Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Operation Dark Snake: a clandestine ascent of Culebra Peark

Operation Dark Snake: The Poaching of Culebra Peak June 28-29, 2014

4:15 AM: it’s the hour before the dawn. I thought we were on our last peak, Mount Maxwell, and ready for a final descent along its east ridge to our vehicles parked at the end of the steep 4-wheel drive track. We had hiked all through the night, after starting at 5 AM the previous morning. I had tried to descend due east, but the way down was hellaciously steep, and then after a few feet it cliffed out. We tried a ramp that descended northerly, thinking it might bend eastwards. No dice. So, we hunkered down under a lip to the east, mostly out of the biting cold wind, and waited for the dawn.

How did we find ourselves in this grim situation? We had started 24 hours before under high spirits. We knew we had a full day ahead of us, but I thought we would finish before nightfall. The task? Climb Mt Maxwell’s east ridge, and then traverse nine 13,000’ peaks along a high ridge for about fifteen miles in order to reach the forbidden fourteener, Culebra Peak, 14,047’, then turn around and retrace our steps.

Culebra Peak is on private land. It is the only one of Colorado’s 54 14,000’ peaks on private land. The “legal” way to climb it is to fork over $150 to the present owners of a massive Spanish Land Grant that once passed hands for a case of whiskey, but in recent history saw $22 million in state funds unable to bring into the public domain. The access point for the “Taylor Ranch” is from the west. I have climbed Culebra four times now, twice from the east and now twice from the north. Both east and west and north and south of the peak for miles and miles is taken up by Spanish Land Grants. I think they are an anachronism and should be either adjusted to allow public access or be roundly abolished.

Now we’re back on the morning of June 28th. We summited Mount Maxwell a few minutes ago; the sun has just risen over the eastern horizon. We are traversing in a southerly direction, towards the next thirteener in a line of nine to go before Culebra. I look down to the east and spot eight bighorn sheep in the basin far below. Chewy the dog makes a half-hearted attempt to run down there, but gives up easily. Surprisingly a solitary hiker joins us, the only other person we would see all day. His name is John and he’s aiming for an obscure unnamed thirteener that is not on our agenda for the day. He lacks about 30 peaks to complete ascents of the more than 700 13,000’ peaks in our fair state. He disappears shortly afterwards, avoiding the summit of Mariquita Peak by skirting around it to the west. He had already “bagged” it on a previous expedition.

We have many more peaks to climb before we can even turn around and head home. We pass Whiskey Pass and I miss it! Wasn’t paying attention, so I didn’t notice the plane wreck from 1999, when near Christmas day a solo flyer hit a down draft forcing a crash landing. He survived and was able to radio for help. Beaubien Peak, Francisco Peak, the mild summit of Lomo Liso Mountain, then a long mild flattish traverse where we drop to 12,500’. The crux of the climb was coming up: Miranda Peak, featuring loose, moving slabs of rock on a steep slope. Not fun for humans or canines. I could see that our party was not moving fast enough. If we didn’t pick up the pace we would certainly be forced to hike through the night. I offered John and Sheila the option to quit then and turn around. I had already climbed Culebra three times. I had nothing to prove. No. They wanted to continue. Okay then. Before Miranda Peak was over and done with we had to traverse a mini-knife edge. Just walk the crack and lean into the mountain. Chewy? Move briskly and don’t look down.

Three more unnamed thirteeners separated us from the summit of Culebra. The penultimate summit was 13,701’ and featured a steep 700’ foot ascent along a ridge. This was the final crux, and we neared the summit of Culebra. When we reached the summit just before 5 PM (remember: we started at 5 AM that morning, so if we did even splits that would mean finishing at 5 AM the next morning) I mistakenly thought that it was a false summit. Farther south on the ridge was another highpoint. John and Sheila were not happy when I said we had to keep going. “Do you want to have come this far and not climb the actual summit?” Well, I was wrong. We added half an hour to our day by continuing along the ridge. On the way back to the real summit I realized that Red Mountain was that red mountain to the southeast. Duh! Sorry guys.

Our next object was to get past Miranda Peak before the lights went out. We knew it would be hard enough in the daylight, but in the dark who knew what problems might ensue. We just succeeded. The sun went down near the summit of Miranda Peak, and I sped ahead to climb the next high point where Sheila had left her poles. After a quick ascent I came back down and met them as they came off Miranda and showed them a traverse that avoided the high point. John would not be so lucky retrieving his poles: he donated them to the next intrepid party to trek this course.

