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Climb every mountain

by Nancy Christofferson

SPANISH PEAKS- Here’s a little bit of trivia for you. The first flag to be set on the summit of the West Spanish Peak was July 4, 1878, when two La Veta men scaled the mountain.  They also fired 32 shots, though the significance of 32 is unknown.

    The identity of the first person to climb the Peak is lost to history, but the first to haul along a guest register was J.A. Landis of La Veta on July 4, 1877.  Three other folks signed the register that year, and two of them were women.

    The September 29, 1881 issue of the Huerfano Herald, a paper published from November 1880 to 1883 in La Veta before moving (briefly) to Walsenburg, carried a list of all those who had successfully conquered the peak through the intervening years plus those who, the month before, had rebuilt the stone monument containing the register.  One of these monument restorers was 63 years old at the time.

    That the Spanish Peaks had captured the attention of thousands of Native Americans, early explorers and conquistadors, is well known.  They were important landmarks of the Southern plains and, after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, an informal marker of the boundary between the territories of New Spain and the United States.  In fact, if someone were south of the peaks, he was in Spanish country, the land called Nuevo Mexico, whose northern boundary was the Arkansas River (although the Republic of Texas claimed much of this territory).

    Legends tell us the native tribes considered the peaks to be the home of the rain gods.  Indeed, one can watch the clouds build up over the peaks and expect rain.  Of course, that rain may fall in Trinidad, or Cuchara, or maybe Hoehne.  Another legend tells us the tribes called the peaks “Wahatoya”, and that means Breasts of the World.  However, the late Johnn Brucke-Bacher researched the word and found its true meaning in a Comanche dictionary, where he found “waha” is double, and “toya” is mountain.  That’s why these are legends, not necessarily facts.

    Early settlers around Francisco’s plaza on the Cucharas River revered the mountains so much they named their first post office after them.  The Spanish Peaks post office opened June 15, 1871 in the plaza.  When the Denver and Rio Grande railroad built into the town, officials renamed the town La Veta in August 1876.

    In the 1870s, settlers weren’t just climbing the mountain, they were mining it.  Old rumors of Spanish and Mexican mines abounded, but La Vetans were convinced there was gold on the mountain because of the huge IN ME etched in stone right there on the north face of the peak. Evidently they believed some geologic god had spelled out the directions for them.

    Two of those hopeful miners of the 1880s were US Senator James Harlan of Iowa and his son-in-law, Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham and then Secretary of War.  The former owned a house in North La Veta, and the latter visited a few times. The senator reached his mine astride a burro, and must have made quite a sight riding along in his city clothes.  Harlan actually quit Congress to devote his time to his gold mine and eventually not only lost his political clout but also his shirt.  His mine, the Whale, in West Gulch, consumed his fortune.  Sharp enough to be a politician, he formed a stock company, sold 10,000 shares for $1 each, and recouped his losses.  He did not return to La Veta.

    The early miners first used burro power to haul tools, equipment and supplies through the woods and across the shale to the high mines, and to bring the ore down.  Gradually, some paths were graded into primitive roads, and heavy equipment and wagons found their way up to timberline and beyond, and later motorized trucks and jeeps.  Most of these byways have deteriorated into ruts and some have disappeared.

    Hikers preferred to reach the summit by way of the saddle between the east and west peaks – the shortest trail available to them.  Back then, there was a regular route across this trail, used by travelers and miners alike.  The trail was improved for hikers as early as 1912 by San Isabel National Forest workers.  After Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps crews completed Cordova Pass in the mid-1930s, a new trail was opened from the top of the pass to the top of the peak.  This has been the favored path since, and while not the only one, certainly the easiest.

    While people down below admire and regard the West Peak favorably, the mountain does not always return that kindness.  During World War II, at least two airplanes crashed into the mountain. In 1942 an Army plane went down on the west side of the peak, and the two-man crew found their way to safety via the trail along Chaparral Creek.  In 1943, a four-man crew was not so lucky, and all were killed when their plane came down on the south slopes of the West Spanish Peak, north of North Lake.  Climbers have for years seen wreckage above Bullseye Mine, which came from neither of the above.  In 1973 a Greeley pilot crashed into the northwest side of the peak, and was killed.

    Weather always has played havoc with climbing the West Peak, which has sizeable electrical fields that draw, or seem to draw, lightning.  Many parties of carefree hikers have been trapped on the barren slopes of loose rock, above timberline, by ferocious electrical storms.  Hail storms are fairly common in August.   One climber, 27-year-old Willie Scandrett of Cuchara, got lost in fog one summer afternoon in 1965, and fell to his death. Summer storms require hikers to climb early and get off the mountain before those rain clouds, beloved by the Indians, churn into a thunderstorm.  Perhaps this is why those early mountain climbers liked to summit the peak in September.