I have never liked the term 'peakbagger' and use it in reference to myself with great reticence. Peakbaggers are a class of mountaineer that seek to climb as many peaks as possible over their lifetimes. Top peakbaggers spend practically all of their spare time climbing mountains. The top peakbaggers in the history of the Socialist Democracy of Amerika have over five thousand peaks to their credit. Go here if you are interested in the list of top peakbaggers. John Kirk, the top peakbagger in the land, has climbed 7,301 peaks. Other luminaries like Bob Martin and Mike Garret have climbed 5,546 and 5,335 peaks respectively. As a peakbagger, these are numbers that stagger my mind as I consider the time that must be dedicated in order to attain such huge numbers. I will certainly never rise to the top of the peakbagging ranks. Label me an amateur peakbagger, if you will.
I will occasionally run into a peakbagger on one of my trips. That happened again last Saturday when I climbed Culebra. Although they are usually decent enough chaps I have found that it is impossible for me to relate to them. Peakbaggers are almost always Type A, Obsessive/Compulsive people who climb peaks simply to be able to say they climbed the peaks. They love to talk about how many peaks they can climb in one day and their goal is always to climb as quickly as possible while getting as many summits as possible each day. Stopping to smell the roses along the way is forbidden since it would detract from the possibility of attaining one more peak that day. The young man I met on the top of Culebra was planning on finishing the Colorado 14ers (58 peaks) today. He was going to hike into an area in the San Juan mountains called Chicago Basin the first day, climb the four 14ers surrounding that basin in one day, then hike out on the third day. That sounds miserable to me. I took three separate five day backpacking trips to Chicago Basin to accomplish the climbs of those same four 14ers. Chicago Basin feels like an old friend to me today and I have nothing but fond memories of the place. The young man hiking out from there today barely knows her and will probably recall nothing of her nuances a year from now. How sad.
So I will reluctantly adopt the moniker of a peakbagger with one significant caveat....I am much more concerned with the quality of my mountaineering experiences than the quantity. No peakbagger would ever want to climb with me because I am not O/C. No peakbagger would ever want to camp with me because I take way too much time to explore an area. And no peakbagger would ever go on a climbing trip with me because I always leave at least one peak unclimbed in the area, giving myself a reason to go back some day.
Culebra was the last of my Colorado 14ers. Most peakbaggers have a list of 14ers that contains 58 peaks. We recognize as official peaks all named peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation as well as any unnamed point that exceeds 14,000 feet in elevation that has at least a 300 foot saddle drop to the next nearest peak. This is the standard set of rules for almost all peakbaggers. I have also been to the top of two 14ers in California, thus making my 14er peak total 60 rather than 58. Culebra is a privately owned 14er and has gone through various access issues over the years as different ranch owners controlled the property. Back in the old days (the 80s) a person could climb the peak simply by calling the ranch manager and informing him that you were going to be there. There was a fairly long period of time when the ranch was closed to all people. I assumed that I would never get around to climbing Culebra peak and had dropped it from my list of official peaks when it was closed to all climbers. Then, a year or so ago, I discovered that the new ranch owners were allowing limited access to the peak. I was interested.
The current owners of the ranch allow access to the summit on each Friday and Saturday in July and August. A maximum of 25 people per day are given permission to trespass on their property and the trespass fee is $150/person. Our access to the peak on last Saturday was the last trespass slip given for the year as hunting season starts this weekend and the real paying customers will be arriving to hunt trophy elk.
My climbing party consisted of my wife and a long-time friend and climbing partner who made the trip up from Tucson to be a part of the planned celebration on the summit. I assumed that most of the remaining 25 people would be folks nearing the end of the 14er list and I further expected there to be several summit celebrations. Man was I in for a surprise. Only 10 people assembled at the entrance gate in the semi-darkness of a 6:00 am start. We were given instructions about the area and sent off to find our way to various trailheads in our four wheel drive vehicles. Six of the climbers sped their way to the highest trailhead in order to make the climb as short and easy as possible. One other climber joined us at a trailhead that allowed us to gain 3,000 vertical feet on the climb. The 3,000 vertical feet is an important point. Climbing all 58 Colorado 14ers is called the "Grand Slam." Climbing those same peaks individually, rather than running the easy ridges between many of them, with a minimum of 3,000 feet of vertical on each climb is doing it cum laude. Only a small percentage of the 1000+ people who claim to have accomplished the Grand Slam have done it cum laude. The middle aged man who parked beside us was one of those men. I am another. He gave us a friendly greeting and sped off up the trail. We were a couple of minutes behind him. We hiked up the jeep road to its terminus, where all of the other climbers had parked their vehicles, and surveyed our options to the top.
