A TALE OF TWO PICACHOS
In contrast, “El Picacho del Diablo,” a 10,171’
peak in Baja California (Mexico), is rather lush. The normal campsite
is by a cold, clear stream amid tall pines. “Diablo” may require
backpacking and three exhausting days of convoluted route-finding. Henceforth
I’ll refer to Diablo as P2.
View of P1 in sunrise, with the “keyhole” marked
We can divide the climb of P1 into seven steps:
Your method of dealing with step 6 may require the most practice. We all know about prusiks and etriers in theory, and they look simple enough; but when you try using them, and find your feet wildly swinging about, or the knots not behaving as expected (sticking or slipping at the wrong times), and the “theory” becomes humorously inadequate. I used a tree in my yard for etrier and prusik (actually used kleimheist knots) practice. I then went to an overhanging ledge in Calico Basin for some reality checks—it’s one thing to prusik on a free-hanging rope, but matters get dicey when the rope occasionally hangs up over ledges.
This peak is at rather low elevation, way down south in California. So obviously, it is best climbed in the late fall or winter. If you must go later, look for windows of opportunity, when the weather is cooler than normal. The climb is very short, so unless you have a large group with exposure issues, day length should not be a problem. Yet as I say that, I can immediately think of two groups that finished in the dark; one group started from the more distant eastern trailhead, but mainly they had issues getting lots of people through the bottlenecks. We went February 11, and had unseasonably warm weather – but it was still in the mid 70s at warmest, and the morning climb from the west is mostly in shade at that time of year.
You can camp at Picacho State Recreation Area (California—not the similar-named park in Arizona!), if you feel a compelling need to take a shower or bring your trailer. But primitive camping near the eastern (2WD) trailhead is pretty nice; there are flat-bottomed gravel washes, surrounded by near-vertical banks, which provide shade. For the primitive camping, please observe this caution: there is often a birm of sand, about a foot high, separating the road from the camping area—low-slung 2WD vehicles can easily hang up. Some folks camp under the acacias in the washes farther down the road (closer to Yuma), and the 4WD TH has a few camping spots.
Reality: Our Trip
I made the pleasant drive down route 95, into Arizona and down to Yuma CA, by myself. As luck would have it, we had such different schedules that we ended up with 3 vehicles. The road to the 2WD trailhead is very good gravel. I arrived a bit after 3PM, and pulled off the graded road into a side canyon; already the bluffs were shading my tent, and I was asleep by 6PM. Tracy pulled in about 7:30PM, and I woke up to greet him for about 30 seconds.
The next morn, our 3rd and 4th members – CP and DB—pulled in at 7AM. Tracy had to get back that eve, so we opted to drive to the NW trailhead, which is much closer to the peak, but which definitely requires 4WD. We all piled into Tracy’s Rubicon for a bumpy drive. The bumpy ride nearly put DB to sleep (??), and she opted to stay in the car and work while we three gallivanted on.
Map of P1 area
In February, the west side of the peak was pleasantly shaded at 8AM. We worked south from the 4WD trailhead, then cut ESE, then NNE up to the obvious notch, over loose but pretty easy terrain. At the notch we headed NE over more solid volcanic rock to the first short ladder. As you come up the ladder, you may discover why you are advised to take helmets: much of the route consists of overhanging ledges, and it is all too easy to bonk your head. (If you make the climb, please, please take enough webbing to re-secure the ladders on your way back—the webbing that holds them to the rock is extremely ratty. I would have gladly used my webbing, but we were in a rush to get down so Tracy could drive home.)
Immediately above the ladder to the north, is the crux
of the climb for many folks: a “step-across.” The gap is a
little more than 3’ where you must make the step, and the exposure
is truly awesome. You have to climb down a steep slope to get to the launching
point, and it is really hard to belay folks in this area. I decided to
take off my pack and jump across—for me, a leap of 3’+ is
no big deal. On the “far side” was a lump, which I slung and
attached a handline; but we used the handline to secure the packs only.