We now had miles to go and several peaks to traverse before we slept. Indeed, we had more adventures ahead of us then we imagined at that time. If all went well, we would traverse Lomo Liso Mountain, Francisco Peak, Beaubien Peak, drop down to Whiskey Pass, then climb back up to DeAnza Peak, descend again and then climb up and over Mariquita Peak before descending then ascending the final summit of Mount Maxwell, after which we would descend its summit along the east ridge to our vehicles. If all went well I anticipated finishing around 5 AM or dawn.

Other factors came into play however. The wind from the west had been persistent all day. As night fell the wind picked up and it was colder. We were all exhausted and the urge to stop and rest was strong. We found spots out of the wind over the ridge to the east (the wind was westerly), but while they were a respite from the biting wind they didn’t bring warmth. We had no choice but to keep moving in order to fend off hypothermia. We had no choice but to keep climbing through the night.

Remember when I said that I thought that we would be done before nightfall? I had a strong headlamp with extra batteries, but I left them in the car to “save weight.” All I had was a handheld flashlight with low batteries that rather quickly went dim. John and Sheila had headlamps but no extra batteries. We had to share. Since I was leading this expedition, John gracefully gave me his headlamp and Sheila and I tried our best to shine the light in John’s path so he could make his way along.

By 10 PM it was dark. Lights out dark. No moon. My Garmin Fenix 2 GPS watch showed low battery, so I turned off the GPS tracking in order to preserve battery for the compass function. We really needed that compass in the dark! By tracking northerly I kept us mostly on track, but occasionally we found ourselves peering over cliffs. “Are we lost?” asked Sheila at one point. Or John asked, “What happens if you can’t guide us back?” I had no response that didn’t stoop to sarcasm, so I mostly ignored the questions.

Up and over Lomo Liso, then Francisco Peak, then Beaubien Peak and the long familiar flat traverse across Whiskey Pass. I was confident that we were on track; by constant consultation with the map and compass we stayed on course. I’m confident that we next ascended DeAnza Peak and started up Mariquita.

The distance between DeAnza and Mariquita was lengthy. Along the way up Mariquita a single-track trail tracked around the west side. We followed it a ways and I vaguely remembered it from my 2010 trek along this same course. I succumbed to doubts however when I noticed the silhouette of what I now know must have been Mariquita to the east. I thought it was Maxwell and to John and Sheila’s chagrin and protests I said we were going the wrong way and that we were going to retrace our steps. John’s feet were killing him, but he pushed gamely on.

Now I could see a silhouette of a peak that I thought was Maxwell. We climbed steadily to its summit where an elaborate wind shelter constructed of stones lent credence to the idea that this was indeed the summit. I checked my bearings on my watch and set our course “due east.” There was a problem with that though! Going due east down the peak was very steep with cliffs! No way! I decided to wait for dawn in about an hour to assess.

When dawn came I was mightily confused because I couldn't identify any of the peaks (except Culebra in the far distance). I wrongly assumed I was north of Maxwell because we had covered a lot of ground. I think when I went off the single track and backtracked we somehow came back towards Whiskey Pass. The drainage we were above was Whiskey Creek and the peaks that we could see were not familiar.

Sheila had been cold all night and was borderline hypothermic. I presented the alternatives to them: 1) we backtrack and try and find out where we had made our error, or 2) we drop down below treeline and bushwhack and look for a road to make it to Highway 12, and either hike back to our vehicles or hitchhike.

With the wind blowing cold and the exhaustion of being out all night we made a consensus decision to drop down below treeline. We were hallucinating with the lack of sleep and I thought I saw domesticated animals down below. Once down though there was no sign of them. As we followed a creek in an easterly direction I thought I saw a fence and a house. Nope.

Suddenly Sheila said, "John said he saw a road." I said, "Where?" John pointed north and Sheila pointed south. I still thought I had seen a fence and a yard implying a house. I now know that it was a hallucination, as was the road that John thought he saw, induced by being up for over 24 hours. We all know about those hallucinations. For example, the giant horse that both John and I saw in the predawn hour that turned into a mundane rock formation. To avoid the house I proceeded down an elk path for a couple hundred feet before turning north to intercept the "road." Not finding a road to the north, I backtracked and crossed the creek and went south until it was obvious there was no road there either. I then went back to the spot where I had last seen John and Sheila, but they were nowhere to be found! I looked around in concentric circles, but I was reluctant to call out because I still thought there might be people around and I knew we were on private property. I then went back to the creek and started going down the creek side, periodically going north and south in search of a road. After nearly a mile I noticed stumps cut with a saw and knew there had to be a road. After a bit of searching I found the start of an old logging road. I followed the road, running and walking quickly when after a couple of miles, a truck drove up with ranch staff inside, a man and a woman. I could have dashed into the woods when I heard their vehicle and probably could have avoided them, but at that point I didn't care if they found me.

