TO GO WHERE THERE ARE NO TRAILS: WHAT IT’S LIKE TO CLIMB A PRIVATE 14ER
By: Natalie Magee | Yogi Magee Expeditions | Yogimagee.com
Culebra Peak is the only privately owned 14er in Colorado. Once a year for two short months, the Texan who owns the land opens the gates to hikers. There's no set calendar date his website launches for sign up but rather "around May 10th." My adventure wife Dawnelle had read the book I'd given her, "Halfway to Heaven," about a guy who hikes all the 14ers in one summer and decided Culebra was the one mountain she'd climb with me. The $150 price tag was her motivation to hike with me, she thought it'd be unique to conquer a mountain with no trails.
You don't turn down an offer like that.
The only options for hiking Culebra are Friday - Sunday in June and July so it's a very short window to pick a date. I read rants on 14ers.com about people who were upset they didn't get a chance to get a permit and I didn’t want to be that person. Last year, I had been checking the website every day in May and was sure I wasn't going to miss my chance. I remember sitting at lunch by myself and nearly choking on my food looking at Cielo Vista Ranch's site last May and saw a few dates were available in June and July. I called Dawnelle and asked if she was still in as quick as my fingers would dial and I booked our Friday spots right away.
We had permits. We were in.
Hiking a private mountain is the most surreal thing I've ever experienced. I'm accustomed to permits and registration fees and following state and federal land laws and treading lightly. I've never paid a private party for the experience of checking a mountain off my list of 58 peaks. We drove almost clear to Taos, New Mexico and showed up at the gates of the ranch the Thursday before the hike. According to instructions, the ranch hand would be there at 6 am sharp Friday to open the gates and if you weren't there you were left behind. We weren't sure where to camp because beyond the gate was a sign that said, "Camping" and a port-a-potty but there was also a no trespassing sign on the gate. Which one made more sense? There is no cell phone service at the ranch so we drove back into the tiny town of Crestone and checked websites for any clue on where to unpack our tent. After much debate, we concluded that we were allowed to camp inside the gate so we drove back and set up our site.
There were no other cars. There was only a tiny sign on the gate saying Cielo Vista Ranch. I knew the ranch only granted 25 permits a day and since Friday was sold out I figured there had to be more people arriving. We tailgated at my truck, made dinner and hung out until finally, a few more cars showed up. No one camped but us and one gentleman even refused our offer of hamburgers and beer at our tailgate. You'd think a small group of people that were all there for the same reason would have more interaction but people were treating it more like the night before the Hunger Games.
At 5:30 am Ron arrived. He's a Carhart, cowboy hat and boot wearing ranch hand who's got the fortunate job of working for a bunch of lawyers at Cielo Vista. His job is to let us in, keep dogs out, collect proof of payment and make sure we don't cause him any trouble. We all followed him to a tiny cabin with sparse furniture and crowded around a table while he gave us the lowdown. Dawnelle and I were the only ones who made coffee before we left camp and the others were eyeing us suspiciously. I made friends with Ron in the parking lot though because he was impressed by my huge Ford truck and the fact we were the only ones who camped.
"People who sleep in their cars are dumb" he remarks.
"Make sure you sign out, " he tells us at what feels like an awkward first day of camp. "I've got a lot to do and I don't want to be out looking for you while you're home drinking coffee."
Then he turns us loose.
Let me tell you what it's like to hike a mountain with no trails - it's like watching children being turned loose on a playground. Part of what makes this mountain so special is they only allow 25 people a day for three days a week two months of the year. They prefer no one follow one another because they'd rather not see the mountain be destroyed. It sounds counterproductive, but it's actually brilliant. You see, on public 14ers, a group call the CFI maintains the trails. Over time the trails become bigger because people don't walk in single file lines. When rain and water start to flow down these trails and make them muddy, people are more likely to go off trail. The more people who frequent a trail, the wider it becomes, and the more the mountain is impacted. The CFI will then go in, reroute the trails, and close the old one to let the ground have time to heal which can take years.
No trails means you're welcome to climb wherever you like. We saw people to the left and right and decided that the most direct route was straight up. It had rained the night before and the fog lingered in the morning. Ron had asked us if we all had GPS because people would regularly follow the wrong drainage down in low visibility and put themselves 13 miles off track. I certainly didn't want to be lost on this private property but I also didn't have a GPS so I did the next best thing - photographing our route up. Other 14ers have cairns built to show the way, but on this one all but one is forbidden. At the very top of the initial climb, before you started the ridge walk, there was a very large cairn that Ron told us marked the way down towards the parking lot.
"Don't down climb before the cairn, " he said. "You might end up in New Mexico.
Despite starting after everyone else since we parked at the lower lot, we started passing people once we reached the ridge. The clouds were coming and going but no threatening thunder so we pushed on. The thing about paying for a mountain climb, one you undertake without a guide, is that there's a part of your brain that tells you to press forward. You can't get a refund for rain so you might as well go as long as you can as far as you can as safe as you can. There wouldn't be a second chance. Once past the grassy initial climb the traverse over the boulders and rocks became clear. We climbed until we were in the clouds and visibility was gone.
Out of the mist, we saw a girl approaching us. "Is this the top?" we asked.
No, she said, we still had another 20 minutes to go. Onward we climbed into the fog until we determined, via a rock wind shelter, that this was, indeed, the top. Our initial plan was to hike the Centennial Red Mountain via the connecting ridge but the weather wasn't holding out for us. Dawnelle had forgotten gloves and was wearing my socks as gloves and her minimalist shoes had become wet so her feet were cold. The wind was howling around us and clouds were moving in and out. When you're not hiking a popular peak there aren't the crowds you'd normally see so you have to consider if you get lost or stuck how long will it be before anyone notices?
So we climbed down.
Despite not being a technical peak, Culebra was certainly a challenge. No trails means no solid ground through the tundra and we found ourselves sidestepping rocks and marmot holes that one wouldn't normally have to worry about. The grass was slick so I took to walking in a zig-zag pattern on the way down to mimic switchbacking. Fortunately, the clouds had started to clear enough that the parking lot was in my line of site which took the guesswork on the downclimb. It took about 5 hours round-trip for us to climb and though I would have liked to start earlier you really have no choice because the ranch chooses the 6am time. We met a couple on our way down who gave us a ride to our car then we had lunch before packing up and signing out at the cabin. On the sign out sheet is the printed code to unlock the gate which you must manually do yourself on the way out. The wet dirt road we traveled on made me glad I'd brought my truck with 4wd or we would have never made it to the trail head that morning. Driving home took longer than the hike and as afternoon clouds rolled in I looked at the Crestone's driving by and was glad we weren't on a more treacherous peak.
So was it worth it? To me, absolutely. To have the chance to hike a 14er that could, at any given time be closed off to the public forever was worth the $150. The sense of solitude you have on a peak that only 23 other people are climbing that day, all through their own routes is unlike any other peak I've experienced. If you're going to hike all the 14ers or just want a special experience I'd say the drive, the primitive camping and the cost to get there are all validated. My only regret is the mountain is only open to hunters in the fall because the surrounding aspens on the property would make a beautiful fall colors hike. I'm so thankful I have someone in my life willing to take upon a journey such as Culebra Peak. In truth I would have saved it for close to last out of principal for paying for a hike. But then you realize how many other hikes, gorgeous hikes all over the state are free and it suddenly seems like a small price to pay to have the place to yourself.
Who knows, maybe I'll even do it again...