Tracy tied each pack to the line and tossed, and I caught the packs on
the other side. (One pack did bounce and start to slide into oblivion,
so this precaution was not frivolous.) Then Tracy --who is 6’7”
tall—screwed his courage to the sticking point, and made the leap
across. CP followed immediately. I think this move may be harder for tall
people; they tower above the gap, and have a hard time bending down to
make the critical move. I got no pictures of the step-across, as I was
always ready to belay, and I have this thing about taking pictures while
belaying; but this image on climber.org gives a good idea:
This aluminum ladder is “new,” but the webbing that secures it to the mountain is even rattier than the webbing on the first ladder. Without this ladder, the climb would be about 5.9. From the top of the ladder one climbs up to the north end of the ridge, for an easy and triumphant stroll to the summit.
Kidding! At the north end of the ridge, you still have the false summit to cross. There are two traditional ways to deal with the false summit: A) fix a rope (not easy, now that the bolts were removed), rappel down the east side, then climb through a hole below the false summit – the so-called “keyhole” in figure 1. The rope must be left, since you will have to climb up it on the way back; B) the most common way, and the one we used: climb up a sketchy 4th class (some say low 5th), 15’ wall on the northeast (left) side) of the false summit, then rap down the south side.
Route on N side of false summit
I started climbing up this route, got halfway up, then decided to take my pack off and stash it in an alcove. I’m used to contorting my body to take off packs, but apparently my compatriots, who were watching, thought I was performing some pre-jump rite, and held their breathe for 20 seconds. I then manteled to the top, and helped pull the packs up. Now Tracy’s height was an advantage; what was a mantel for me was a ho-hum for him.
If I had to do this climb again, I would definitely take off my pack first, and just bring a short strap or cord to haul packs. It would also be smart to bottom-belay the first climber; this will be tricky, since the anchor points are limited. However, one can drop down to the right of the notch before the false summit, to gain rope friction advantage if the climber slips off the left side. Once the first climber reaches the north side of the false summit, there is a bolt to anchor a top belay, and a depression to sit in if you simply want to give a body belay and multiply the strength of the belay with rock-rope friction.
Once atop the false summit, mosey to the south side for the next move: a short, overhanging 15’ rap. There are two good bolts, and you will want to leave a securely fixed rope hanging from them, because you have to come back up this way.
Rap down the south side of false summit
From the bottom of the rap, it’s a short walk to the summit; like many desert peaks, you just can’t take pictures that will capture the ruggedness of the summit.
Now for the fun: getting back up the false summit. We had left a rope securely tied to a bolt on the south side. Tracy had brought ascenders that he used for caving; but he hadn’t used them for at least 10 years. For at least 40 minutes, Tracy and CP tried to figure out the ascenders, till they finally let me just put my prusik loops on the rope with Kleimheist knots… and I was up in a minute. Tracy sort-of figured out the ascenders, but they simply didn’t release and grip the way they should, and he was shaking from exertion after he reached the top. CP used my prusiks, and was up in another minute. Ironically, I also had 12’ of etriers, but Tracy and CP were so confident of the ascenders, that I left them in my pack.
View down on the ascent of fixed rope
From there we rapped down the north side of the summit,
and retraced our steps down the mountain. The step-across was much easier
going back; from the lower side, you can see a pattern of holds on the
left wall (mountain-side), and you have to climb down a bit, then up the
wall; you can probably belay this ascent with enough rope, from the ladder
if need be.
We were back down at the campsite before noon, and Tracy left for home as soon as possible. CP, DB and I climbed another nearby peak to view the day’s work. We spent another night at the informal campsite on BLM land – it was in the shade again by 3PM, and was actually cool.
Postscript: Map Errors!
