it sits on can be obtained from the following website http://www.summitpost.org/mountain/rock/151463/culebra-peak.html
Aside from the controversy of resource rights, private ownership of Culebra Peak has also been controversial to hikers. From 1960 to 1988 hikers were not allowed onto Culebra Peak due to its private owner. After 1988 until 2000, climbing was allowed but limited. Then in 2000, the mountain was officially closed to hikers. Slowly the mountain reopened to hikers but again on a very limited basis and only through membership with the Colorado Mountain Club. The Colorado Mountain Club utilized a lottery system to determine the few individuals lucky enough to hike Culebra Peak and it typically had to be your last 14er. Then in 2004, new owners reopened the mountain but for a price. Many climbers refuse to hike Culebra Peak because there is a $100 fee to do so. To some the mountain should be available to all people and accessible without having to pay to hike. There is actually an ABC (All But Culebra) club that adamantly refuses to pay the fee and ultimately forego the summit. In addition to the fee, the land on which this mountain lies has an even longer controversial history behind its privatization and the owners of the land, which only fuels the fire for some.
I personally didn’t like the idea of paying for a climb initially. However, the more I thought about it, the more amenable I became to it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like paying $100 ($150 since I also hiked Red Mountain) to hike a 14er. I was able to justify it because I pay money to hike every mountain. It may be not be in the form of an entrance fee so to speak, but I pay money in gas, supplies, food, etc. I also realize this mountain is on private property. I recognize the owner doesn’t have to permit people onto his property like other previous owners have restricted. Sometimes there is a cost for admittance. Some people will pay to go see a movie, I may pay to go hike a mountain. The money is supposedly utilized to maintain the roads and property. Usage by hikers can cause damage and I have seen the impacts on almost every hike I have completed to date. There is a cost associated with the impact I leave (although I always try to minimize it to fullest extent possible) so I figured this may offset it. Finally and most importantly to me, it is a ranked 14er in Colorado. My journey is to climb them all, this one just happens to cost me $100. This is how I rationalized and some may disagree with it. Nonetheless, it was my $100 and my decision. I chose to hike Culebra Peak.
In addition to Culebra Peak, I also planned to hike to the top of Red Mountain, which also sits within the Cielo Vista Ranch. Red Mountain’s summit sits at 13,908 feet and is one of the 100 highest peaks in Colorado. I decided to hike Red Mountain for a few reasons. The first was my climbing partner was planning on doing it so I figured he could use the company and I didn’t want him to hike it alone (good excuse right). Second, I love summits and I thought it would be great to see Culebra from a different vantage point and perspective. My third reason was that I may be thinking of the future. I have thought very little about what I will do when I finish the 14ers of Colorado. In my forecasting, the next logical step would be to hike to summits of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks. I have not decided on that yet, but I knew I didn’t want to come back and pay another fee to hike Red Mountain if I choose that goal. The first two reasons were more than enough.
In order to hike Culebra Peak, you have to make a reservation with Cielo Vista Ranch. Aaron took the initiative over a month ago to reserve our spot for Sunday, June 27th. This was his 30th birthday present and was also going to be his 30th peak. We would also come to find out that this was opening weekend as the ranch limits hiking between late June and early September.
This mountain was so much different than any other hike from the start. In order to access the mountain, you had to be at the North Gate outside of Chama, Colorado. I had never heard of Chama either but it had a sheriff and a post office so it is legit. The nearest town is San Luis, Colorado, which is the oldest town in Colorado…they have painted white rocks on the side of a mountain to prove it. We arrived at the North Gate at 5:10 am after starting our day at 1:30 am. The gate doesn’t open until 6:00 when Carlos, the property manager, arrives to let the congregation of hikers in. When we arrived there were already 6 other vehicles waiting. The property allows you to camp in the direct vicinity of the gate and numerous people had taken advantage of the opportunity. The campers were packing up their gear, starting their coffee and eagerly awaiting the opening of the gate.
At 5 minutes till 6:00 am, Carlos arrived on schedule, ready to do his normal routine. We all piled into our cars and one by one made our way through the like cattle being herded into the stable. The only difference was we had to pay to enter. It was odd to me to pull up to Carlos, hand him our waiver form, and proceed to pay him our $100. I hadn’t experienced this on any other peak and I am thankful that all of the 14ers don’t begin like this. From the gate, we were directed to one of the properties cabin were we would wait for everyone to enter and for Carlos to provide us a brief disclaimer speech. As Carlos conveyed the requirements about the mountain, how we needed to sign out and the property disclaimers, I could tell that all of the people standing around were eager to hike. I know Carlos didn’t have my undivided attention as I wanted to be hiking. I understand it was protocol but I was ready. After the 5 minute spiel, we once again headed to our individual cars and then left together for the trailhead above.
