Taylor Ranch Winter Mountaineering Expedition

23-24 Feb 2002 - by Gary Swing

On Saturday, I climbed five mountains on the Taylor Ranch without getting shot at, arrested, or attacked by guard dogs. I didn't even have to use night vision goggles or a camouflage snowsuit. However, I did have to pay a twenty-five dollar access fee to the ranch foreman and sign a waiver of liability form.

Under the current ownership, public access to the high peaks on the expansive Taylor Ranch has been restricted to one annual 30-person Colorado Mountain Club hike of 14,047 foot Culebra Peak, and a handful of private, authorized trips. A friend of mine who is preparing to climb Mount Everest obtained permission to take a small group of people on a training hike over the summits on the ridgeline running north to south through the Taylor Ranch property. She invited me to join them, about a week and a half before the trip.

I was excited to have the rare opportunity to climb these peaks legally, but I was also nervous about trying to do it in February. I would much rather have gone in the summer if I had the chance, but the odds of getting permission to do so in the next few years seemed slim. The Taylor Ranch hike turned out to be one of the most difficult endurance events I have ever completed.

To get ready for the Taylor Ranch trip, I did two substantial hikes the weekend before it. On Saturday, I did a bushwhacking climb of Long Scraggy Peak. On Sunday, I climbed Clark Peak from Colorado State Forest near the Wyoming border, in vicious winds.

A very strong group of seven people assembled for the Taylor Ranch Winter Mountaineering Expedition. This was not a Colorado Mountain Club trip, but we were all members of the CMC, variously from the Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Grand Junction groups. Six of the seven were CMC trip leaders. All of us had already climbed Culebra Peak and wanted to climb high thirteeners on the ranch.

On Friday evening, we met at a nearly empty hotel in San Luis, just north of the New Mexico border, and shared three rooms. We agreed upon a plan of attack for the climb. We would use the traditional approach for Culebra, climb over or bypass the top of Culebra, and then head south along the connecting ridge to Red Mountain, Vermejo Peak, Alamosito Peak, and finally Purgatoire Peak. From Purgatoire, we would either descend the mountain's west ridge or hike west down the Alamosito Creek basin from the 12,827 foot saddle to a car shuttle waiting for us on a ranch road.

We woke up at 3:15 am Saturday to get ready for our climb. We met the ranch foreman at the gate and drove up to the headquarters building with him to pay our fees and fill out the waiver forms. Part of the road toward Culebra Peak had been plowed to do some work on a facility up there. The ranch foreman was very friendly and accommodating. He put chains on his pickup truck and drove the seven of us and our gear three miles up the steep, straight snow-covered mountain road to about 11,000 feet, half a mile short of the road junction know as Fourway or Four Corners. He also arranged to shuttle another vehicle to our exit point. (We gave him a $60 tip for all his help.)

We put our snowshoes on at the end of the plowed road and started breaking trail east up the road to the Fourway road junction. There was deep, soft, unstable snow here that would have been dangerous in potential avalanche terrain. However, we spent the entire hike on ridges or low-angled terrain. From Fourway, we followed the long, snaking northwest ridge all the way to the summit of Culebra Peak, rather than following the standard route up the slope from the end of the road. Snowshoeing through the trees was difficult, but we took turns breaking trail. Several times, we heard the snow go whoomp as it collapsed under us.

The snow petered out as we broke out above the trees, replaced by high winds that accompanied us for the next ten hours. We carried our snowshoes on our packs over the five summits, as there was no need for them on the windswept ridges. Each of the summits was a walk-up, but doing them all together in one day provided a long endurance hike with a lot of ups and downs.

A couple of people bypassed the last 150 feet of elevation gain on Culebra Peak, and at least one person bypassed Red Mountain by sidehilling. Two people turned back after Red Mountain, while the other five of us committed to going the whole distance.

This trip marked my second ascent of Culebra. My first time there, I had hiked up the mountain in thick clouds with zero visibility. This time, we had largely clear skies, plenty of sunshine, and unceasing wind.

I didn't count up the total elevation gain for this trip, but I know it was substantial. Our trip leader said that we had done roughly half the total elevation gain by the time we had reached the summit of Culebra, and had covered half the distance to Purgatoire.

