Operation Dark Snake route to Red Mountain

Operation Dark Snake route to Red Mountain

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jun 9, 2018
Seasons Season: Summer


I became in contact with a fellow peakbagger in Colorado through social media – she had an impressive acumen of peakbagging achievements including having done all the 14ers of CO and was now working on the 13ers. We have similar approaches with mountains: hitting as many peaks as possible while going lightweight and incorporating as much running as possible. So, after a few exchanges we decided we would meet up and attempt this epic ridgeline out-and-back traverse of the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains in southern Colorado via a little-known route known as “Operation Dark Snake” (ODS). Her main goal was to bag Red Mountain – a Colorado centennial 13er at 13,908 ft which lies just south of Culebra Peak – the 14er on the route. Culebra and its surrounding mountains all lie on private property, so access is extremely limited. All climbs up to Culebra Peak must pass through the Taylor Ranch which charges $150 a head for the access. This is complete nonsense if you ask me. No ranch in the US needs land above 13,000 feet so what is the point of this? Obviously to make money, even though if you own that much land how much more money do you need? Anyway, the ODS route is a way to “invade” into the private lands and bag all the peaks without having to deal with any private roads for access. It seems to have become an underground, highly coveted peakbagger’s secret which was hatched around 2005 by Jason Halladay. There are very few trip reports online about it, perhaps because of the illegalities involved. It starts at a high road out of Purgatoire Campground at about 11,500 feet and follows a ridge up to Maxwell Peak where the true ridge traverse begins to reach Culebra. The roundtrip mileage is anywhere from 25-28 miles with over 12,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. So here we are, 2 strangers meeting for the first time about to embark on some illegal activities together. What could possibly go wrong?

I met her in Walsenburg, CO after picking up a rental Jeep Grand Cherokee (with only 6 miles on it) from Denver International Airport. We met about 7pm, had a brief introduction, and then went off in our separate vehicles to find our trailhead. Approaching Purgatoire Campground there is a rocky access road on the left which we took and drove our 4WD vehicles up to the very top. We were the only ones there, which was expected. We laid out a plan to set our alarms for 3am for some quick shut-eye before what would be an epic day. We devised our plan to budget for 24-hours, although I expected we would be much faster (I was thinking more like 16-17 hours). I set up in the back of my Jeep with the seats down and before you know it the alarm was blaring to get up and go!

I was quite tired waking up – the previous workweek I was in Edmonton, AB and the transit to Denver + drive to the TH was draining as is. Nevertheless, I was invigorated by the glorious day of peakbagging ahead of me! I got dressed (trail running shoes, wool socks, running shorts w/ liner, short-sleeve baselayer, long-sleeve tech shirt, windbreaker with hood, warm hat) loaded my pack (additional long-sleeve layer, warm jacket, a lot of snacks, about 3L water and 1L Gatorade), downed some breakfast (chocolate croissant, cold brew, plus whatever I had to stuff my face with), and we were off at 4am with our headlamps on and our mind set to conquer this traverse ahead of us.

Leaving the parking area at the top of the road, you have to self-navigate through some brush and bushwhack your way to the bottom of what becomes an evident ridge. I don’t have a better way to describe this, as we were following a GPS track which was hooked up through her friends Garmin inReach device and displayed on her mobile phone. It was a very good navigation tool. She also had a full page of hand-written notes – she was certainly prepared! We got talking for much of the first climb and with our legs being fresh we completed the first 1.5ish miles and 1800ish ft to Mount Maxwell (13,360 ft) in 45 minutes. This flew by as we had fresh legs and a lot to talk about in getting to know one another. When we reached the summit we were gifted with some incredible colors in the sky in the pre-dawn calmness. As we descended down into the saddle between Maxwell and Mariquita Peak the glowing red sun began to rise. We had to stop and gaze in complete awe as this occurred. This was the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. The Spanish Peaks in the east acted as a great point of reference throughout the day, and then Culebra peak to the South could be seen as a daunting, distant goal ahead of us.

