SUNDAY, MAY 7TH, 2006
It was mid-morning and we were only about half way up the monstrous slope leading out of Cañyon Diablo towards the saddle at Cerro Botella Azul. We had left Campo Noche at first light to pick our way carefully through the rocks, boulders, dead-fall and occasional stinging nettle, past the falls at Gorrin’s gully, trying to get as close to the saddle as we could before the sun hit us. The trip had not been a total failure, but my poor route finding had cost us the summit the day before. Yet even as we labored to slowly haul our packs up-slope, my mind was already working out plans for a return trip. By the time we made it back to the truck at the Llanitos shack, Matt G. was already on board to try again the following year.
And so the return trip to Picacho del Diablo simmered in my mind for the rest of 2006. By the first of the year 2007, plans had been set in motion to make another stab at Big Picacho. Once again I began to train by hiking the hills behind my house, starting off easy with just a few miles and then working up to more mileage with a loaded backpack. Matt had begun his running regime again, and was building up a level of fitness and stature he had not seen for some time. It was clear to both of us that the first trip to Picacho had been a shakedown cruise of sorts, not only a reconnaissance, but also a litmus test of our strength and fitness.
THURSDAY, APRIL 26TH, 2007
Matt had arrived from Washington the day before and spent the day with friends while I was at work. We spent some time that night getting gear together and loading the truck. In the morning we dropped off my son at school and then did some last minute grocery shopping before heading south on I-15. There was traffic, but not too heavy. We crossed the border in to Tijuana by about 9:00.
Now I should mention here that there is just something about crossing the border. It means different things to different people. A lot of people I know tense up as soon as they realize that they’re in a foreign country. Me, I have the completely opposite reaction: I suddenly begin to relax and a feeling of contentment washes over me. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but I like to think that maybe I can tune into that laid back feeling so prevalent in most of the towns and villages of Mexico. Or maybe it’s just that I know I’m playing hooky from work and that I’m on a little vacation…
We made our way quickly though TJ and got on the toll road heading south. Next stop: Ensenada. We were a bit early for lunch, but none the less we stopped off for some adobada tacos and a torta. We gassed up (for about a buck cheaper per gallon than in the states!) and then made a quick stop at the cerveseria for a couple of sixers to put in the cooler. By the time we got to San Vicente, I’d realized that we had no limes for the beer. Tacate beer is fine as it is, but with a lime it’s just so much better. So another quick stop for limes (and a stick of butter to put in the pasta and rice dishes we’d brought along for dinners) and we were southbound again.
We made the turnoff for San Telmo and the Parque National San Pedro Martir by about noon. The road up to the park is now paved almost all the way to the park entrance, making the drive go a bit faster. We made it from Mex 1 to the park gate in about an hour and fifteen minutes. (But it doesn’t make those steep drops and sharp turns any less intimidating! Especially with a fresh coating of sand on the top of the pavement.)
At the entry gate we stopped and paid for our camping permits, twenty pesos per night. The gatekeeper told us that they had a dusting of snow the week before, but that was it as far as weather. We drove on through the park, enjoying the scenery and Jeffery Pine scented air, eventually reaching the Vallecitos area where we found three vans parked at a trailhead. We assumed that we would have company on the mountain this weekend. We reached the turn off to the Llanitos shack and stopped to lock the hubs and drop the old brown Ford (affectionately christened “Mr Hinkey” by my good friend Mike M.) into four-wheel drive. The drive to the shack took about 35 minutes or so, and it was around 4:00 by the time we finally got there.
We had brought along a small barbecue grill, and wasted no time firing it up to cook up some nice carne asada and some beans and corn. We knew from last years experience on the mountain that no matter how much we ate tonight, the workout to come would burn it all off, and then some. At about 6:00 a small thunderstorm moved through. It started out as rain, then turned to hail and then back to rain again. It was an unexpected occurrence, but welcomed none the less. It left the air cool and moist, a welcome change from the dusty dryness of the park. By 8:00 we had rolled out in the back of the pickup to spend the night.
FRIDAY, APRIL 27TH
Waking some time before 6:00, we boiled some water for coffee and oats and got our packs loaded and ready to go. We packed lightly, and I could tell that my pack was lighter than the 45+ pounds I had been carrying during my training hikes. That alone made me feel better about this trip. The rain the night before had us a bit concerned because we opted not to bring a tent for the trip, but we each carried a tent footprint to use as a ground cloth so we figured we could rig something if we needed to keep dry. As it turned out, the weather stayed perfect for the rest of the trip.
We started up the creek drainage from the Llanitos shack and had hiked only about 30 minutes when we realized that we had already missed a turn off that would take us up out of the drainage and onto the rolling plateau. I contoured uphill to try to get back to the route we wanted, while Matt skirted the rock outcrops below me. We met up again and made our way up the slope, back on route again.
We made good time to the saddle at Cerro Bottela Azul, arriving just a few minutes after 10:00. Feeling good, and knowing that the summit of Botella Azul was only a short scramble, we decided to bag that peak as well. It took about 18 minutes to reach the summit. We stayed only long enough to sign in and snap a couple of quick pictures before heading back down to our packs at the saddle. Descent took about 10 minutes.
