Free Culebra Peak!

3 Oct 99

By Steve Bremner and Sam the Wolfdog

Some of you are probably wondering how I climbed Culebra in October. After all, Taylor Ranch closed off access in August as they prepare for hunting season and their much more lucrative clients. Taylor Ranch, which owns the property adjoining Culebra to its west, charges climbers $40 a head for the privilege of entering their property. I can't see paying to climb a mountain in Colorado, though the only way to reach Culebra short of a multi-day ridge walk from the north is to cross private lands. That got me thinking. How about an approach from the east? A look at the topos showed a jeep track leading up well over 13,000 feet to the saddle between Red Mountain (13,908') and Culebra Peak.

If you've read my other trip reports you know me for "alternative" routes--see Blanca Peak. , Little Bear, and a trip in the off season to Keet Seel, Arizona. I believe in leaving only my footprints and always haul out extra trash so my presence in these "private" lands has a positive effect. I always leave the wilderness a little better than I found it. And if the owners don't detect my presence what harm is done? Does a tree falling in the woods make a sound if no one is there to hear it? One hand clapping? Whatever.

The approach from the town of Stonewall (named for believe it or not a very impressive natural stone wall--see photo above) begins on Road 13.0, which heads south from the "Picketwire Lodge and Store" (appropriately named given the private property paranoia thereabouts) At a T intersection after 5 or 6 miles I went right on road 12.0, then a mile or so later right again on road 7.0. Soon the road makes a sharp turn left at the gate for "Culebra Mountain Ranch"-- I made the turn and immediately started looking for a spot to hide my car.

fence leading to blanca basin I "stashed" my car behind some brush next to an abandoned house about a quarter mile south from the Culebra Mountain Ranch entrance. I suppose my biggest worry with an old car like mine is it getting towed off for junk! Since I'd noticed a red building inside the ranch and thinking it might be a residence I cross-countried to the south and around the building, passing through two fences--not easy with Sam on the leash and carrying a full pack--before meeting up with the dirt road west of the building. Suddenly I noticed a new house high on a hill south of the road with picture windows facing towards me! Staying behind cover I found a new road leading up to the house and followed until I was sure that was where it went. No one had driven on it since the last rain. Really I saw no evidence of anyone whether footprints or vehicle tracks anywhere "back there". The next day on the way back I just walked directly to the gate before passing under the fence. No one at home at the red building (turned out to just be an empty stable) or at the house on the hill.

Just up the road from the red stables the road branches left, right, and a deteriorating concrete bridge leads straight ahead. I went straight on the road going west. This road was the least maintained, but it went in the direction I wanted to go--west. After half an hour or so the road forked left and across the Vallejos Creek or continued straight along the right side of the creek. The time was 6:30 P.M. and with darkness coming around 7 this time of year I set up camp by the creek.

In this beautiful setting with the babbling brook, absolute solitude and evening shadows lengthening I cooked up a "family pack" of pork chops on one stove and couscous on the other. As for the pork chops I only ate two while Sam ate the other six or seven! Retiring to the tent after stargazing I read from a recent book entitled "War Crimes" by Aryeh Neier--another book in my ongoing effort to understand the mess in former Yugoslavia. This book examines the efforts and rationale behind establishing war crimes tribunals for the Yugoslavian and Rwandan civil wars. It also goes into recent history of WWII and the Nazi and Japanese atrocities, as well as how the emerging democracies in South America dealt with the legacy of their military dictatorships and crimes.Sam works on Pork Chop dinner

I also studied my topo map for the next day's climb. Limited by the USGS topo for Culebra Peak, which didn't extend as far east as I was, I had to employ guess work to ensure I was on the correct jeep track. Before leaving my car though I had a good look at the Colorado Atlas. West Northwest was the direction I needed to go, so the next morning I followed the jeep track along Vallejos Creek.

Thanks to Sam and his "agenda" we got off to a late start, hitting the trail at 0740. I was ready to go by 0645, but Sam decided he was going to take off after a scent. I put him on the leash when he finally showed up.

