Operation Dark Snake (and another TrailGroove article)

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Before I get on with the trip report, I wanted to post that I had another article published by TrailGroove. This time on how to take care of your feet. Let me know what you think – http://www.trailgroove.com/issue10.html?autoflip=9

The latest issue of Trailgroove is one of the best ones yet, and I’m happy to say that the magazine has gotten so much attention that Aaron has decided to publish 9 issues a year instead of 6.

Secondly, I was unaware that I was selected for the May 2013 contributors spot for a few of my photos I submitted to freephotocourse.com. I like their website, and their online photography course is very well done considering it’s free. It goes over the basics very thoroughly.

http://freephotocourse.com/contributors-photo-gallery.html

Alright, time for the trip report

I am not normally one to practice civil disobedience, but Culebra Peak has a very long history of being problematic. I feel that the restrictions that the ranch owner puts on recreational use are not reasonable, although it is better than the access issues that have plagued the region in the past. Mountains should have unrestricted access, not just for the people that have extra money to burn to pay some landowner off so they unlock their gate. I understand some of it is due to liability reasons, which is sad. If you attempt something and get hurt on private property, its your own fault. Own up to it, and don’t drag someone else into it.

The route up Culebra through the ranch is also kinda boring. While looking at the route, I started wondering if there was some way to make up a route from a nearby road that wasn’t within the massive ranch property. After looking a bit, I found the themountaininstitute.com’s description of a long trail less cross country route. The route looked good, and I got very excited at the possibility of bagging a bunch of 13ers along the way. I knew that I wanted to do it this summer, and I just needed a good weather window near a full moon. September is normally a good weather month for alpine climbing, and last weekend initially was set up pretty well for making an attempt.

However, I made two mistakes. I tried to go stupid light, and didn’t carry what I would normally need if something went wrong during a trip as long as this, and I didn’t rest up as much as I should have before going for it, only getting 5 hours of sleep on Thursday, and another 5 hours Friday night.

The drive down to the start of the hike was uneventful, and I found the “trailhead” without any issues. Within 30 minutes, a truck came by as I was getting my pack prepped. Two guys and a girl from Breckenridge were in it, and asked if I was going for ODS, plainly stating that they were not out there to go hunting. Two of my friends were going to join me too, but they weren’t able to show up until much later. I thought about heading up and hiking through the night, but I was already tired and needed some sleep, so I slept in the car at the start, and started up the next morning around 6. Along the route I found 2 other people that had started just before I arrived the night before, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was another group or two that went up Thursday night and finished before I got there. It seems like the route is the dirty little secret that everyone knows about, but nobody talks about.

The route follows an obvious ridgeline, and the mountain institute site does a very good job of describing the route. Essentially, stay on the highest ridgeline the entire way from Mount Maxwell to Culebra and you’ll make it there. To prepare, I made a quick datasheet for the peaks and their coordinates, and printed off some topo maps of Google map terrain screenshots. USGS quads do exist for this area too, and can be found online.

One thing that isn’t readily available is accurate route mileage and elevation gain. I have read conflicting reports, and I wanted to nail down what the actual route entails.

Some quick directions first, you’ll want turn off highway 12 at the well signed road towards Purgatoire Campground, then go 3.7 miles along County Road 34, where you’ll see a designated camping spot and a road that goes over the north fork of the Purgatoire river and parallels the west fork of the Purgatoire. This road is actually in very good shape considering it’s an old mining road and doesn’t get a lot of traffic, and any vehicle with some decent clearance should be able to make it up 3/4 of the way to the top, and any stock 4WD vehicle should be able to make it up to the top. The road is 2.85 miles, and gains approximately 2125′ to get to the end of the 4WD road. There are lots of pull offs and sites that are appropriate for camping along the 4WD road. The road ends at tree line, and there are a few cairns that start heading up the ridge towards Mount Maxwell, but it’s a pretty obvious route straight up the middle of the ridge to the top of Mount Maxwell. The top of Mount Maxwell is another 1.15 miles, putting you at 4 miles total from the 2wd start, and a gain of 3780′.