We pranced along the ridge forward now full of energy and determination as we easily summitted Mariquita Peak (13,405 ft). In my mind I don’t remember much scrambling involved for Maxwell and Mariquita but on the return trip I was harshly reminded that none of this terrain is easy on this route. Probably 50% on grassy/rocky type terrain and the other 50% marginally loose big talus, so none of it is easy. Descending down Mariquita you reach a saddle that has another ridge which spurts out to the West. About a quarter mile down there is a crashed plane which lays upside down. We visited this crash site as a small detour. Very cool find. Right nearby we also found some very intact bones of a large animal. Probably a female deer (no antlers). This was definitely some animal’s prey! The only creature that would prey on this size of animal we could think of would be a mountain lion. After snapping some photos of the crash site and goofing around with the animal bones we cracked on up to the ridgeline where we would make our approach to De Anza Peak.

I remember the climb up De Anza (13,333 ft) being very enjoyable, straightforward and no-nonsense. We hit this point about 6:20am. We decided this would be a good place to stash some extra water we were carrying for the return journey. I also was carrying a jacket I felt like would serve no purpose throughout the day, so I stashed it there with the water as well. This would become a major storyline in the late stages of this story.

Moving on from De Anza, we continued on the ridge towards Beaubien Peak (13,184 ft), passing over an unranked peak 12,955ft and then across Whiskey Pass which is one of the highest mountain roads in Colorado, according to dangerousroads.org.  Here we witness a huge herd of deer come barreling out of the valley next to us and pass right in front of us! It was a sight to be seen. We had also seen a beautiful majestic elk at this part of the traverse. We continued up to Beaubien Peak. I had been interested in the name of this peak since it was definitely French Canadian, and it turns out a man by the name of Charles Beaubien who inherited several different names as he made his travels down the US and eventually settling in Colorado and ultimately becoming a recipient of a huge land grant which would encompass this area we were traversing. This guy at one point owned 2.7 million acres of land in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Not bad for a modest man from Trois-Rivières!

Carrying on from Beaubien we bagged Francisco Peak (13,135 ft) and Lomo Liso Mountain (13,128 ft) with not much difficulty at all. We could see ahead now Culebra looming much closer and within reach. However, from Lomo Liso the ridge becomes much more raw and rugged. To the east you can see some alpine lakes which the wild deer seemed to enjoy. To the West you could see the Colorado Sand Dunes National Monument. To the South you had Culebra Peak imposing on the landscape. However, us, being the fearless peakbaggers as we are – we charged up this ridge towards the infamous Miranda Peak – the last ranked mountain before Culebra which is noted for its knife-edge and class 3 scrambling. We could see some figures on the top of Culebra – we were not alone out here anymore! We could not help but laugh at the “suckers” who paid $150 to summit. I kind of hoped those 14er-seekers would still be there when we got there so we could tell them our secret approach. I really enjoyed climbing this section, but I expected the knife edge to be more severe – it really was no big deal to traverse. Miranda Peak (13,468 ft) is where the elevation had begun to take a toll on the stamina of my un-acclimatized body. I had just spent 6 hours above 12,000 feet and with the full-body exertion required to maneuver across this ridge, I had reached a state of fatigue and weakness. However, I regained some strength and powered up the next scramble – a straight-up class 3 to a ranked peak called Peak 13565 (13,565 ft). She and I decided it was worthy of a name, so we decided to call it “Demoralizer Mountain” – because it’s still a distance to get to Culebra! I was pretty much dead tired after the fun but exhausting full-body scrambling effort to summit Demo Mountain (sounds kind of cool now!).

In the approach to Culebra from here you enter what she called a “mountain vagina” – this is when there are two adjacent ridges and a curved opening in between. I decided to walk across the right-hand ridge where she went right through the middle. We found a pool of water here and filled up. Mother nature nurturing us from the source. We took a little break here before heading up to the summit of Culebra. I was very tired at this point and she had gone ahead of me. I also felt an urge to go number 2, so I listened to my body and took care of my business on the side of the ridge. I was quick about it but I guess it was enough time to create some worry in my partner. I would have let her know but she was already out of earshot of me! I couldn’t keep up with this chick! Anyhow we reached the summit of Culebra Peak, my first Colorado 14er, at 1pm. I was toast. And she was amped up and ready to rock and roll and hit Red Mountain. I guess she had already had the chance to enjoy the peak and was ready to move on!

