Date Climbed: 2/17/2019
Elevation: 14,047 ft
Cold. Very cold. As we turned on the truck to prepare for the day, the thermometer read a bitter -15F. We were going to need some layers! The opportunity had opened up for us to ski Culebra Peak, the only privately owned 14er in Colorado. The cost? $200 per person. We had a very narrow timeline; just 12 hours to reach the summit and back. Not a problem on skis, unless of course we ran into rocky or unstable terrain. It had been a relatively snowy winter so far this February, and the Avalanche Center called for a Considerable danger above treeline, although we did not expect to find enough snow to worry about on the slopes were were to ski today.
After suiting up, we followed the rancher's truck up to the house where we unloaded all of our gear and clipped into our skis. After some quick instructions and a signature, we made our way up the snowy road just as the sun began to shine behind the peaks. Ahead lay 5,500 feet of elevation and 14 miles roundtrip of untracked snow. In the summer, Culebra is a gentle giant and considered an easy peak with its high trailhead and short mileage. In the middle of winter, however, nothing is ever easy.
We made average progress, slowed by the weight of the skis and the continuous bumps of snow created by the wind. What should have been a quick trip up the road took much longer than anticipated, especially near treeline, and we were racing the clock. Although the day was beautiful (probably the only one we had this winter), it was still bitter, and my feet were numb. After a minor case of frostnip on Aconcagua, my feet have been significantly more susceptible to feeling cold than in the past, and today was no exception.
At treeline, our companion decided to turn around. Anthony and I talked a little and decided to continue on. The path was a bit tricky, trying to avoid the wind-loaded slopes, but not so much that we were walking on loose talus in ski boots. Our progress ground to almost nothing as we realized we had chosen the steepest slope to the ridge, rather than simply adding some mileage for easier terrain. Once on the ridge proper (much later than we'd hoped) we saw we still had a long way to go. In the summer, the ridge is an easy hike with a well defined trail, but in winter there is no trail, and the snow is powder and impossible to walk on top of, making trail-breaking a massive effort.
Our turn around time had to be 4 PM since the contract clearly stated any hikers returning after 7 PM would have to pay for a search and rescue that would be called promptly at that time if they had not returned. Having already paid a couple hundred, we were not about to pay a few thousand because of a time limit. As we slowly made our way to the false summit, we began to realize just what situation we were in. Conditions were fine for a summit, but our time was just too limited. We had taken too long on the approach, and we pushed as hard as was possible given the ski boots and deep snow. Sadly, we could not simply ski around the ridge either as it was just shallow enough that skis would not work.
Upon reaching the only false summit, just a few hundred yards from the summit, the clock struck 4 PM. Our time limit had expired, and we had to turn around. We radioed our friend back at the ranch, hoping to get permission for a time extension, but he was out of range. We were on our own and had to decide: hike a few hundred feet horizontally to summit and risk a few thousand dollars? Or turn around without truly standing on the summit.
We opted to save the money and descend. Disappointment filled each of us, knowing we had the ability to make it, but not the legal amount of time. Once back where we had stashed our skis, we had an opportunity to discuss what that might mean for the future.
For myself, I believe we had summited. Nothing more than a technicality prevented us from making it that day, and paying another $200 just to say we walked a few hundred feet further is not justifiable. In fact, most 14er finishers do not count Culebra on their list out of principal. Many peak baggers view Culebra (and espescially its owner) with contempt for that very reason. I'm not writing this blog in order to take a stance on this position one way or the other, but due to its inflated price, I will count its summit as "tagged" on my list.
Once we had clipped back into our skis, we made a plan for the ski descent, going one at a time so as to reduce the chances of an avalanche catching both of us. The snow was wind-blasted and hard, leading us to believe there might be a chance of windslab, should we venture too far into the wrong aspect. Although the descent was quick and uneventful, my understanding is that Anthony had heard a loud crack underneath the snow just as I exited the steepest part of the slope. Our theory is that I had collapsed the weak layer underneath, but the slope had not been steep enough to slide (thankfully). Once in the bowl and back on the road, we raced down the uneven and choppy snow conditions, hoping to make the cutoff.
The relatively flat and powdery snow conditions lower on the approach made for a very tough ski descent, with certain stretches lasting a few hundred yards, forcing us to detach our skis or pole our way across. At one point, I must have been going close to 30 or 40 mph, trying to keep the momentum up enough to get through any flat sections, but barely having any control on the narrow and now ski tracked road. At one point I caught an edge and took a hard fall. Thankfully, no injuries, but Anthony had fallen far behind. I made it back to the ranch just as the sunlight faded and the watch rang 7.
Of course, it was at this moment that our companion welcomed me back asking how the peak had been. It was from this conversation I learned that the ranch staff had told him we could have a time extension if we needed (a little late!). Whatever. As far as I was concerned, we summited. ten minutes later or so, Anthony showed up, covered in snow. He too had a hard time with the ski lines we had left behind on the road. Regardless, we had all returned unhurt and hungry. We quickly changed and made our way back to the nearest fast food we could find. A long winter day was behind us, and another 14er had been checked off the list.