The 4WD road to the trailhead was in decent shape. There were some very steep sections and the road base was loose but manageable. Although a 4WD vehicle may not have been required, it was comforting to know we had it. One by one the ten or so vehicles moved up the road toward the trailhead. Carlos had said to follow your way through the aspen grove. We didn’t realize how amazing the aspen grove was. It was along several miles of the road, dense and absolutely beautiful as the rising sun flickered through the enormous grove. We passed the 4 Way Trailhead and drove to the upper trailhead at 11,560 feet since we were planning on hiking the two mountains.
We arrived at the trailhead at 6:45 am; 5 hours and 15 minutes after starting our day. We assembled our things quickly since we just wanted to get started. Waiting almost two hours from when we arrived was a little frustrating as I have never had to wait to start hiking like I did today or go through motions like this before. We began from the trailhead at 6:50 and were leading the way up the mountain. Up on the ridge, near 13,000 feet, we could see about fifteen elk high above looking down.
Although we couldn’t see the summit, Aaron and I looked up at the face of the mountain and contemplated our route. We were encouraged to not walk on beaten paths and to spread out to prevent creating defined trails. There were three general routes leading to the large cairn at 13,400 feet and we decided to go straight up the face along the route identified in Gerry Roach’s book. It was the most direct route and required a quicker vertical gain due to the shorter distance. In order to hike both Culebra Peak and Red Mountain our route would require approximately 8.0 miles roundtrip and approximately 4,000 vertical feet of elevation gain.
This mountain was different. It was pristine. The vegetation was lush. There was not a defined trail guiding one up the mountain. From the trailhead the elevation gain was quick. We crossed a small stream and passed the few remaining trees that were scattered at treeline. I really enjoyed choosing my own path up the mountain and having the flexibility to go wherever my heart desired. As we proceeded up the mountain, the elk on the upper ridged dispersed to the south and four additional elk, including an incredible buck with 8 to 10 points, traversed the mountain to join the larger group. The morning was crisp and clear and this scenic start added to my excitement of the hike and removed any frustration I once had in the slow start.
As we lead the way up the ridgeline for Culebra Peak, a group of four individuals were steadily approaching us from below with the one in the lead gaining space between his friends. I was making a good pace up the mountain but I think this group was determined to pass us and summit the mountain first. Aaron and I would take quick breathers and before I knew it, John, the lead in the trailing group, caught up to us. He was working hard and beads of sweat were dripping on his eyeglasses. I had conversed with John and his group as we waited for the gate to open. John, Aaron and I pushed together toward the large cairn where we would soon wait for the remainder of our parties. John was a really nice guy and I would end up hiking a good portion of the hike with him.
Aaron, John and I arrived at the large cairn along the snake like ridgeline. The ridge for Culebra, which name in Spanish stands for “harmless snake”, gives its name as it is curvy and winds from north to south. From the large cairn, which lies at approximately 13,400 feet, a good portion of the hike was completed. By hiking straight up the face we eliminated a large portion of distance the other routes required. The large cairn provided a great vantage point of the false summit. Hiking the other routes, which had more hiking along the ridgeline to the north and east, allowed you to see the actual summit; however, from the large cairn you could only see the false summit. This was deceiving to a lot of hikers who thought the false summit was actually Culebra Peak. I thought that maybe I would hike the entire ridge on the way down so I could see the true summit and false summit together.
Aaron and I proceeded ahead of John as he waited for all his friends. From the large cairn we would descend approximately 100 feet before the last big push up the false summit. This hike up to this point wasn’t too difficult and we were making really good time too. I had moved ahead of Aaron slightly and began making my way up the mountain by myself. I really like this. A huge part of me embraces the feeling of being free and this mountain truly provided it. I typically feel this way when I am on any mountain but I think this once was a little different. It was invigorating to lead. I got to choose my own path, which was liberating. I moved at my own pace, which energized me. I felt I had nothing holding me back. I was free.
I waited for Aaron near the top of the false summit. John quickly reconnected with me again while his group fell behind. He was also motivated to get to the top and I respected that. John and I would soon hike together from the false summit to the true summit, with Aaron directly behind us. I enjoyed conversing with John and hearing about some of his experiences, his faith, and stories of his hikes. John and his group of friends have been climbing several peaks over numerous years and had summited Mount Lindsay the day before. John and his friend Joel were close to finishing the Colorado 14ers. I also enjoyed sharing my story and my faith with John as well. Thanks for sharing your about your experiences and listening to my testimony John!
