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|August 21-27, 2008
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Unlocking the gate
Culebra: Beyond the gate of the only private 14er in the country
by Dave Philipps
Culebra Peak is the only 14,000-foot peak where climbers start by waiting for the guard to unlock the gate.
The mountain, which rises above the town of San Luis, just north of the New Mexico border, is the only fourteener in North America that lies entirely on private land. It sits in the middle of the 77,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch. Anyone who wants to climb it must make a reservation, show up at the ranch gate promptly at 6 a.m. and present a check for $100, payable to the Texas millionaire who owns the place.
It would make sense that almost no one would bother. After all, Colorado has hundreds of free mountains that are just as grand.
But something beyond economics is at work on Culebra — a hard-to-fathom force that drives people to rise at 4 a.m. on their days off; a force that sends them to exposed ridges during the height of lightning season; a force that packs some summits with crowds while mountains next door go unvisited for months on end.
That force is the fourteener list, a roster of 54 peaks that many people feel they need to climb to be a true climber in Colorado.
There is no denying the power of the list. Thousands of people in the state have dedicated themselves to chisel it down, summer by summer. On August weekends, the list can drive 2,000 hikers to climb a single summit.
“It’s ridiculous, I know,” said Kathy Eans, a teacher from Woodland Park, Colo., who showed up on a recent Saturday to climb Culebra. Like many people, she climbed her first fourteener, got hooked and decided to try to climb them all. She stopped awhile ago at a point climbers call ABC — all but Culebra.
“I didn’t think I would do Culebra. It didn’t matter that much to me. I certainly didn’t want to pay the money,” she said. But that list with one unchecked box kept nagging at her until she caved, booked a trip and showed up at the hefty steel gate.
A ranch hand pulled up in a white pickup just as the sky was growing light. He unlocked the gate, collected a stack of $100 checks and reminded everyone to check out at the ranch office on the way down or face an additional rescue fee.
The group drove up a narrow, dusty road.
There was a couple who had just flown in from Indiana to bag their 42nd fourteener. There was Eans. And there was the Yukman family — mom, dad and son — from Colorado Springs, who hope to bag all the fourteeners one day.
“We’ve climbed 36,” said the dad, Tom Yukman. “I knew we’d have to do this one eventually. So I figured we should do it now before they change the rules or raise the price.”
The rules have changed with every landowner. And Culebra has had many.
The private status reaches all the way back to before Colorado was a state, when the land was given as a private gift from the Mexican government to a few local aristocrats.
The land grant, with Culebra as its main landmark, changed hands several times over the generations. Access rules have varied from free, to a moderate fee, to no entry at any price.
In 2004, Texas rancher and land speculator Bobby Hill and partners bought the ranch for $40 million.
Hill also owns a 65,000-acre ranch next door, a ranch in Glen Rose, Texas, and part of a ranch in New Zealand. He visits Cielo Vista a few weeks a year and has never been to the summit of Culebra.
“Maybe you’ll get me up there in a helicopter one day,” Hill said recently over the phone in a slow, Texas drawl. “But I don’t want to hike it and die up there.”
He opened the mountain to 40 hikers per weekend during the summer, with an option for special groups during the week. For the climb, he charges what he considers a fair price.
“If folks don’t like the fact that they have to pay $100, I really don’t mind that,” Hill said. “They weren’t around when it was time to write a check for the ranch, so there you go.”
So far, hikers have been more than willing. Most weekends fill at least a month in advance.
Hill said charging keeps the number of hikers low, but ensures that everyone who wants to summit can.
Generally, climbers put off the mountain until they have crossed off most of the list. Most never make it, so the mountain is rarely climbed. On a list of the most often-climbed summits at 14ers.com, Culebra ranks No. 51.
There is no trail up Culebra Peak. There isn’t enough traffic to make one.
The climbers drove up a steep logging road to 11,200 feet and stepped into a grassy alpine bowl. On a ridge 2,000 feet above, wind coursing over the rocks whipped up vapor trails.
A herd of 50 elk grazing in the bowl saw the hikers and beat a hasty retreat over the ridge. Birds flitted across the fields of alpine lowers.
There were no braids of social trails strung with the bright-colored beads of other hikers trudging to the top. There was just the grassy mountain face, as ancient-looking and unspoiled as it must have been before the land grant.
“This is probably the last time in the history of the world that you will find a fourteener so pristine,” said T.J. Rapoport, former director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a nonprofit that builds sustainable trails on fourteeners. “The fourteeners get pounded by hikers, but because it is private, this one doesn’t.”
The hiking group headed up through the grass, spreading out to disperse their impact on the tundra.
At the ridge, a thick mist shrouding the ridge lifted momentarily to offer a glimpse of Culebra’s rounded summit.
It didn’t look much different from Mount Elbert, or Mount Antero, or Mount Sherman, or any number of other huge, walk-up piles of rock that comprise the majority of the fourteeners.
Culebra isn’t known for being a particularly challenging climb.
“The big difference is how pristine it is,” said Patrick Yukman, 16, as he walked along the ridge. “We’re the only ones here. It’s totally unspoiled.”
A few steps later, he startled a family of ptarmigans. The gray, perfectly camouflaged mother scampered down across the rocks with her stone-colored brood.
An hour later, the party started to trickle to the top. First Patrick, then his parents, then the folks from Indiana.
At the top, the subject of the fourteener list came up. Sure, it might seem superficial to climb a group of mountains just because they meet a certain criteria, they said, but in the process of driving to each peak, camping out, watching the stars, rising early, reading the sky for storms, and struggling up loose, exposed ridges, wonderful things can happen.
“The list gets you out to places you might never get to,” said Tom Yukman.
“And when you get down,” Patrick’s mom, Sandi Yukman said, “You can eat anything you want.”
Just then, the teacher from Woodland Park came over a ridge. She was steps away from completing her last fourteener.
The group on top started clapping as she neared. There were high fives. Her climbing partner, Armando Quintana, whipped out a surprise he’d been hiding in his pack: two bottles of champagne and enough glasses for everyone.
“Congratulations! You’re done,” someone yelled.
Eans, the teacher, smiled. She’d been climbing mountains long enough to know the real power of the fourteener list: By the time you’re done with the list, you’re hooked for life.
“You’re never really done,” she said. “You just move on to other mountains and keep going until you die.”
CLIMB CULEBRA PEAK
The $100 hike: 7 miles round-trip, 3,200 feet elevation gain
Climbing season: Weekends or by arrangement, July 1-Aug. 31
More route information: 14ers.com
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