From the top of Mount Maxwell, you can see your entire route in front of you, with the massive mound of Culebra in the distance. You can also see the Blanca and Crestone groups to your north and the Spanish Peaks to your east.

After Lomo Liso, the route starts to get harder and slower. If you get to the saddle between Lomo Liso and Miranda and you’re having trouble with the route, TURN AROUND.

Miranda is the most technical peak along the route, with a few easy 3 class moves. I choose to side hill around it, and climb some fun slabby crack climbing to get to the top, but the ridgeline has a knife edge and some exposure, but it’s short. Lots of scrambling before and after the 3rd class parts.

After Miranda there’s point 13565, which is easy, but steep on the south side, and then you’ll be on the slope of point 13701, the last big climb to Culebra. As tired as you’ll be at this point, don’t side hill around the north side, but go straight up the ridgeline, maybe just east of the ridgeline if the wind is kicking. Once you’re at the top of point 13701, its smooth sailing to the top of Culebra. If you side hill, you’ll run into some very rotten rock near the saddle.

For my trip, it took me just over 12 hours to hike from the start to the top of Culebra, 85% of the time I was above 12,300, and 40% of the trip was above 13,150′. The total elevation gain was 11,644 ft., and the total elevation loss is 7224 ft. For the return trip, those figures should be about the same, meaning that you will have over 18,000 feet of gain over the entire trip. The mileage will also be around 15.3 each way, giving a total round trip distance of 30.6 miles.

With these stats in mind, remember that the longest standard 14er route is the Barr Trail on Pikes Peak, and that’s only 7500 feet of gain and 26 miles RT on a well maintained trail.

The gain will obviously be less if you choose to traverse around the 13er summits, but there aren’t many chances to do that. Maxwell and De Anze can be traversed, avoiding ~300-400 feet of gain each time. The true top of Lomo Liso can also be bypassed, but you’ll be within ~100 feet of the top anyways, so just go for it.

If you’re like me, almost 12,000 feet along 15 miles of mostly off trail travel in 12 hours will make you pretty tired. I knew I should have brought my bivy gear, but I didn’t. In hindsight, that bivy sack, pad, and sleeping bag (around ~2 lbs total for the lightest stuff i have) would have been worth the weight, so if I ever do this again, I will definitely bring some bivy gear and plan on sleeping a few hours along the route before heading back.

Something to also note is that you will need to carry all of your own water because there is no water along the ridgeline, but there is water well below the ridgeline on the west side,  just north of the road Google maps calls “whiskey pass road”. Its almost 1000 feet below the ridgeline route, below a small crashed airplane you’ll see while traveling south of DeAnza Peak. While out of the way, its better than getting severely dehydrated if you failed to plan your water consumption correctly. You may ask why I know about this, and the reason why is because we took a different route back to avoid the wind and fog that battered us on the ridge overnight and most of the morning. It was definitely a longer route with more elevation loss/gain, so i would avoid it and just go along the direct ridgeline route as much as possible.

Please email me if you want the datasheet I made and/or the GPX files of the Culebra route. I don’t want to publicly post them, but I’m happy to share them.

Here is a Google map link to an overlay of the route

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Posted in Alpine, Planning and Prep, Rock, TrailGroove Magazine
2 comments on “Operation Dark Snake (and another TrailGroove article)
  1. drdirtbag says:

    30 miles and 18k feet is epic! Having driven past Culebra many times, I’m amazed it’s possible to find that much gain in so little distance there. I may have to try day- (or night-) tripping this sometime…

  2. I didn’t realize the total elevation gain was that high. Not carrying a GPS, I usually only guess. That’s impressive. And I think you’re right; people know about it but don’t talk about it. We can start a new club, instead of ‘Fight Club,’ it’s the ‘Culebra Club!’
    I can only imagine your shock at having run into others just finishing it.

    I’ll have to look at Trailgroove. Thanks, Ted!

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