As we descended Culebra we passed a guy taking pictures. He was the only person we had crossed paths with all day. We carried on and went towards Red Mountain. She basically ran to the top while I dragged my feet, making it up in 45 minutes from Culebra. She said it took her 17 minutes. At 2pm we started to make our way back for the long journey back to the cars. This was the terminus of our route and the fun was over. Now it’s serious business of keeping moving and making it back as all the peaks to be bagged have now been bagged! 13ish rough miles and 6000ish brutal climbing separated us now from the cars.

Now as we made our way back we skirted the summit of Culebra and crossed along the talus. The terrain here is significantly rockier than everywhere else on this route and very tiring for me to traverse. Soon, to our dismay, some very dark clouds started to shroud the sky…. Uh oh!!! There was a 10% chance of precipitation in the forecast – could this be it?? We noticed some small harmless snowflakes start coming down. And soon there were some little sparse water droplets. Being up here on this exposed ridge in a rain storm would be absurd. We had to get down! I finally caught up to her at one point as she was waiting for me as the sky stayed dark. I had to give her the options that were going through my head. I thought we ought to head down onto the private roads and try to hitchhike back to our cars if the rain started to come down. But, to our luck (and relief), the rain held out and the slight drizzle stopped soon after. This was my first point of panic – having elevation symptoms at 13,000 ft in a super scrambly area and then getting rain? If it started storming, we would have been in big trouble! We again reached our mountain vagina pool where we rested – mainly for me. I was really beginning to feel bad. Very fatigued and woozy. I felt like I was at a point where I was going to be putting both her and I in danger. I had to overcome this. I now had to resort to using yogic breathing techniques to regulate my heart rate. Otherwise my heart rate would shoot up immediately. Deep breath through the nose to fill my lungs completely, complete exhale through my mouth to empty the lungs. Focusing on this allowed me to regain strength and become very present-minded as we managed the traverse back to Miranda Peak. My mind was very clear at this time and I felt like I knew we were going to be fine if we stuck together. A word came to me – COURAGE. What we were doing here required some serious courage. To push forward and persist on our journey through this challenging terrain. I became very inspired in this state of mind. This part is tricky and requires a lot of concentration as there are some moments with some very exposed areas.

Traversing the ridge after Miranda, I took the high route (it had been the right choice all day) and climbed up and over this notch in the ridge where she went down and to the right. Turns out the “up and over” route on this section was quite technical and got myself in a class 4 downclimb situation. Great! Just as my body was feeling recovered I was now fully exerting myself to downclimb. She took a much easier route around this formation and I’m sure she was a bit confused with my decision. We reached the bottom of Miranda Peak by 6:30pm. I never liked the name Miranda and now it is confirmed. It had taken us (me) 4.5 hours from Red Mountain to this point. Super slow. We really had to start clocking off the miles now. To get back with only 2 hours left before sunset. Now is when the real fun started (if sh*t hadn’t got real already!).

At this point on the return hike I was fed up of scrambling. I felt like I had been doing it all damn day! We got past Lomo Liso Mountain and managed to skirt Francisco Peak – she didn’t like my decision to do this (I could tell) since I was following a herd path, but I didn’t want to gain any extra elevation I didn’t need. This mindset compounded with my general cognitive leeriness from the elevation and fatigue would eventually lead to me making some questionable decisions later on. Now, the sun was setting, and the wind was picking up – and the wind was getting gusty and cold! Without sun, it was getting dark fast. As I slowly slogged up Beaubien Peak with her way ahead of me (I was not being very talkative) – I was sure my jacket was on top of this peak, so I thought I would be fine from there. However, I was wrong! No jacket to be found. Now, headlamps were out, and I was frustrated and concerned at the same time as the temperatures seemed to keep dropping.