P2: The Big Picacho
While there are ways to cross into Baja (legally!) without a passport, your life will be far easier if you have an up-to-date passport with you. If you plan to drive, consider getting the plastic passport card—it’s faster and easier to use. Better yet, get both—one in your wallet and one in your luggage.
Sometime after you cross into Baja, you will want to stop and get a tourist card (or “Mexican Visa;” about 25 American Dollars). At Tijuana on the border, you will most likely have agents that speak English. If you don’t want to stop in Tijuana, the next possibility is Ensenada, where the office is much smaller and it may be a little harder to communicate. Many people scoff at these cards, and point out that no one ever asks to see them. But I’ve also heard that folks who had accidents, or zealous inspections, were asked to produce the tourist cards; and if they DIDN’T have the cards, were fined 200 to 500 dollars.
All gasoline stations in Mexico are Pemex—run by the state, generally clean, and generally able to take credit cards. In Northern Baja, almost all places will take American dollars, with a slight markup. But there is one place where it is good to have exact change in Pesos: at the toll booths, of which there are three on route 1. P2 is in San Pedro Martir National Park; you are required to pay a park entrance fee. For us, for 3 days, it was about 25 American dollars apiece.
Perhaps the travel into Mexico caused me the most trepidation. Yet once you get south of Tijuana, Baja is pretty safe; your greatest fear is from the Federales, who used to work lots of scams that required 500 to 2000 dollar payments to keep out of jail; but that has subsided a lot in Baja, as the locals understand their lifeblood is tourism. But “safe” must be used in the proper context; this is a poor country, and people often look for property to acquire. I left my pack outside my hotel room for 30 seconds at 5AM, and came out to find someone looking through it. So don’t leave stuff unattended, at least in the towns and easily accessible areas. Way south of Ensenada, you will usually see two types of homes: ramshackle hovels; and slightly better homes with bars on the windows. Also, people drive like absolute maniacs, ignoring most posted speed limits, driving and passing randomly on mountain roads with rickety guard rails and no shoulders. The most effective speed control is through topes—very large speed bumps that will destroy your car if you don’t slow down. But altogether, I felt far safer in Baja than I do in downtown Las Vegas. You will be struck by the lack of bullet holes in the road signs, compared to Nevada.
Overview of our route up P2
If you bring your own car, you will need to get Mexican auto insurance. Bart took care of that, and in the end, it cost us about $20 each. Be careful that your insurance also covers vandalism. Ensenada is highly oriented to tourists, and you can get a classy room for about 70-80 American dollars. Baja supposedly doesn’t have the water problems of the rest of Mexico, but the signs in the hotel rooms still warn you not to drink the tap water, so bring a gallon of water for brushing your teeth, taking ibuprofen (!) and so on. If you are a bit more adventuresome, just south of central Ensenada are motels with rooms for about 15 dollars per night.
Do you need to speak Spanish to climb P2? No, but I sure felt a lot more comfortable travelling with folks who spoke some Spanish. Especially in the small towns, you will likely encounter no one who speaks English. You may meet Mexican climbers at Campo Noche; life is more interesting if you can do more than utter your name.
You may be surprised at the mildness of Baja weather. You are on a strip of land, moderated by the Pacific on the west, and the Sea of Cortez on the east; the day-night temperature swing is 10-20 degrees F, even in the mountains. At the end of May, we didn’t experience temps above mid 60s; on the mountain, it was more like 50F. But the sun is intense, and it will feel much hotter—dark rocks will be too hot to touch. Yet there are reports of snowstorms in July on P2. Watch the weather, using either the record from the Observatory (9200 ft) in San Pedro Martir, or the predictions on http://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Picacho-del-Diablo/forecasts/2500.
