The story of Colorado’s only private Fourteener
Up until mid-August, any attempt by a mountain climber to complete an ascent of all 54 of Colorado’s Fourteeners usually landed that climber on something referred to as the ABC List – “all but Culebra.” At 14,047 feet tall, Culebra is one of the lowest Fourteeners, ranking 41st on the list of 54. It isn’t particularly challenging, either, qualifying as a Class 2 hike, meaning most people with a decent level of fitness can walk it. Culebra Peak is, however, privately owned, lying within the Cielo Vista Ranch, formerly known as the Taylor Ranch. Though it isn’t the only Fourteener in Colorado with private property on its flanks, Culebra is the only one that lies entirely on private land. Since 1960, access to that land has been strictly limited by its owners, but that changed when the property that includes the mountain’s western slopes and summit changed ownership in August. The new owners – Texans Bobby and Dottie Hill and Richard and Kelly Welch – have established a new era in the ranch. The end result for climbers is much broader access, allowing those looking to climb all of Colorado’s Fourteeners a much better opportunity.The Hills and Welchs have established stipulations on the way climbers are to access their property, but that is their right as private land holders. Limited access is better than no access. According to Bobby Hill, who represents the group on most matters regarding the land, climbers will be required to pay $100 per person and they will have to sign a liability waiver.
“Right now, the mountain is in pristine condition, and under our watch, we don’t want to see that change,” Hill said. Not everyone will agree with forking out $100 to climb a mountain, but for the most part, the access is being well-received. “In my opinion the owner should charge what the market will bear, and from what I hear, $100 seems to be right on,” said Nederland’s Stephen Hoffmeyer, who edits http://www.Fourteenerworld.com, an online magazine dedicated to Colorado’s highest peaks. “People will spend all kinds of money to see a rock band or go to a sporting event. Golfers drop a lot more than $100 to play a game of golf. Why not charge $100 for a day hiking on a pristine mountain?”Broomfield’s Erin Burr was more than happy to fork out the dough to finish climbing the Fourteeners, which she accomplished by climbing Culebra on Sept. 11. “I have no problem with the fee,” Burr said. “It’s a spectacular piece of property. I couldn’t have picked a better hike to end it on … I don’t think I’d mind if (the fee) went up.”Compared to what preceded Hill’s cooperation, the new system is a dream come true for climbers determined to bag all 54. From 1999 until the middle of last month, the ranch had been owned by Lou Pai, a former executive with the now-disgraced Enron Energy Services. In 2001, Enron went belly up under a scandal that shook corporate America so violently that Ken Lay became a household name. The bankruptcy was the largest in U.S. history.
Turns out Pai, who was deemed the 15th greediest corporate executive in America in the Sept. 2, 2002, issue of Fortune Magazine, bought Taylor Ranch using money he acquired after selling off $270 million worth of Enron stock shortly before the company went bankrupt. For motivations that remain unclear, Pai completely closed off access to the property, cutting off not only outdoor enthusiasts, but a group of landowners in Costilla County who have traditionally used the land for grazing livestock and occasional spiritual ceremonies. Pai also renewed legal battles that stretch back to 1960 in an attempt to keep the indigenous people off of the land. Those legal battles raged so fiercely over the last 44 years that in 2002, they hit the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled that the locals did have legal rights to use the lands based on documents dating back to 1864. Eventually, though, it appears Pai had had enough, and that’s when the Hills and Welchs came into the picture.Official figures for the sale of the ranch weren’t available, but speculation on several climbing forums, such as Fourteenerworld.com, puts the purchase price in the neighborhood of $10 million. It makes sense that the new owners would want to take care of it.”This is a very expensive asset,” Hill said. “We have an obligation to take care of it. It’s not government property; it’s not like we can make a request for funds to maintain the property. They just aren’t available (for private landowners).”
The $100 fee isn’t intended to be a profit machine, as the group intends to return every penny earned from climbing back into the ranch. Hill has found working with the climbing community to be a pleasure. “So far, the people we’ve met in the climbing community have been extremely reasonable,” he said.For those that don’t want to pay to climb a mountain, Colorado is home to more than 50 Fourteeners and more than 600 thirteeners which are on public land. The only real need to climb Culebra is to complete an arbitrary list created by mountain climbers based on an elevation – 14,000 feet above sea level – that means nothing if all you want to do is get up on a peak and have a nice view. But as Burr puts it, “It’s nice to not have to explain what the ABC List is.” Making Arrangements to climb Culebra Peak
-Call (254) 897-7872. Leave your contact information on the established answering service and someone will respond within a day or two.-Climbers will be faxed a liability waiver, which will owrk like an admission ticket at the ranch gate. -The group must have at least five people, but be no larger than 20. -Arrangments will be made for meeting a ranch employee at 7 a.m. the morning of the climb at the north headquarters gate. A map to the gate will be provided with the liability waiver. -Once inside the ranch, the group is free to climb the mountain on its own terms, but all groups are expected to be off the mountain by 4 p.m.-For the most part, climbs will need to be organized in advance on particular weekend days. Hill is willing to work with individual groups that would like to climb on weekdays.Richard Chittick eagerly awaits a free weekend during next summer’s climbing season to climb Culebra Peak. He can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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