The jeep track continued alongside the creek in a westerly direction. After crossing the creek a couple of times and an hour or so had gone by we came on this hunter's cabin. I would think it would find some occupiers later this month, once elk season is underway. It didn't look like anyone had driven up the road all summer, though. The jeep track continued west, on occasion disappearing in grassy fields.
Now and then the high peaks would pop up in the distance. The peak to the right turned out to be Red Mountain. At the time I thought it was Culebra. As I hiked west at least two roads branched off to the right. I kept to the westerly track, following the creek.
After 1000 finally the trees became smaller as we neared the timberline. The creek much smaller but no less scenic and delightful carried the melt-off from recent snows above. I followed the track as it continued west, uncertain whether the saddle above was to the left or to the right of Red Mountain.
As we drew closer the cliffs directly west made it clear we were left of Red Mountain. Looking right I could see a clear and easy course to the saddle directly below Red Mountain. I continued on the jeep track, however, which led us slightly left, but ever west and still higher. I reasoned that once the jeep track ended I could then adjust to reach the saddle. No sense going across the scree until absolutely necessary. Soon the track circled around aiming back east again next to a dirty pond--obviously tramped up recently by an elk herd. To the west a grassy steep knoll loomed. We scrambled up hoping for a view from which to plan our route to the saddle. Once on the knoll the choices were to continue west along the spine and towards the cliffs, where it looked easy enough, but you never know, or to drop (lose elevation, gasp!) to the right and ascend what looked like an easy scree climb to the saddle. We dropped and went the easy route. Shortly we had a better view of the route along the spine and it was easy enough. Still we would then have had a longer ridge traverse to the right (north). Once we reached the saddle the wind was cold and steady at about 30 MPH--the less time on that ridge the better as it turned out.

We now had a formidable 1,000' of further elevation to gain to attain Red's summit. The steady hard west 30MPH wind drove me east and below the ridge, where it was almost calm not 20 feet from where the winds raged.

Atop Red, somehow snow or rain had entered the register. I tried to dry it out, but it was probably ruined.

From Red we dropped to maybe 13,000' or so before ascending again to Culebra's 14,047'. The going was easy enough, taking maybe an hour or so. Smog blowing in from the west obscured the views somewhat.
The photo left shows the view west from Culebra's summit. A nice alpine lake is nestled at the foot of the slopes.
After half an hour or so on Culebra, it was time to head down. Not wanting to go back up and over Red, I elected to drop into the drainage between Red and Culebra. The topo showed a jeep track reaching the saddle between Culebra and Red, but I could find absolutely no trace of it.
Clearly my course was directly down and into the drainage. Once below timberline I could hook up with a jeep track shown on the topo heading south and connecting with the Vallejos Creek road. It appeared easy enough, so we proceeded east, losing elevation rapidly through scree and across grass.

Once at treeline an apparent chinook wind had blown down all trees low in the drainage. I wouldn't have enjoyed being there in that moment.

Finally we connected with the jeep track. Like the other jeep tracks, this one had long been out of use. Some of the pine trees growing in the center of the road were taller than me.

The jeep track traversed alongside the east side of Red, just below timberline. After half an hour or so we reached a high point where the road branched right and up the ridge west towards Red, or dropped east. I knew we wanted to drop east towards Vallejos Creek, still Sam pulled willfully in the direction west. Curious to see where this road that was not on the topo ended up, I humored Sam for fifteen minutes of steady hiking up hill towards Red's summit before turning around.

This would have been the best course to have followed from the start. That is, follow the road ascending right from the Vallejos Creek Trail (I marked it with a three stone cairn stack). This road (which I now descended) ascends steeply alongside a dry gulch to an easy ridgeline extending east from Red's summit.

Once on the main Vallejos Creek jeep track I was on familiar ground, but still had a long ways to go. Running much of the way, we finally reached our camp site 10 hours after having left it early that morning. Everything was packed already, so we made haste towards the car as evening darkness drew near.

Approaching my car on the public dirt road (surrounded on both sides by barbed wire fence of course) I noticed some farmers working the hay crop out in the field below my car. Thinking that they would surely spot me walking and might get suspicious of someone hiking with a backpack, I stealthily entered some scrub oak on the opposite side, fighting my way through until I reached the clearing. Two horses from the field across the road stood and stared at us as we desparately flailed through the thick brush. I imagined the farmers wondering what the horses were looking at. Finally I had to make my break across a 150 yard open space. Quickwalking, keeping low, steady as you go, I moved toward my car. Out of the corner of my eye one of the farmers was walking directly towards me, but he was still far away. A dog barked from his truck not 100 feet away. Quickly pushing Sam in the back seat and my pack shortly afterwards, I started the car, revved it (it much prefers warming up slowly) and gunned it out of there. No one followed.