John and I arrived at the summit of Culebra Peak at 8:45 am. It took me less than two hours to hike 3 miles up to the summit. We enjoyed the mountain with its beauty and peace for about 5 minutes before Aaron arrived. I enjoyed its incredible view. The remainder of John’s group shortly joined him on the summit. It wasn’t long before I was enjoying my Fat Tire. One of John’s friends said to me “Oh! You’re the Fat Tire guy!” He had come across my blog and trip report of one of my previous hikes.
Aaron and I didn’t spend too much time on the summit because we had Red Mountain still ahead of us. We said our goodbyes and left the summit of Culebra Peak at 9:05 p.m. to begin our traverse. The hike over to Red Mountain was approximately 1 mile and would require almost 500 feet of vertical gain. We dropped into the saddle at approximately 13,500 feet quickly. The entire hike over to Red Mountain comprised of talus and scree. I noticed on the ascent up Red Mountain there was more of a defined trail leading to the summit than on Culebra Peak. I was surprised by this since the hike up the more popular Culebra Peak showed only minor signs of defined trails. I imagine the trail was more noticeable because of the looser, smaller material that consolidated as we walked over it.
On the talus and ascent of Red Mountain, I was amazed to see a butterfly at approximately 13.800 feet. I would have never imagined seeing a butterfly at that elevation. It was alive but didn’t seem healthy; possibly due to the lack of oxygen.
We arrived at the summit of Red Mountain at 9:50 am. This was my first Centennial Summit that was not a 14er. Aaron regrettably opened the canister that was on top of the summit. The paper was wet and it said “please don’t pee on”. Not sure if it was urine but he wasn’t too happy about opening his first canister. I luckily had some hand sanitizer and was a good friend. Although, I think it would have been funny to see him walk back to my truck with his hands in the air like he was air drying them. Sometimes I labor over the decision to be a good friend (not really). On the summit of Red Mountain we had a great perspective of Culebra Peak and the individuals we started the day with. We could see fellow hikers on the summit of Culebra Peak, a couple individuals beginning the traverse over to Red and several individuals still walking the ridgeline towards Culebra.
We didn’t stay too long on the summit because dark clouds were forming to the north and south of us. No lightning, just dark clouds and some rain. I had checked the weather the evening before to be safe and to verify what conditions I should anticipate. The weather forecast stated a 40% chance of thunderstorms after noon. It was ten o’clock in the morning and the clouds were developing. However, I didn’t feel nervous about the clouds because they were moving east, the breeze was easterly and the sky was clear to the west. It was an easy decision to keep moving since the weather was changing and because our descent off the mountains would require us to regain the ridge along Culebra Peak.
When we arrived back into the saddle between Culebra and Red Mountain, Aaron and I contemplated our route. We didn’t think regaining the summit of Culebra was advantageous since it would require additional elevation gain and would increase the distance. We decided to traverse starting slightly above the saddle and complete a more diagonal route to regain the ridgeline below the summit. The ascent back up to the ridgeline would require some traversing over talus but we liked the different route. We also encountered the two men headed over to Red Mountain. I think they were the only other individuals in our party of 20+ to attempt Red Mountain.
Along the traverse we couldn’t see the weather to the north and south of us since we were below Culebra Peak’s ridgeline and Red Mountain’s summit. The hiking was a little more arduous as it was large boulders that were loose. The exposure was minimal but I needed to make sure I had good footing on a boulder because some would move under your feet. From our vantage point we could see people continuing their ascent to the top of Culebra Peak. We quickly made the Class II scrambling to the ridgeline.
We regained the ridgeline at approximately 10:50. We could see about twelve people from our position; three individuals resting on the summit of Culebra Peak, a group of four beginning there descent from the summit, three individuals were still making their way towards the summit, and the two individuals we encountered in the saddle beginning there descent from Red Mountain. This illustrated how people move at different paces and it wasn’t a race to the top. I was happy that there were other people who could enjoy this mountain in their own way.
Aaron and I moved steadily down the mountain. On our descent of the false summit we encountered a father, his daughter and his son still pushing their way to the top. His daughter was likely 13 and his son was probably 10. Like several hikers that day, I do not think they realized that the summit they were looking at wasn’t the true summit though. They were further behind everyone else because his rental SUV couldn’t make it up the 4WD road. The father had indicated that they had parked an additional two miles below the 4 Way Trailhead. That was a lot of extra steps for those kids. The weather was really beginning to be questionable and I am not sure those kids had the proper attire for a rainstorm. After we passed them, Aaron asked a question to me “I wonder how many people push to the summit because they paid to climb this mountain?” That statement would be a question that I would take to heart very quickly.
