The Backstory of the Culebra Subrange...
Winter is an interesting season. Please forgive the pun, but it can be very ‘polarizing’ for some. What I mean by that is that it either prohibits or stops some people’s capacity for recreation in the outdoors due to a myriad of reasons (temperatures, inadequate clothing, shorted daylight hours, etc.) or it functions as a source of increased activity: snowshoeing, skiing, winter running, etc. Some folks simply don’t take to winter, simple as that. Some are invigorated and excited by it. Personally, I fall into the latter. Winter has another aspect to it that separates it from the other seasons…mistakes come with hard lessons. Inattention and complacency are usually vis-a-vis with serious consequences.
Mistakes of course can happen in all seasons regardless of the person’s ability or their [feeble] attempts to control their surroundings. At best, when dire circumstances do arise whether that means no fluids, impending bad weather, injury, etc. the best we can hope for is mitigation and damage control. The single biggest and most severe mistake I’ve blundered into came on “Whiskey Pass Peak” in March 2012. Everyone is prone to making mistakes. To quote the great Paul Petzoldt,
“…Some people say that experience is the best teacher. To heck with that. I know people who have been making the same mistakes for forty years.”
But on ‘Whiskey Peak’ last winter, even I don’t know who was more elated and happy: myself after a nine hour death march out of the high country under my own power or the Alamosa County Sheriff who was [hopefully] awaiting a solo hiker and not a body recovery the following morning.
“Whiskey Pass Peak” tops out at 12,955ft. The summit is not steep, pointed or surrounded by cliffs. It is an easy and gentle summit that lies in Costilla County. The history surrounding the Culebra sub-range is an old one that could have been taken out of an old-west history book. Akin to something you’d find out of a Hollywood-scripted cross of “Once upon a time in Mexico” and anything involving Lee Van Cleef, a gentleman named Lucien Maxwell was born September 14th, 1818 in Illinois.
Lucien was born to Irish immigrants and like his grandfather, eventually moved further west in search of freedom, land and riches. Lucien is a notable figure in history because, like Ted Turner (currently) he became one of the largest private landholders in United States history. Eventually, Lucien linked up and befriended the legendary old west guide, Kit Carson and the two would become fast friends. Both signed up for the 1841 Fremont expedition where Kit Carson served as chief guide and Maxwell as head hunter.
Three years later in 1844, Lucien Maxwell married the daughter of Carlos (Charles) Beaubien, Luz. In the same wedding, Kit Carson also married the daughter of a prominent Taos family, Josefa Jaramillo. As part of Carlos’ wedding gift to Maxwell and Luz, Carlos and his business partner, Guadalupe Miranda gave roughly 15,000 acres out of their recently appropriated 1,000,000 acre land grant.
In 1847, while Maxwell was at Fort Bent with the governor of New Mexico, the fort came under attack during what is now called the Taos Revolt. Charles Bent, the governor was killed during the ambush but Lucien Maxwell and his wife survived. Miranda, who was also at the fort, survived and fled to Mexico. For the next ten years, Lucien took a more aggressive stance on his land holdings, overlooking and managing them better with the help of his wife. Lucien and Luz eventually settled at Cimarron, New Mexico around the same time the Mexican-American war was coming to a close, building a rather large log home along the Cimarron River with Kit Carson and Josefa.
In 1858, Miranda, still in Mexico, decided to sell his share of the original (Beaubien) land grant to Lucien for approximately $2,745. After Carlos Beaubien died in 1864, Lucien inherited the remaining grant. His land holdings which were located primarily in New Mexico but also ventured up into Southern Colorado now encompassed over 1,700,000 acres. In history books, this entire area is now called the Maxwell Land Grant.
Lucien Maxwell died in 1875 at Fort Sumner where he moved to. Consequently, in 1881, when Patrick Garrett killed Billy the Kid, Billy was laid to rest also at Fort Sumner…right next to Maxwell.
Guadalupe Miranda’s involvement with Carlos Beaubien arose around 1840. The then governor of New Mexico, Manuel Armijo imposed a tax on non-native residents of New Mexico. Needless to say, Beaubien wasn’t thrilled with this new measure. So in late 1840, Beaubien asked for help from Miranda, the secretary of the government to petition for a 1,700,000 acre land grant located on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Range. January 4th, 1841 Lucien and Miranda got their grant approved by Armijo. However, that wasn’t the end of it. Only two years later in 1843, Beaubien applied for another 1,000,000 acre land grant located in what is essentially now the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado. He was eventually approved for the grant but because of the previous grant, he ‘gave’ the new one to his 13-yr old son, Narciso. Carlos Beaubien would go on to become a judge on the Supreme Court.