Now the hike begins! The trailhead is a rather informal clear area amid big pines. We made our last gear checks, tanked up with water for the trip ahead, and put on our backpacks. Bart and Anji were both still nauseous from car sickness, yet they persevered. There is a sign for a trail, and almost immediately, the “trail” fragments into several faint usage paths, on the right and left sides of a wash. We began to see very fresh orange surveyor tape on the trees; I speculated that it was meant to guide the fellow who planned to break the record, since he would start out near midnight the very next morn. Gradually, through ups and downs, we accumulated about 1800’ of gain to Blue Bottle Saddle at 9250’. At the saddle we met Juan Carlos Lopez, wearing a bright orange shirt and cap; he, with a friend, was leaving the orange tapes for his brother Victor. (The next day, after Victor came through, Juan Carlos removed all the ribbons.) Juan Carlos showed us a fantastic view point of P2.
Our group at Blue Bottle Saddle, with Juan Carlos (in orange) at right
Soon we left Blue Bottle, and dropped off the east side, for what Anji called “the descent into Hell.” It is important to traverse right while dropping, following the cairns as much as possible; a direct drop from the saddle puts one over high cliffs. There are definitely class 3 moves on the slippery, vaguely marked path down, 3100’ vertical to Campo Noche. I used a strap once to lower a pack, but we decided it was easiest just to hand down the rest of the packs. After an interminable series of obstacle courses, you reach water at about 6500’; now the trick is to find a route, first on the left side, then the right side, that keeps you near the stream (but not in the thick brush).
Rough terrain on way down to Canyon del Diablo
Finally we arrived at Campo Noche, a beautiful shaded site near a clear stream. There is another campsite a bit higher in elevation, and to the SE. Soon after 5 or 6 members of Victor’s support team (including Juan Carlos) showed up and set up tents. I hit the sack early, and slept pretty well on my thin ridgerest pad, thanks to strategically dug hip, shoulder and heel pits, and some extra clothes packed under my legs.
Spring at Campo Noche
At 4:10 AM I was awakened by loud shouting. Victor had
arrived at Campo Noche, after 4 hours of travel in the dark (full moon),
following the orange ribbons. Incredibly, I fell back to sleep. But 20
minutes later, Victor shouted down that he was on track, and once more
his support team piled out of bed, now shouting as loud as they possible
could. This last set of shouts was like a taser in my brain. The support
team, faced with nothing more than climbing back out that day, went back
to sleep immediately. I realized that I had already slept 8 hours, so
I got up and ate. I reconfigured the top pocket of my osprey packs as
a waist pack, and took out the REI flash 18 that I was using as a stuff
sack, and packed food water, extra clothes, and various emergency supplies.
I don’t drink much water while hiking, so I packed just 1.7 liters
for the climb itself; but I drank 2 liters in the hour before we left.
Soon we were at Wall Street; no photograph can do justice to this stretch. There is a chockstone in the ravine here, but a slippery bypass on the right allows one to squeeze by on class 3 terrain. From there, it is just a brutal class 2 trudge to the top.
Of course, the views are breath-taking, with the Pacific to the west, and the Sea of Cortez to the east, and the very rough Baja Sierra around you. While the air temperature was maybe 50F, there was no wind, and the cloudless sky let through the merciless sun. We found ourselves jockeying for the shade of boulders on the very small summit. Now for the hard part: getting back down.
View east from P2 summit
We reversed the obstacle course; by unspoken agreement, the moment the leader had any doubts about the route, s/he spoke of the doubts, indicated the best direction to look for the trail, and in short order, someone else would notice a cairn. There are actually many independent cairned routes; but the ones with the most and biggest cairns are usually the best. Often we might see a cairn far below, and wonder, “how the heck do we get there?” This is not a place to randomly bull ahead when you run out of cairns; it is usually much more efficient to go back to the last cairn and try harder to spot the next. Even with a GPS, the uncertainty of location is about the scale of route-finding, and the steep walls mean signals are often blocked or made inaccurate by reflection.