We were charging down the mountain towards the large cairn at 13,400 feet when it started to sprinkle. We were less than a few hundred feet away when I heard my first sound of thunder but it was still in the distance and miles away. When we arrived at the large cairn, I decided I wanted to stop and put my raincoat on. It began to grapple and I suspiciously observed that the grapple was moving east to west. The storms that were once to the north and south converged east of Culebra Peak and instead of progressing west, the convergence pushed the storm back on us. Up to this point and throughout the entire hike, I never felt in danger. All of a sudden that changed and all hell literally broke loss!
As I paused to begin taking off my backpack to obtain my jacket, my hair abruptly stood straight up. This was a strange feeling; almost like a numbing sensation. In this split second I was truly perplexed. My mind drew a complete blank. That may sound weird to you, because it sounds weird to me as I write this and I really can’t explain it other than that. As I reached up to feel my hair and examine what was occurring I proceeded to also look at Aaron. This is when my dumbfounded mind became clear and my emotion turned to straight up fear.
As I turned to look at Aaron, he was standing there waiting for me when all of sudden he began to turn around to look behind him. Aaron’s trekking poles were in his backpack with the end of his poles pointing up to the sky. I think he heard a buzzing noise because he began to say “what the ….!” The buzzing was coming from his trekking poles and the electricity in the air. I watched in one continuous motion how he attempted to take off his backpack, while turning to look back, and while opening his mouth to talk. Aaron could not get off his backpack quick enough. He literally was trying to pull it off but the safety clips were holding his backpack in place. He then proceeded to lift up his right foot to turn when the electrical current in his poles arched. His poles literally arched! Not a fun thing to see! The current then traveled along his body and through his left leg into the ground. He yelled and proceeded to through his backpack down the mountain. We ran!
Before I continue, I think it is important to state that I am not naïve about static electricity or know how it can affect the body. I gained knowledge from the childhood experiments in science class, my trips to museum, the rubbing my feet on the ground and shocking a girlfriend for a laugh, and my college courses in physics and electrical engineering. I wasn’t naïve but I will also admit I don’t know everything. This mountain changed so quickly. From the moment my hair stood up to Aaron’s poles arching and him throwing his backpack off the mountain was likely 15 seconds. I was completely surprised in this moment. There was not any lightning or thunder nearby before it overpowered us.
From that moment forward, thunder cracked all around us. We ran down from the ridgeline as fast as we could. I felt like we were sprinting but unfortunately moving down a mountain quickly is difficult. I was scared from the inside out. The fear caused me to move quicker than I ever have before but I just felt I couldn’t move fast enough. It was like one of those scenes in a horror movie or a bad dream where you feel like you are being chased. No matter how fast you run, how clever you thing you are, it is still chasing you. That feeling of panic, of trepidation, is one of the worst feelings I think I have ever experienced and this wasn’t a bad dream.
As the thunder continued to overwhelm us and we swiftly moved down the mountain, the grapple increased in size and intensified. For those who are unfamiliar with grapple, it is circular like hail but comprised of snow. It is like a snow pellet. The grapple hurt when it hit. At this point the grapple was about pea-size in diameter. It was the largest grapple I had ever experienced. It also made the vegetation extremely slick. I fell twice while I charged down the mountain and my footing slid out from under me. During one of those falls, I hit my tailbone firmly on a solid rock. As I put the final touches on this write-up a couple weeks later (sometimes life makes it difficult for me to complete my write-up sooner), my tailbone still hurts and the pain was present when I hiked to the top of Mount Antero on Saturday, July 10th. The pain at the time was drowned out by the continuous thunder and the adrenaline surging through my body.
The mountain changed instantaneously. The mountain that I thought was peaceful and beautiful hours earlier became frightening and dangerous. The clear blue skies turned to a dark vivid purple with an automatic shotgun continually shooting pellets at me. The tranquil mountain that generated only the occasional chirp from inhospitable marmots now unleashed a relentless, persistent fury of thunder that engulfed me. The pleasing, pristine vegetation that I delighted in and valued while hiking up the mountain became slippery and untrustworthy. I now realized this more than I ever had before, the mountain changed and it demanded my full attention and respect.
Aaron and I spread out but we just kept moving. Aaron would alternate hands as he dragged his backpack behind him while moving down the mountain. Neither of us was stopping. The more we descended, the more distance we increased between the cloud and us. Although the thunder was unwavering, I never saw an air to ground lightning strike. I didn’t rationally think about it then, but moving down the mountain and increasing our distance from the electrified clouds was probably the best move we could make. The further we moved down, the less electricity I could feel. I don’t know scientifically that I am right with my thinking then and now and it is likely something I will do more research on over the coming weeks.