Taos Mission Church --Where the rebels holed up who killed Gov. Bent
Dealings involving politics and land weren’t always cut and dry. In 1847, what is now called the, Taos Rebellion, Mexicans and locals erupted in a short-lived insurrection against the United States imposing greater control over Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. During this messy time, Beaubien just happened to be a serving judge in the local legal system. While the attack on Fort Bent was ensuing, not only did Governor Charles Bent, as previously mentioned (New Mexico’s first territorial governor) die in the melee but Beaubien’s son, Narciso was also killed. Carlos Beaubien was accused of ‘harsh dealings’ and unfair sentences (all men captured were sentenced to death) of the captured murderers of his son and good friend.
Because of his attachments and association with the land grant which, included all of Taos, Beaubien had to sell off or give control of the grant to someone else to stymie the accusations. In this case, Beaubien gave control to Lucien Maxwell, his son-in-law whom, also served on the jury convicting the men.
So the local mountains in and around the Northern Culebra Range that emblaze these historical figures are of course: Mt. Maxwell, Miranda Peak and Beaubien Peak. Mariquita Peak and “Whisky Pass Peak” are exceptions in that, Mariquita is simply Spanish for, ‘Ladybug’, which tends to swarm near the summit come summer and “Whiskey Pass Peak” (unofficial name) is named I believe because of its proximity to the old placer mining town of ‘Whiskey’ located to the west which, the pass likewise received its name.
In fact, staying true to its’ Spanish taxonomic origins, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains have always had Spanish and Mexican connotations well before Colorado or New Mexico received territory status or statehood. One of the more popular and romantic stories goes that...
During sunset on a subsequent evening, witnessing the alpenglow on the eastern mountains from which he was driven, Father Torres while dying from his wounds was said to have exclaimed, “Sangre de Cristo!”
Since everyone died that was part of Father Torres' scouting party, its unknown how this story was passed on or parleyed through the years.
"Just one more peak!"In March of 2012, Luke and Abe (whom I met via 14ers.com) and myself ventured into the lesser traveled area of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Equally sharing a passion for winter, we thought about a trip that involved some peaks located in the Northern Culebra Range. The goal was to hike to De Anza Peak and call it good. We knew Culebra Peak was on private property of course, but what we didn’t know is where that property ended. NONE of the maps we poured over detailed where private property started nor ended.
We've since come to learn, pretty much EVERYTHING in the Culebra Range is private going back to the days of lore. The Culebra sub-range of the Sangre de Cristo’s is astoundingly beautiful. The terrain is untrammeled, unmarked and virgin thanks to the land owners in the area (a bittersweet facet). Even property fences and signage as we found out doesn't exist. Unfortunately, as we trekked southwards along the roof of the range that afternoon, a strong and potent blizzard blew in from the south unpredicted. Friends of mine who were on San Luis Peak the same afternoon, later reported the same conditions. The storm took them by surprise as well.
As the three of us scrambled up the first destination, Maxwell Peak (13,335ft), Luke wasn’t feeling well. He had been sick the previous couple days with what he believed was flu. This is where Luke wisely decided to bow out. We brought a small bivy tent and light sleeping bags ‘just in case’ things went to hell. Luke and I decided to swap sleeping bags on the leeward side of an elevated ‘broken sidewalk of granite’ since he was descending. He had a warmer Western Mountaineering 20° bag and I had a Mountain Hardwear Phantom 32°. Abe and I bid adieu to Luke, watched him descend for a few minutes, then we started to traverse under Maxwell Peak’s summit on its’ southeastern flanks. Before we separated, we had a loose understanding with Luke that Abe and I might bivy for the night and continue further south in the morning along the ridge or weather pending, return later that day.
A month prior on a different trip with intentions of summiting Cuatro and Trinchera Peaks to the north, Abe, Matt and I, not really planning on it but impromptu, set up a bivy at treeline on Maxwell just past midnight; Abe and Matt slept in bivy sacks on the leeward side of some scrub evergreen and I dug out a snow drift, partially sealing it for shelter.
The Northern Culebra Range (-Colorado)
The slope was typical wind-scoured snow with chocolate chips (protruding rocks). We had cached our snowshoes back at treeline. Since the ridges would be predominantly windblown, we reasoned there was no need to carry the extra weight. Between the exposed but frozen rocks and snow which, would have been akin to cement anyway, hardened by the constant winds, it was going to be an easy walk save for the occasional ‘soft-patch’.
Abe and I kept traversing just east of the ridge crest on slab snow staying out of the wind which was howling and screaming across the ridge. Occasionally, a snow devil would crack its’ forked tail at us forcing us to temporarily stop and shelter our faces. Blowing snow and ice can feel a lot like sandpaper grit. The temperatures were cold but manageable if we kept moving. The first mountain on the ridge south of Maxwell is called Mariquita Peak. Abe and I stopped long enough here to take a few pictures and discuss whether or not to continue carrying the weight in our packs or leave behind a small gear cache.
