Retro El Picacho Del Diablo: Twentieth Anniversary of a 1994 Trip
Navigating with map and compass. GPS? Never heard of it. Those were the good old days.
The last time I was in Baja, was on the Gulf side, on a climb of Cerro Pescadores and Pico Risco. When my hiking companion and I arrived at our car, having spent a full day on Cerro Pescadores in the Sonoran Desert, about two dozen armed men crept out of the surrounding brush with guns pointed at us. They wanted to know if we had drugs or guns, and when we answered no, they searched the car and both of us. Those few uncomfortable moments were followed by a car-chase, a lone policeman standing over a decapitated corpse in the middle of the highway (but, that's another story).
This was my first time down the west coast of Baja and the only other time in Mexico following the adventure on the Gulf. It was a classic Southern California autumn morning, clear and sunny, when our group of six, Ron Young, George Toby, Roy Magnuson, Bobcat Thompson, Scot Jamison and I met early Friday morning in San Diego outside the home of Betty and Joe McCosker where we consolidated into two vehicles. Riding with Bobcat and Scot, I tossed my gear in the back of Scot's 4Runner and we were on our way to Baja around nine-thirty in the morning.
Scot was a hardcore Baja veteran, owner of a cabin on a large fishing lake on Baja's Gulf side. The windshield of his 4Runner was tatooed with "turista" stickers which for some reason gave me a feeling of confidence, thinking that perhaps, if the Federalis saw the stickers we would be given the stamp of approval. As we drove along the narrow asphalt two-lane, all I could think about was that the California coast must have once looked like this - pristine bluffs and beaches - relatively undeveloped.
The drive was pleasantly uneventful by my turista standards. Once past Ensenada, we stopped briefly along the curvaceous two lane to the eat the lunches we brought, then continued on to San Pedro de Martir Parque Nacionale. At times, we found ourselves behind large trucks whose drivers waved a hand out the window signaling that it was okay to pass. If one trusted complete strangers you went for it, which we did. South of Ensenada, at the signed road to the Meling Ranch we turned east on a well-graded dirt road that passed through small, quiet inland communities. The road climbed across desert washes and foothills into the pine forests of the San Pedro de Martir mountains. At the park entrance we stopped at a rustic wood cabin where the only sign of technology was a radio sitting on a desk scattered with papers and two or three enameled coffee mugs. The men who gathered around the old woodstove inside the cabin came out to greet us. We told them of our plans and were soon on our way again through the magnificent Ponderosa pines to the end of the road, a small hunting shack at Los Llanitos. Cold air settled in with the afternoon shadows and a peaceful silence. Only the hollow sound of the wind stirred the branches of the Ponderosa above our heads. The sun set at about 6:30 and when night came on the sky filled with millions of stars. It was the heart of the milky way. The wind picked up and ran its whispery fingers through the branches and needles, rustling them throughout the night. According to various thermometers brought along, the first night's temperature was in the low forties.
The sun of a clear blue Baja sky greeted us Saturday morning. My college-era Svea fired away boiling water for coffee and a packet of instant oatmeal. With loaded packs we started up the drainage below the hunting shack, following it to the plateau. Using Jerry Schad's excellent Baja map as our guide, we wandered across the densely forested plateau to the canyon. Around noon, the base of Cerro Botella Azul, aka Blue Bottle, was reached and the peak climbed by those who'd not previously had the honors of doing so. Following a brief rest atop Blue Bottle, we continued on to the head of Canon Diablo, side-hilling along the base of Blue Bottle. When the six of us reassembled at the edge of the canyon, we began the steep descent over rugged boulder-strewn, brushy terrain. At the canyon bottom, we could hear running water at the mouth of Gorrin's Gulley, where a small waterfall coursed down boulders. The drainage was an obstacle course of rocks, boulders and brush. The previous spring's stinging nettles were barely clinging to life, but still full of sting. Winding our way through the canyon we arrived at Campo Noche before sunset.
As the wonderful Baja mountain night enveloped the day, the dry wind of the high desert picked up again. There was no moon. The canyon was pitch black. Our headlamps and a small candle provided the only illumination. Following dinner we lounged around camp, telling stories, gossiping about those who weren't there. We heard what sounded like a person rummaging through a tent, but all six of us were together. The visitor was a small ring-tailed cat who took a liking to cousin Bobcat's package of muffins and most of his chocolate. Before retiring to bed, Bobcat attempted to dangle his food precariously from tree branches while the rest of us decided that packages of trail mix and freeze-dried dinners didn't make such bad pillows. Several times during the night we were awakened by the little ring-tailed cat trying to swipe Bobcat's bag of food off the branch. Around midnight, Bob acquiesced, hauling his food into the tent.
El Picacho del Diablo
In the morning we started up Big Picacho about a quarter to eight. Each of us carried three to four quarts of water. It was a tough route,fighting through the manzanita and boulder-choked gullies, but the weather was perfect. The wind had died down with an occasional breeze. Up the mountain we went, through Night Wash, Slot Wash and eventually Wall Street. What seemed a never-ending slog through gullies covered with thick manzanita concluded on the summit (10,154-feet) around 2pm, overlooking the gulf and the San Pedro Martir Range. Only a short time was spent on the summit before turning around and heading back down, descending somewhat faster than the ascent: the beauty of gravity. We arrived back at Campo Noche just after sunset.
After a long and peacefully quiet night's rest in our canyon campsite, with only one or two visits from our ring-tailed friend, we were up at dawn and by 7:30am off again, back up Cañon Diablo. My pack felt much heavier than it did on the first day, crawling over boulders and downed trees, wading through manzanita, oaks and stinging nettles. As we peacefully ambled along through the canyon, all hell broke loose when angry bees swarmed from inside a decomposing log. The pissed off bees crawled all over me as I ran up the canyon in a panic remembering the bee traps for the Africanized honey bees hanging in trees along the road a few months earlier on the trip to Cerro Pescadores. For a good twenty minutes, Bobcat and Scot picked half-dead bees from my tangled hair. Finally we made it to Blue Bottle Saddle where we stopped for lunch. From there, a shallow drainage was followed back across the plateau where we ran into a NOLS group on a 90 day Baja survival outing. They were as surprised to see us as we were to see them.
At 4:30 we arrived at the cars. Somewhere along the trail, Scot and Bobcat had the brilliant idea of going to Ensenada for dinner and margaritas. Unable to convince Roy, George and Ron to drive another five hours on dirt roads and narrow Baja highways after dark, we said good-bye while they spent one more night camped at Los Llanitos.
Along the road north, fires slowly burned on either side of the road. There wasn't much ground fuel and no one was around, just miles and miles of slow moving flames, black smoke illuminated by the bright red ball of the setting sun.
Scot manuevered through smoke and windy roads to Estero Beach Resort just south of Ensenada, where we chipped in for two rooms. Peeling off my clothes for the shower I noted how dirty my legs were, then realized it wasn't dirt but bruises from wading through the tightly growing manzanita on El Picacho del Diablo. Getting cleaned up for dinner was a priority, but by the time we got to the restaurant it was closed, a sign reading "la fumagacion de cucarachas" hanging on the door. The bar was still open however and we were served dinner and margaritas as the ocean’s white-caps rolled into the bay. Ah, Baja.
©1994-2014 Wynne Benti
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