Ski Culebra

This trip got started a couple weeks ago when I got an urgent email from Carl about a date set for a climb of Culebra in a couple weeks; with spots likely to fill fast, I jumped on it. I’m glad that I did, because all 20 spots filled in about four hours. For those of you not familiar with Culebra, it’s the only 14er that’s entirely on private property. During the summer it’s possible to get on the mountain more often than not for a $100 fee, and certainly on weekends. Winter and spring availability is much more limited, and in the past has had a climbing fee of $200-250; this time it was only $100. The original plan was to ski the North Face, assuming good weather. Unfortunately the weather was not good (as seems to be the case with most Culebra ski descents), but we certainly got our $100 worth of adventure. Keep in mind when you’re reading this that most of these photos have been enhanced to de-fog them and make people a bit more visible.

A major spring storm rolled in to Colorado late last week, bringing with it lots of snow. People in their right minds were enjoying an amazing powder day. Nine of us decided to take our shot and chance the weather. Besides, the forecast was for the storm to ease up and clear out by about 2pm, we would just have to fight our way through it most of the day. A few days ago things were dry pretty much to the summer trailhead, which would mean a 7 mile round-trip day with about 3,200′ of vertical. Things changed a bit, so we had a 14 mile day with roughly 5,000′ of vertical. I’d like to think Carl was saying something like “we have to go how far?” in this photo.

Sadly I know better, and he was psyched to get after it, and it was just an oddly timed photo. It was about 6:30 when we were all checked in and paid up, and some snowshoers took off to blaze the trail through 2’+ of fresh snow. Those of us on skis were getting all our gear organized and set until about 6:45.

Despite things being socked in up high, we were optimistic that it would clear soon, since things were sunny down valley a bit.

And we were off.

Even though it was humid and the trees completely blocked the wind, temperatures were remarkably comfortable. The approach through the aspens was beautiful, and it took quite a while to catch up to the two snowshoers leading the way.

But eventually we did, and a few of us started rotating trailbreaking duty. It’s exhausting work, but somehow Jake managed to break trail more than half the way, and made it look effortless. Eventually we came to a clearing, and got a good view of just how poor our view was going to be.

It was still absolutely beautiful and pristine, despite the poor views.

Eventually we came to the Fourway sign, which is close to the summer starting point. A few days ago there was bare ground here; the sign is about five feet tall.

The fog really intensified once we got closer to treeline, but given the difficulties in setting up the climb, getting there, and the fee, we weren’t about to turn back.

At one point I saw the largest rime crystals that I’ve ever seen. Here’s Carl for scale, the crystals were at least 2″ long.

The fog continued to intensify. The closest person in this photo is probably five feet away, the farther somewhere around ten feet.

There was only one way to conclusively know where we were heading today, the modern marvel that is GPS.

Not much later, Carl and I were at the back of the group when he saw something move. “What was that?”

“I think it was a mouse!”

Right then, a very nonplussed mouse, which had been jumping around following us, charged at Carl, nearly hit his ski, then ran back and hid in a hole left by someone’s pole basket. We both busted out laughing at the situation; the poor little mouse was probably extremely confused, as only a couple days prior it was warm, sunny, and grassy, and suddenly there were a couple feet of snow on the ground.

A little bit later I saw something I’d never seen before – rime growing in someone’s hair. Ah, such beautiful weather for a climb.

When we had about 1,200′ to go, there were some comments that people still weren’t confident that they were going to make the summit. Nuts to that, I said we’ve come all this way and we had less than a quarter-mile of vertical left to go. “So you measure vertical in miles now, eh? ‘Oh yeah, easy, that’s only a mile of vert.’ ” More laughs, despite the miserable weather. Onward and upward, closer to the summit.

After a couple false summits, at least one of which certainly would’ve thrown us had we not been navigating by GPS, we made it. And it was cold. Very little time was spent on top by anyone, just enough for me to add another layer, tighten my boots, and snap a couple photos.

Turns off the top!

Carl, with a very unique pole-planting style (I’m sure he was just avoiding some rocks).

The drifting on the slopes below was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was just a huge row of wind lips and walls, and it was like skiing down a bump run where you can’t do anything other than slam into the front of every bump.

The views from lower down were amazing.

But things were still socked in on Culebra.

From here, I was finally able to let the skis run down the track up, for a quick return to the bottom (at last!). When I got there shortly after 5pm (ten and a half hours after starting), I finally surveyed the damage my skis took. Ouch.

It’s time to take the skis in to the shop for some repair work, hopefully they’ll be back and ready to go by next weekend. Despite the time, the money, the misery, and the damaged equipment, I’m still glad I went, and ticked off another 14er descent.

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