The second summit on the ridge was my primary goal. Red Mountain (0.9 miles southeast of Culebra) is the second highest summit on the Taylor Ranch at 13,908 feet. This gentle mountain was my 89th of Colorado's 100 highest peaks. Red rises just 450 feet above its bisected connecting saddle with Culebra.

From Red Mountain, we continued south another mile and a half to the 13,723 foot summit of Vermejo Peak, one of Colorado's second hundred highest peaks. The descent of Red Mountain had some looser footing, followed by a rise of 761 feet to Vermejo.

Another long mile and a half section of ridge took us to the top of Unnamed 13,466 (unofficially known as Alamosito Peak), 560 feet above the connecting saddle. By the time we reached this tricentennial peak, I think we were all pretty tired.

We descended to the Alamosito-Purgatoire connecting saddle and took our packs off. We weighted them down with rocks and left them at the saddle while we climbed our final peak. Purgatoire Peak was a steep grunt, rising 850 feet in short order. This was my favorite mountain in the group, but I was glad that I didn't have to lug my pack up it. The 13,676 foot summit was my 150th of Colorado's 200 highest peaks.

We hiked back down to the previous saddle to retrieve our packs and headed west down into the gentle Alamosito Creek basin, leaving the ridge around 5:00pm. It looked like we had it made and would be able to reach the shuttle vehicle without needing to spend the night out. Little did we realize that we still had ten hours of gruesome snowshoeing ahead of us.

The first mile was not gruesome. We finally found some relief from the wind, the snow was shallow, and it was consolidated enough to provide enjoyable snowshoeing. We were treated to a beautiful sunset followed by the light of a nearly full moon. Then we hit tree line and the snow quality changed dramatically.

It was deep, soft snow, at least three to four feet deep. And it wouldn't support our weight. Five strong but exhausted climbers took turns breaking trail, falling into the snow as long as each of us could endure it. The basin had the worst snowshoeing I've ever encountered. Hiking down the basin turned out to be more difficult than climbing up five mountains. We tromped through the woods, trying to patch together sections of snow that provided a better base than others, without much success. At one point when I was leading, I sank in above my waist and couldn't move either foot. I had to dig myself out with an avalanche shovel.

Around midnight, after seven hours of difficult snowshoeing, we voted on whether to keep hiking or bivouac for the rest of the night. Two voted to keep going. Two voted to camp. I voted no. I didn't want to continue hiking and I didn't want to camp out in deep snow. I said I was too exhausted to keep going, so I guess that counted as a vote for bivouacking.

We were on road at that point, so we found a relatively flat spot on the road and stomped out an area with our snowshoes to build a tent platform and room to walk around in our boots. We used a cook stove to melt snow for water and crammed five guys into one tent to take shelter until dawn. It was cold, cramped, and uncomfortable. We were able to rest at least, but it was very difficult to sleep. I didn't sleep at all. We determined later that we had camped at about 11,200 feet.

We started moving around again at about 6:00am Sunday. By 6:30, we were snowshoeing again, once more taking turns breaking trail. The snow was a bit more consolidated as we dropped elevation, but there was still a considerable amount of postholing. It seemed like we would never reach the shuttle vehicle, but three hours later, we finally reached the plowed road at the end of the basin, maybe a tenth of a mile from where the truck was parked.

The Taylor Ranch Winter Mountaineering Expedition ended with showers at the motel and lunch at a Mexican restaurant in San Luis.

Steve Bonowski adds:

the winter climb of Culebra & its neighbors by the Everest training group is not a matter of the "rules" applying to some & not to all. Other groups have been able to obtain access to the Taylor Ranch properties for very specific purposes. I'm aware of two small groups getting onto the property in 2000, one doing the Emily Griffith School annual Peak Challenge, an activity historically supported during the Taylor regime by waiver of the climbing fee. I'm further aware of one small group getting on in 2001, again for a very specific purpose.

Regretably for the peak baggers among us, access for finishing 14ers, centennials, 13ers, etc. doesn't seem to count as "specific purposes." For better or worse, the property remains in private hands & access is controlled. Interested parties may want to read the editorial in the Denver Post on Sunday (Feb. 24) regarding possible purchase of the property by the state if a willing seller situation develops.

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