The man was very belligerent and threatened to prosecute me. I explained the circumstance and why I had dropped down to the ranch. Namely that Sheila was borderline hypothermic and the best option was to get her down to where she could get warm again. Finally he told me to just keep hiking out and get off the property. I walked in the hot sun for another hour or more when they came back and the man said that "Pat" the woman had a kind heart and they had decided to take me back to the start of the old logging road so I could go get John and Sheila.

After a couple of wrong turns, I finally succeeded in finding the old logging road and made it to the end. The man said he would honk the horn three times and that we should listen to see if we heard a reply. I knew that it was too far to hear anything and after several more honk sessions, the man said that he and I would hike up to where I had last seen them. Pat said she was going to call the ranch manager on their radio to explain that they "had a situation." The man (who never told me his name even when I asked him for it) objected saying he didn't need any more decision makers muddling things up, but the woman overruled him. They had a strange relationship: very tense.

The ranch manager said no, we couldn't go look for them, and that Finally, John got cell reception and texted that they were walking down the road we were able to bring the episode to a close. I was about 30 miles north and driving home and was about to drive back to get them, when Julian offered to get them as he was getting close. I said yes, that was the better option because the longer I remained awake, the greater the chance that I would nod off while driving and get in a wreck.

Here is Sheila’s email to me with her version of what transpired following our separation: “When you asked where John had seen the road (I had no idea we pointed in different directions), I heard you say something, but didn't hear what you said. I was so confused as to why you weren't walking to the road. I told John that I was going to "run up to the road" and that he should chase you down and get you to follow. I think he yelled once (I might be wrong about that, though). There was no road--John said it must have turned into a trail, so we started to follow the water. I figured we'd come upon you soon, b/c you had been stopping to wait for us periodically. Then, we saw "a house." This was within a few minutes of being separated. I told John to follow the water and scream for you (as I bee-lined toward the 'house'), and he said that if we saw the house, certainly you did, too, and you were probably already there waiting. We went over to it, and of course, it was not a house. We followed the water for a ways and then it got pretty difficult, so we paralleled it in the forest.

“At that point, we figured you were long gone, but we were keeping our eyes open, hoping we'd see you. The forest really wasn't much better--it was dense, and downed trees were EVERYWHERE. I think each one took me 3-4 minutes to lift my legs over. Occasionally, we'd find a trail (sometimes just an animal trail, once or twice a trail that looked like it might go out to a TH). Always, the trail would end up just disappearing. We found what looked like old 4WD/ATV kind of 'roads' a few times, but they always became so overgrown you couldn't follow them. We did this for HOURS, and all we could see ahead was more forest. Throughout the day, we both were hallucinating like crazy. I cannot tell you how many times we thought we saw pavement that turned out to be a downed tree or a dirt road that was tree bark. I thought I heard someone whistle; John thought he heard voices; I thought I saw trucks a few times (once I even saw tires... that just turned out to be the ground underneath a downed tree); I also thought I saw two people sitting on a grassy knoll. Once, we both saw the same thing that looked like a house. After awhile, we were almost out of water, and we found a trail that headed steeply toward the river below, so we took that.

“We reached the river and saw a flat area between the other side of the water and the trees. Sure enough, it was a road. We had no idea we were on private property, and we had no idea how long the road was or where it led to, but we figured we'd walk on it while we still had daylight. John was checking to see if he had cell reception every 5-10 minutes, and FINALLY he had one bar and that was when we saw the texts from you and Julian and Rebekka.

“Thanks for showing us the route and for being so patient throughout the night. I don't think I have ever been so cold for so long--that was really rough, and when I saw John's feet (after we hit the pavement on Sunday) I felt terrible. His shoes had cut into the top of his foot, and the pads on the bottoms of his feet were really swollen. We both have the same sentiment--in a strange way, we're thankful for the experience--it is good to have to persevere through tough times; those kinds of experiences build character and confidence. That said, we're not exactly looking to repeat that kind of epic experience anytime soon (or ideally ever again). I don't think I will ever step foot on a mountain again without my down jacket. I hate being cold (that and being hungry are my two least favorite feelings in the world! I'd rather be roasting hot than even a little cold).

“We both were amazed at your speed and your stamina. Your efficient pace is incredibly fast, and you have good 'mountain legs' that don't change pace, regardless of terrain. Good for you for not wasting those strengths--you should be pursuing the craziest endurance feats out there. I hope you and Rebekka have a great time in Europe (and an awesome race)! Thanks, again, for a (mostly :)) fun weekend!”

1 comment:

Adam said...

Just stumbled upon this blog post when searching "operation dark snake". I gotta say, this was a great story. Thank you for writing it up. It sounds like a truly one of a kind adventure.