We descended into the saddle where the winds were even stronger. She had suggested earlier I use my emergency blanket for additional coverage, but I chose to be stubborn and got to this point of feeling very cold, so I yelled ahead to her through the wind to help me get the blanket out. It was super windy and awkward to wrap myself with it. It had some slight effect but would not help me for long. We slogged up this next climb and I was sure my jacket was up there. But, yet again! No jacket! Not De Anza, but that stupid unranked peak at 12,995! Now I was seriously concerned, but somehow my legs still felt strong. It was now 10pm and we were on hour 16. I was beginning to feel shivers as we descended and then trudged up the next peak. I came up to her sitting and waiting for me. This moment felt very strange. I said to her here “I am in a very bad situation” – we had a brief conversation and I expressed that I needed that jacket. It was the only way. My mind was doing some weird stuff at this point. I, for some reason, thought there were more people in our group and I was being told to follow a different path, so I went up a different trail that she took. I realize now these were hallucinations of some sort. It soon became very steep and loose in the direction I was going, and I realized I had to go up. Looking up I could see her standing up holding my jacket. I managed to force my way up as she came down with it and helped me but it on. We sat down and huddled up for a minute as my body was reheating. I was overcome with some emotion here as I was now emerging from what was a very dark and scary mental state of mind. You can’t help but think of your loved ones in these situations and how important they are and the reason you must push forward to survive is for them. I think if I would have gone another 30 minutes without this jacket I would have became hypothermic. I also don’t think it could have taken me that long to find my jacket with all the weird things my mind was doing. Some serious stuff. I feel very lucky to come out of this alive and unharmed.

After I had a second to recover from this traumatic moment, I gained the determination to get out of this mess and get this over with. Soon after we stood up to start walking again our headlamps flashed onto a set of glowing orange eyes staring right at us! It was close! I would say about 25 yards. Then the eyes briefly ducked down and popped up even closer! We were sure it was a mountain lion and we immediately began to make noise and shoo it away. It seemed to work as the eyes disappeared, however, we were very alert of the chance it was stalking us. We made sure to stay together, as mountain lions tend to attack stragglers. We quickly moved forward to get out of its territory. Now we were alert! It helped us pick up the pace a bit as we continued the slog back to the car. There was still about 3.5 miles to go and we still had Mariquita Peak and Maxwell Mountain to climb.

I don’t remember too many details after this other than it felt very very long. She had hit her wall and was now taking breaks. Pretty amazing she had lasted this long – we were at the 20-hour mark. At night, with headlamps, everything seems to blend in – no colors, just grey in the small circle of light you are looking through. The scrambling was relentless at this point – I seriously did not remember this terrain from the morning! The last 2 climbs were super long and I did not remember Maxwell being that technical. It was a full-on scramble at times! We slightly skirted the summit to the right and were back on the ridge back down to where we started. Finally! The home stretch! This section isn’t much more than a mile long and it’s all downhill but it felt like it went on forever. I swear it took us almost an hour. This to me was the most strenuous part of the entire day, being totally depleted and descending 2,000 feet on loose talus was demanding! We reached the bushwhacking section that felt like nothing in the morning but turned into a navigational ordeal on the return, and then suddenly, we popped out at the cars. I could not believe it. I was really in shock that we had made it back. There were so many times throughout the day battling the thoughts of not making it back that it felt like I had convinced myself it was going to be impossible. As if I had anything left in the emotional tank I did feel overcome with bliss as it was now certain that we were going to live to tell the tale.

I had a serious vendetta against loose talus by the end of this hike and yes, you do get to a point of too much scrambling. What an incredibly long day. Not sure if I would ever do it again though. I don’t think I could have had a better partner on this traverse than her – she was super fun company, upbeat the whole time, way more prepared than me, and in my mind, she saved my life.

Lessons learned:

  • ALWAYS carry a warm layer in the high mountains – even in the summer
  • Do not go the extra 2 miles when you are already struggling at altitude
  • Yogic breathing can be very powerful
  • Hallucinations are real

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go” – T.S. Elliot

The next day we stopped in Canon City at Eco Park to sit in a creek and drink beer. Checked out Boulder for a bit – cool little town with a very active community. Took the rental car back with 584 miles on it. Not too shabby.


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