The standard route, which is also the shortest and easiest route, went straight up the west face of the peak to a gigantic cairn on the upper ridge. From that cairn it is a rocky ridge hop on a rare (for the Sangre De Cristo range) east/west running ridge to the summit. A more interesting route, in my opinion, was to take the NW ridge of the peak up to the higher ridge where the gigantic cairn was located, then finish via the standard route. Using the NW ridge would afford us dramatic views into the north facing cirques of Culebra Peak. While all of the other parties raced up the standard route we took off for the NW ridge. Here is a photo of me just reaching the NW ridge as the sun was rising in the east:
The NW ridge rose moderately along the intersection of the west face and the dramatic north face cirque. We enjoyed skirting along the ridge, peering off the face on occasion to enjoy the views and exposure. Here I am working my way up to the high point seen in the photograph below which would eventually become the summit ridge:
To my left in the above photograph was a cirque and Carneros lake. Here is the view we were treated to as we ascended the ridge. We are looking down almost 2000 vertical feet:
It was a windy morning and a jacket provided sufficient warmth to climb comfortably. Upon arrival at the high point on the upper ridge we were treated to our first view of the east/west ridge to the summit, as well as the summit itself. As we looked to the SE, here was our view:
Our route would follow the skyline coming in from the right and ascending to the summit, which is the high bump in the left-center of the above photograph. The high point in the middle is a false summit. This ridge would end up taking more time than I anticipated due to the rocky nature of the traverse.
The gigantic cairn that Culebra is famous for is found where the standard route reaches the ridge traverse visible above. Here is a shot of the cairn with the false summit looming in the background:
The cairn in the above photo is about ten feet high. We pressed onward and engaged the final summit ridge. From the moment we first attained the high ridge that would lead us to the gigantic cairn we could see the other 7 climbers at various points along the skyline on their ascents of the peak. We were obviously going to be the last to the top today. Shortly after leaving the point in the above picture we ran into the man who had parked next to us. He had already reached the summit, checked it off his list, and was now dancing down the rocky ridge to the west face descent and onward to his car. He barely spent four total hours on the peak and was long gone by the time we returned to the trailhead. Typical peakbagger, I thought to myself. I wondered if he had seen the tiny forget-me-not flower growing in the tundra we passed along the way. I rather doubt it.
We saw the forget-me-nots. Here they are:
Shortly after passing the man completing his Grand Slam we encountered another climber on his way down. He, like all the remaining others on the mountain, had parked at the high trailhead. The first words out of his mouth were, "You are aware that what you are looking at is a false summit, aren't you?" Given the fact that we had come up a completely different route and already been treated to a full view of the summit ridge we were quite aware of that fact. He was one of those "know-it-all" climbers who just has to let people know what is going on. The second comment out of his mouth was an interrogation. He abruptly asked me, "How old are you?" Seeing my gray hair and withered body he no doubt thought I was too old to be out climbing mountains. I could barely answer him before he proudly informed us that he was 70 years old and he had never seen another climber as old as him on the peaks. My Tucson friend also happened to be 70 but, as it turned out, he was a month younger than the bragger we were talking to. I was relieved to press on and allow him to his own thoughts.
On the summit we caught up with an older couple and their 20-something son. The son is the peakbagger I mentioned earlier. I noticed that he was wearing tennis shoes as he told me about his "ultra-light" techniques that allowed him to climb six 14ers in a single marathon day. He told me about his plans for Chicago Basin before jogging off to climb a nearby 13er that he wanted to add to his list that day. His parents were obviously quite proud of him but I could only think to myself that the situation was so sad. I wondered if he noticed the tundra flowers as he jogged over them.
We were shortly left alone to enjoy the summit. We spent a hour basking in the moment until we started getting chilled and needed to start the descent. We enjoyed the views and reminisced on the hundreds of beautiful and glorious moments we had shared in the mountains during our times together. My wife, ever the thoughtful one, had brought a small bottle of champagne so I opened it up and celebrated my 60th 14er:
For you peakbaggers out there, here are my stats after 40 luxuriously slow and deliberate years climbing mountains:
- 153 ascents of 60 14ers.
- 298 ascents of 253 13ers.
- 63 ascents of 54 12ers.
- 822 total ascents of 493 total peaks, including 393 Colorado peaks and an additional 100 peaks in 16 other states throughout the Socialist Democracy of Amerika.