Thursday, August 12, 2004

Culebra Peak

Will new owners open access to Culebra Peak?

Climbers await news on fourteener's status after sale


Climbers trying to bag all of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks often settle for what they call A.B.C.

All but Culebra.

The pyramid-shaped summit of Culebra Peak is off limits. It lies on the private 77,000-acre Taylor Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo mountains just north of the New Mexico border, and only a few lucky hikers a year are allowed by the owner to set foot on its summit.

But the peak may open now that the ranch has new owners - and hundreds of dedicated climbers await the news.

"We're holding our breath," said Kristy Judd, executive director of the Colorado Mountain Club. "They may decide to keep it closed. They may open it. They may build Elitch's up there. We just don't know."

The new owners, Bobby and Dottie Hill and Richard and Kelly Welch of Texas, finalized purchase of the ranch last Thursday aug5 for an undisclosed sum.

They have yet to announce whether they will open up the trail to the summit, or keep it locked tight.

"It's just too early to tell," Bobby Hill said Wednesday. "We want to take our time and learn about the place and the issues before we go off and make a decision."

Every other 14,000-foot peak in the United States lies on public land where anyone can climb it them.

For much of the 1990s, Culebra Peak could be climbed for a price. Owner Jack Taylor charged hikers a $20 to $40 entrance fee.

Former Enron executive Lou Pai bought the ranch from Taylor in 1999 and let only a small number of Colorado Mountain Club members climb the peak one weekend a year.

The club added its own restrictions: Only members who had already climbed the 53 other fourteeners in the state could enter their names in a lottery for a chance at the last peak.

Half a million people climb Colorado fourteeners each year, according to the Colorado Fourteener Initiative, a group that builds sustainable trails on the peaks. Only about 60 get a chance to climb Culebra. A climber's name can take years to come up on the estimated 400-person waiting list.

Many mountaineers these days say "the heck with it" and embrace the considerable accomplishment of A.B.C.

"I've never been up there," said T. J. Rapoport, the Initiative's director. "I'm anxious to see it. It's supposed to be very pristine, very untrammeled."

So is the majority of the above-treeline crowd, which is buzzing over whether A.B.C. will finally R.I.P.

"The owners will have a real opportunity to build a sustainable trail that will preserve the alpine ecosystem," he said.

Mountaineers are only one group curious about the new owners.

For generations, people in the town of San Luis at the foot of the mountain have feuded with owners over their traditional rights to hunt, graze, and gather firewood.

In 1975 someone shot owner Jack Taylor in the ankle for closing the ranch to outsiders. Later, someone burned down his ranch house. Protesters have chained themselves to the ranch gates to protest logging on the property during the 1990s.

Owners, in turn, have aggressively prosecuted trespassers.

"You'd have to be an idiot not to know that this ranch has had its problems. I knew that. But we want to make a clean start," said Hill. "We plan to respect the people here, and we hope they will respect us."

To start from a clean slate, Hill has renamed the ranch Cielo Vista, or heavenly view.

He said he is interested in finding recreation-focused ways to make the ranch ecologically and economically sustainable. Allowing climbers onto the property could be part of that, he said, but he did not want to commit to specifics.

He plans to meet with locals in San Luis to start hashing out the public's place on Cielo Vista next Friday aug 20 but said it would take several months before things get settled.

Locals are cautiously optimistic.

"We view this as a new opportunity to have a good relationship," said Charlie Jaquez, a founding member of the Land Rights Council, a group based in neighboring San Luis that recently won a 44-year legal battle with various owners of the ranch to get them to respect historic land-use rights. "I think that's a really good sign. I hope they do open it up. It's a gorgeous place. The community has a real spiritual connection to that mountain. They want to befriend it again."


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