From the onset of the electrical storm, my hands tingled and felt numb. They continued to do so as we descended. I am not sure if the feeling was due to my poles. I have my suspicions that it was but I am not completely positive. I continued to use my poles sporadically as we descended. I was really confused with what to do with them. I didn’t want to put them in my backpack due to what I had just seen with Aaron’s poles and since it would require me to stop. However, I didn’t want to use them because I felt like they were lightning rods. I decided to reduce the size of them, making them as small as I could, and then carrying them. I would utilize one for stability further down the mountain and after two falls. In hind sight, I should have thrown them down the mountain or just left them instead of carrying them. By the way, I completed some research since this incident on the best type of material for trekking poles. I currently have mediocre trekking poles made with aluminum. They are nothing fancy but get the job done. I started my research thinking the more expensive trekking poles made of carbon fiber would likely be better. I found out that carbon fiber isn’t really a safer material and that all types of trekking poles made from any type of metal is bad…I guess common sense. However, it was good to do some additional research. Like I told everyone last time, I am willing to spend the money for better gear if it reduces risk and could aide in my safe return. I basically learned from this research that avoiding lightning all together is the best scenario.
Aaron and I didn’t stop moving fast until we were back to the trailhead. About a 0.25 mile away from the trailhead we encountered two additional hikers descending. They weren’t moving at our pace and I think looked at us like why the overdramatic rush. We told them what happened and they understood the apprehension in our faces and the anxiety in our pace. They were further relieved in their own decision to forgo their hike to Red Mountain even though they paid for it considering the difference minutes made on this peak.
Aaron and I arrived back at the trailhead at 12:10 pm. Relief in my heightened emotions finally began to settle. Although we were back at the trailhead, I still didn’t feel completely safe. I would continue to look to the cloud that was motionless and blanketing the mountain. It would literally take hours for the adrenaline surging through my body to truly subside. Prior to leaving, I would look back at Culebra’s northwest face and nod at it one last time as way of giving that mountain my complete adoration and respect.
As we began to drive away, my keen felling of self preservation turned to wholehearted concern for the 15 or so people still on the mountain. They were all higher up the mountain and the majority of them were not as agile as Aaron and I were. The group of people included the two young children we passed only 15 minutes before the storm hit. My heart truly sank in concern for them. I said a prayer for them and everyone else’s safety and the protection of our Heavenly Father. The evening and days after my climb of Culebra I checked 14ers.com habitually to make certain there was no dreadful news. Through 14ers.com I actually conversed with one of the people in our selected group of hikers that day. This was the individual who I encountered within the saddle between Red Mountain and Culebra Peak during our return to Culebra. He stated that they had a similar experience of poles buzzing. They had to spread out, hide under boulders and wait for the storm to pass. Most importantly, everyone made it off safely.
The ironic thing about my hike up Culebra was reflecting on the wisdom I gained from Mount Massive and hiking with Courtney just a week earlier. If you recall, I talked about my realization of my true objective and my change in priority. My objective is not to necessarily summit but what I gain during both the ascent and descent. My priority shifted from reaching every summit to coming home safely. On my hike of Culebra Peak, I truly questioned whether I was going to make it home safely. Kevin Hayne’s passing was fresh in my mind that late morning and I was fearful that I was in a situation where I would be leaving loved ones behind. That is not a fun feeling to have. In the end, I was fortunate and I made it home safely. However, I took a part of that mountain with me in my heart and my mind.
As I sit here today I know people might criticize me for the situation I was in. They may say, “There were signs but you chose to ignore them”. To those people I do not feel we had done anything drastically unsafe. I still don’t think I did anything unsafe. We would have started earlier if we could, but we weren’t allowed too. Not that it may change anything but I have thought about writing the property managers requesting that they allow people to start earlier for this very reason. I don’t think we could have moved any faster, we were the fastest individuals on the mountain. We could have chosen to not hike over to Red Mountain but it was fairly clear and sunny when we made the traversed. In hindsight, I don’t think we made an unsafe decision. The only decision or choice that would have changed things for us would have been deciding not to climb Red Mountain. We would have been off of Culebra at least 1.5 hours earlier.
I couldn’t have said it any better as I started this write-up that Culebra Peak was a mountain that I love and hate. It is an incredibly beautiful mountain. The mountain is pristine to its core and I wish more of the 14ers in Colorado were in its condition. Culebra Peak provided unique isolation. At the same time, I never want to relive how close I came to lightning. I will never look at a cloud the same way. I walk away with a deeper respect for mountains; to be in awe of both its splendor and fury; an exceptionally unique combination!
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