| Luck, Perseverance and Stupidity on Culebra
Climb and summit ski descent of Culebra Peak, 2/3/2013
14 mi RT, 5000' climbed and skied (ok, 4967' for picky readers)
Crew: Matt (pioletski) and sundry 14ers.compadres
So... much has been said in this forum about what constitutes a summit ski descent. I have to admit that in the case of Culebra, I am having to bend my own criteria a little and fall back on a strict Clintonian definition of summit ski descent: I descended, from the summit, with skis on. But for the first 300' vert or so, it was a stretch to call it skiing.
The difficulty is that Culebra is so hard to get with snow on it. My understanding from Anna, who put this trip together, is that this will be the only time the ranch management will open up the mountain until the summer hiking season. Thus my dilemma: do I go along on a February trip, knowing full well that the mountain may not be skiable? Do I wait, knowing equally well that I probably won't get another chance this year? (Joke's on me if they do open the mountain for a spring ski trip!)
The weather did look favorable for the last week or so, but there was also a fair amount of wind. The Culebra Snotel site reported a jump from 24 to 32 inches of snow depth between 1/28 and 1/31. I decided to give it a try, and if I found even 2 flakes of snow on the entire mountain then I would billygoat and bunnyhop and make it work somehow. Still, the uncertainty had me pretty stressed out as I drove down the arrow-straight Nazca line known as Highway 17 on Saturday night. Then, at about 10 pm, I saw a brilliant shooting star, and suddenly felt better about the whole situation.
A brief digression about this omen: Silly, yes. Self-fulfilling prophecy, yes. But I have noted that I always enjoy a 14er outing if I see a shooting star the night before or morning of a trip. This is analogous to predicting the weather in New Hampshire. They say that if the cows lie down, then it will rain. It's true: the cows always lie down, and it always rains. By the same token, I (almost) always see a shooting star or two when approaching the mountains, and I always have a good time…
I pulled up to the ranch gate at 4:30 am and took my place in the line of cars. Mr Wilson, the ranch operations manager, arrived punctually at 5:00 and opened the gate. By 5:30 we were checked in, a briefing was delivered, a couple of radios distributed, and we were on the trail. There was a slight halo around the waning crescent moon as we started up the long gradual road. (Apologies, my cigarette-box camera does not take good pictures on low light.) By 7:00 am I was at Four Way; a couple of hikers were ahead of me.
The lower slopes, all the way up to the shoulder at about 13,000 feet, had abundant snow and nice skinning. The ranch people had packed a trail to Four Way with a snowmobile, and the Saturday group had pounded that into a firm trail, so going was easy using short (kicker-sticker) skins. At timberline I took the skis off and booted; most of the folks with snowshoes seemed to prefer traveling without them. View of the Blanca group from the ascent:
Above the 13000' shoulder (home of the giant cairn) it became cold and windy, to the point that I was reluctant to take off a glove to get a picture. Still, I liked what I saw approaching the first false summit (yes, Culebra wears falsies, like so many 14ers). There was enough snow to piece together a decent descent:
Unfortunately, things were really thin above the second false summit:
It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say the upper portion was snow-covered, it was more that the talus blocks were crusted over with rime.
Two of my compadres were at the summit when I arrived, but they didn't want to hang around in the chilly wind any more than I wanted to keep my glove off to take pictures. Here, however, is my boring obligatory shot of my gear at the summit:
View of the Spanish Peaks:
Skis on at the summit cairn/windbreak:
And this, folks, is billygoating at its finest (the "stupidity" referred to in the title). I would slide 5 or 10 feet, step, scrape… If anyone is into Extreme Recycling, there is probably enough P-tex and steel on these rocks to make another pair of skis:
Once past the upper false summit, however, things improved rapidly. Enough snow stuck to the ridgeline to create a reasonable path for skiing. Once I got to the bowl below the 13000' shoulder I was into mixed milled powder and windboard, and skiing was fun (as it's supposed to be). Here's the giant cairn at about 13 grand:
From treeline it was a swift ride down the trail to the ranch. A wonderful trip, if a little ugly at times.
Eight to go, pray for snow!
Thanks for reading. Thanks and kudos to Anna for obtaining permission for this trip. Thanks also to Mr Wilson and Cielo Vista Ranch for letting us be their guests for the day. (For future skiers and winter climbers: the email address to the ranch is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):