We decided on the latter since the weather wasn’t too cooperative and we’d end up calling it a day once we reached De Anza Peak anyway. As we descended the southern slopes, we stopped about 30 feet off the summit, piled up some rocks as a weak wind break and we piled our gear together. I built a tall, spindly cairn to mark it. Hopefully, the wind wouldn’t knock it over. Once we stopped to do this, it got cold pretty fast. The weather still wasn’t atrocious but it was perhaps slightly worse than an average winters’ day.
The drop off Mariquita Peak (13,405ft) was a few hundred feet and the next goal, De Anza Peak was still another mile further south. Abe choose to descend the ridge and eventually, contoured back to the east off the crest to get out of the wind. I stayed to the ridge crest until I caught up with him on a flat portion. We ascended De Anza Peak (13,333ft) together. This particular traverse was especially windy since it was more open and exposed then what we had to deal with back between Maxwell and Mariquita. Once we reached the summit of De Anza Peak, we took a quick break to eat and drink. The winds had picked up by this point and massive white pillows of clouds were now sweeping across the ridge coming at us from the south and southwest. It was like watching massive cotton balls bounce from one peak to the next. Squalls would unleash horizontal walls of snow with hurricane fury, blinding us, only to be spent minutes later. Blue sky teased us intermittingly when the ‘white tortoises’ weren’t obstructing the surrounding peaks and ridges.
Abe and I discussed whether or not to continue south to get ‘one more peak’ (I’m sure we all know THAT feeling). I was happy with De Anza but the allure of getting another mountain was strong. Plus Abe is a strong climber. The ridge over to “Whiskey Pass Peak” is long. It’s almost 2 miles one way but it would be easy sailing. It was all flat, open and unfortunately, exposed to the winds.
The weather hadn’t shown any improvement nor had it worsened. Abe and I choose to continue south to the summit of “Whiskey Pass Peak”. All our gear was back on Mariquita’s summit. We voiced our concerns about getting too far from our gear stash, knew it wasn’t prudent but decided that ‘The Whiskey’ would be the last summit for the day…
...and this is pretty much where things went to shit.
Proving your salt
My reasoning is if I can’t extract myself from a possibly hazardous or dangerous situation by my own acumen and intelligence, than I have no business being in the backcountry to begin with. I prefer to take things at face value. In the past, I would actually make it a point to venture out DURING storms to navigate and test my route-finding skills when conditions were at their worst, summer or winter. In my opinion, this is where experience and scholarship comes from. Climbing or hiking during sunny, ‘bluebird days’ doesn’t do much good unless your purpose is to take pictures. It’s easy to make a choice if it has no consequences.
Abe and I stood on the broad summit of “Whiskey Pass Peak” undecided as to whether or not to turn back and head for Mt. Maxwell or continue on for one more peak (It’s a powerful song the siren sings). I had decided I was finished for the day and wanted to turn around. Abe kept watching the next summit (Beaubien Peak), turning it over in his head whether or not to continue without me or likewise, ‘call it a day.’ My personal mantra of no technology now morphed from a habit into a serious mistake. In the roughly 10-15 minutes that we separated, a massive squall obliterated the ridge and mountain we were on bringing with it, complete white-out conditions. This is when I descended the wrong ridge. We hiked up the North Ridge. I ended up descending a Northeastern flank instead.
I didn’t realize my mistake until I was roughly 300-400ft down the ridge. A long section of ‘catwalk-like rock’ presented itself that didn’t seem familiar. There hadn’t been any features like it on the walk over to “Whiskey Pass Peak.” Shortly after this, I stopped at an old, broken cairn not far from treeline. For the last twenty minutes, I had been yelling, screaming and blowing that attached whistle that some Black Diamond packs have attached to the chest strap. As strong as the wind was blowing combined with the dampening effects of sound from the clouds, it was pointless and futile. There was no way Abe was going to hear me. I sat down on the cairn with my back to the wind assessing the situation I was now in. I must have sat there for perhaps 20 minutes going over every scenario I could from having a miraculous break in the clouds to freezing to death. Strangely, I was fairly calm while doing this. In terms of nervousness and fear, on a scale of 1 to 10, I was perhaps a 4. If anything could be said at that particular moment, it was that I felt incredibly…alone. I felt cut off from the rest of the world in a way that I’ve never felt before…and I routinely climb/scramble solo.
I wasn’t scared. I felt indifference tainted with sadness. I actually didn’t care if I walked out or not. Thinking on it now, perhaps that’s why I wasn’t scared and why I felt so completely alone. In my mind, I was now on ‘even terms’ with the wilderness.