We got back to Campo Noche rather early in the day – perhaps 4PM – but it was none too soon. Collin had begun to suffer truly debilitating muscle cramps. There are many explanations for such cramps; his were systemic, so his hand might suddenly twist in some painful bizarre configuration, or his abdomen would buckle. We did the standard treatments with electrolytes and water, but he really didn't get relief till were in the car driving home the next day. Props go to Bart, Collin, and Anji for pushing on, beyond the limits of reasonable endurance when they were nauseous and cramping; I would have just stopped at those times.
We slept in a little the following morn, but were anxious to begin the hellish trudge, 3100’ vertical, back to the saddle, while it was still cool. (I slept well again that night; but Collin cramped in his sleep, causing him many violent, scary wake-ups in the night.) We did better on the ascent out of the canyon, since we recognized our mistakes from the two days before. At the saddle, Collin felt energized enough to climb Blue Bottle Peak (Cerro Azul), the second highest peak in Baja. In contrast to P2, Blue Bottle is just a walk-up with a gain of about 400’. However, it gives enough elevation for great views of the surrounding area.
Views from Cerro Azul
Soon we were heading back to the car, mostly downhill. We wanted to get to the car before 4PM, in time to make drive back to Ensenada in daylight (with shoulderless roads and maniacal Mexican truckers, driving is creepy at night). Collin was trying to out-race his cramps, and with those long legs, he could really move. Soon I noticed Collin, Austin and I had taken the slightly less-used trail at an unsigned junction; I consulted my GPS and realized we were on a “different” path – there are many of these “different” paths! Anji and Bart, out of sight and behind us, took the correct path. We took a more convoluted route, and the other two actually passed us on the correct trail! When “our” trail petered out, we used the GPS to shoot back to the correct route and caught up to Bart and Anji. I’m not sure they ever figured out how that happened!
We got back to the car before 4PM, and I raced to repack, wash my feet, change my shoes, and cram into the very back seat. Now, after all that exercise, it was suddenly very cramped. so arranged myself for the maximum leg extension. Anji drove, and Bart sat next to her up front, and there were no more problems with nausea.
We got back on route 1, and the driving was noticeably crazier than on the route down, two days before. Most vehicles, especially rickety, over-loaded pickups and semis with bald tires, were going way faster than the posted speed limit, and would pass almost at will, oblivious to turns, vertiginous drops, and oncoming traffic. We were stopped and searched briefly at a military checkpoint; as we left, Anji suggested that our body odor was responsible for the brevity of the search. We got to Ensenada and a motel, and as we were preparing to fall asleep, car horns started an incredible cacophony that didn’t end until midnight. I was so damn tired that I just put in earplugs and fell asleep anyway. It turns out that a favorite soccer team had just won a match, and the usual means of celebration is to hit the streets and keep everyone else awake. Mexico has a much more relaxed attitude about sleep; many people take siestas in the middle of the day, so they don’t understand why people should be upset by noise at night.
The next morn we left early for the long drive back. The only notable event was the half-hour wait at customs, in Tijuana, as we prepared to reenter the USA. Street peddlers and beggars ply up and down the lines of cars, selling food, trinkets, religious paintings, huge ceramic turtles, anything. We bought some churros, and tried not to think about where the vendors wash their hands. The US customs officer asked for our passports at the car window, and nonchalantly asked if we were bringing back anything from Mexico. “Nothing but scars” I replied, and he let us through.
Postscript: Map errors again!
After the trip, I made a freely-available garmin-compatible topo map for the area around Picacho del Diablo. You can load this map on the newer Garmin “mapping” units, and the route that we took to Picacho is permanently built-in, along with a few waypoints for Campo Noche and other similar place of interest. I used the best available, free digital levation model—the USGS 1 arc-second data—and did an affine transform to fix the registration error. Unfortunately, that means the topographic accuracy is only slightly better than you would get with a USGS 100K map, and not as good as you would get with a USGS 24K topo map. However, this digital elevation model as at least as good as the one used by the commercial vendors.
Garmin screen with free map
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Wednesday, June 26, 2013
del Diablo & Mt. Hood
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
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