I continued to sit there for a while longer staring at the blowing snow and ghostly evergreens. I had snatches of my Capitol Peak climb, my snow cave on San Luis Peak, my first snow cave in Officers Gulch and images of my family filter through my head. But like filaments of torn prayer flags, nothing really stuck. As soon as I thought of something, the winds would carry it away…gossamer threads of nostalgia. Eventually, I sat there thinking of absolutely nothing. My eyes actually teared up a little bit for a few minutes and it wasn’t due to the wind. But the strange thing is that…I was smiling.
I stood up, took off my backpack and looked at the broken cairn I was sitting on. It was perhaps two feet high, eight feet around and jumbled. I had no idea if I was on some kind of old social trail or path but the cairn looked like it had been there for a while. I looked back up into the wind. The clouds resembled massively thick contrails chasing whatever ghosts that had unleashed this cold fury. I dropped to my knees next to my pack and the cairn and glanced at the pile.
I looked back up and stared down the wind with eyes closed; feeling the sharp, cold specks pelt my face. It was relaxing. “These ghosts are hawking their memories to unburden themselves of the weight.” I stood back up and paced back and forth for a few minutes on the ridge I was on trying to get an idea of the terrain. I walked back over to the cairn and looked down at it. “Ok, time to build a shelter.”
I dismantled and tore apart the emaciated cairn. I walked around in circles and parabolas prying rocks loose from the frozen ground. I made a decently-sized pile. I started to build a wall while smearing the cavities with packed snow. I kept building the wall in a rough ‘U-shape’ similar to an open-ended bathtub. I went back and forth between building the walls higher, packing snow in the recesses and leveling the dirt floor inside. By the time I was finished; I could sit down inside, cross-legged and have the wall roughly a foot above my head. My rock shelter was roughly 5 feet long. After nearly a couple hours of labor, I was now completely out of the wind! I lay down for about 30 minutes, eyes closed just resting. The snow was still drifting in lightly from the torrents but otherwise, I was quite comfortable. It had gotten cold now that I had stopped moving but my tolerance towards the cold has always been high. Maybe that’s because of the Scandinavian blood coursing through my veins or maybe I have a higher than normal percentage of brown fat; who knows? While lying there, I had a dilemma quietly sneak up on me like a shadow but I could feel its presence.
It was a problem that stank of pragmaticism and urgency. The question was: do I stay put in my shelter for the duration of the storm not knowing how long it would last or do I leave and scramble back up to the summit to put myself in a better position in case the clouds broke for long enough, so I could get a good ‘jump’ towards the ridge I needed? I was divided as to what to do. I could see the merits and consequences in both options. In the end, even though I’d be leaving the confines of a solid shelter, I reasoned I’d have a better chance of success in getting out of this pickle if I were higher and already in position to immediately strike out without first, having to regain ~400ft of ridge. I sat up, not comfortable with the decision but accepting of the logic behind it, shouldered my pack and walked back up towards the summit in a worsening storm.
The entire west face of ‘Whiskey’ is a massive open-faced slope. It reminded me of the North Ridge on Mt. of the Holy Cross. The true summit is noticeable only because of a large cairn built thereon. The eastern face falls away into moderate cliffs. I paced back and forth across the slope for perhaps an hour. I never did see anything except laminar rivers of white and grey. At times, the clouds became so thick, not even the exposed rocks protruding from the slope could divide the horizon. So at this point, I stopped looking for recognizable features and focused my attentions instead on the slope I had crisscrossed. I was having trouble trying to find suitable rocks, anything large enough that could form the apex of a shelter or wind break. Everything was either buried by snow or too uniform in size to be of much help. The winds were steadily picking up and the snow was starting to fall harder. It was near 6:00pm by my watch and I was at roughly 12,800ft. I needed something that I could bivy down for the night.
I started to dig and ply rocks loose from the talus and pile them up as high as I could. I worked quickly as dusk was being rudely shoved aside by the approaching night. I managed to carve out a crude recess just long enough for one person with perhaps a couple inches on each side for wiggle room. I got out Luke’s sleeping bag and crawled inside with boots and full clothing still on. It was now about 7:30pm. That evening and subsequent morning were and still are, the scariest and most intense I’ve ever spent in the high-country, trumping even my experiences on Crestone Needle. I didn’t really sleep. I couldn’t sleep. The snow would have buried me. I had to literally move every 15 minutes or so to pack out the fresh snow that had fallen around me and every 30 minutes, I needed to stand up and hop in place to keep myself warm. I had managed to carve out a grapefruit-sized depression in the snow underneath me for a breathing space. It worked as long as I didn’t move and I changed out the air when it got noticeable harder to breath. Problem was, when I did move, the seal I had formed broke and the depression would fill up with blowing snow.
Mentally, I was starting to fall.
The storm was gradually diminishing my resolve and will. It got to the point where I simply stopped moving and just laid there. I felt defeated. If I felt insufferably alone before, it was nothing compared to this new blackness I was now experiencing. This had to