Back at the saddle we ate a snack, applied sunscreen and shouldered our packs to start the descent into Cañyon Diablo. The trail leads east away from the saddle and skirts along the slope of Cerro Botella Azul. It’s important to traverse as far as possible towards Pinnacle Ridge before turning north down-slope to avoid descending the even steeper and rockier Gorrin’s Gully. The terrain was familiar from last years trip, so it was not difficult to pick the correct line. We passed the same spot where there had been a small snow patch last year, and although we were a week earlier than last year, the snow patch was almost completely melted out already.
Looking up at Pinnacle Ridge
The going was steep, but we kept up a good pace and soon found ourselves under the towering cliffs of Pinnacle Ridge, well down into the canyon. We took another short break for some lunch and then continued downward. The descent into Cañyon Diablo is brutal. It starts off very steep and is punctuated with rocks, dead and downed trees, loose footing and an often-unclear route. But that soon changes to larger rocks that require exceptional footing to keep from twisting an ankle, or worse. The continued pounding of dropping from rock to rock takes its toll not only on feet, ankles and knees, but is mentally draining also. I found that I was constantly focusing on balance and careful placement of my next step. Was that next rock solid, or would it roll out from under my foot when I committed all of my weight to it?
Sooner than expected, we came upon greener foliage indicating that water was near. Within a few minutes we were at the falls where Gorrin’s Gully intersects Cañyon Diablo. Matt found a use trail that skirted up to the middle of the falls, which proved to be an efficient and somewhat easier method of negotiating the crossing. We stopped there at the falls and I dipped my head in the pool while Matt refilled his depleted water supply. Refreshed, we headed down stream, staying on the west side of the canyon following a fairly decent use trail. We quickly passed CedarOak camp and soon found ourselves dropping into the streambed and arriving at our destination of Camp Noche. We had been hoping that we would be able to get the same camp that we had stumbled upon last year… it’s known as the “Hidden Camp”, and is slightly up-slope, away from the cramped camps at Campo Noche proper. As we scrambled up the last few boulders into camp, we found that not only was our first choice available, but there was no one else even in camp. It looked like we would have the place to ourselves.
Tired, but feeling good, we dropped our gear and claimed our spots. It had taken just over seven hours from the truck to Camp Noche, a full hour faster than last year, and including the summit of Cerro Botella Azul.
After a brief rest, we took all of our containers to the creek to fill up. After stringing a line from a couple of trees to provide a place to hang our food against marauding critters, we gathered firewood to cook the steaks we had brought with us for dinner. It was just about then that we came to the stark realization that both of us had forgotten to pack any beer. To say that we were crushed would be an understatement. Now I know… you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute… steaks? Beer? What kind of backpackers/climbers are these guys?” All I can say is that when you’ve worked THAT hard to get someplace, a good steak and a beer tastes like the best meal in the world. Scientifically speaking, steak is a great choice for a meal…protein to build up those worn down muscles and help build red blood cells, which in turn helps to counteract the effects of working hard at altitude. (Does it sound like I’m trying too hard to make a case?) The reality was, we’d packed light enough that bringing along a few “amenities” wouldn’t pose that much of a problem. (Provided, that is, you remember to pack them in the first place.) So, we didn’t have the beer, but we did have the steaks, complete with a butter topping with capers, peppers and herbs. Served with a side of Spanish rice, it was a meal beyond compare.
We finished our dinner, hung our food and prepared our daypacks for the climb tomorrow. By now the sun had long since left the deep canyon, and although it was still early, we rolled in by about 7:30.
SATURDAY, APRIL 28TH
Matt had set his alarm for 5:00. Not realizing what time it was, I had gotten up just minutes before to use the nearest tree. Lying back down with a feeling of contentment that I would get to have another hour’s sleep before the alarm went off, you can imagine my dismay at hearing it chirping just a few feet away from me. I didn’t even get to have a rude awakening, as I never even got to go back to sleep! Oh well. Turns out neither of us had slept all that peacefully. I suppose eating all that steak and going to bed on a full stomach might not have been the best idea.
Lounging around for a while, we eventually got up and got a pot of water going for breakfast. We’d set the alarm so that we would be up before the sun, but not so early that we’d have to start the climb in the dark. Although the route we were climbing starts with a section called “Night Wash”, climbing at night wasn’t something we wanted to do. Without daylight, you might as well just sit down and wait; it’s that easy to get off route. So after a semi-leisurely breakfast, we were ready to roll by about 6:00. At 6:08 we left camp and began our ascent of Night Wash.
The climbing becomes steep right out of camp. We ascended the left side of Night Wash towards the bottom, but wound up more towards the center as we gained altitude. Eventually we reached the ridge where the route crosses over and drops into Slot Wash. We had been climbing for an hour and were feeling pretty good.
After the disappointing failure on this route last year, we had made an agreement that as soon as we suspected we were off route, we would backtrack to the last known marker and re-gain the route. For all you purists out there that disdain the very thought of following a marked or “ducked” route, all I can say is good luck on Picacho del Diablo if you decide not to use them.
Into the thick of it. Slot Wash
Dropping into Slot Wash, the route now became somewhat easier as the angle eased for a while. However, we were now forced to negotiate obstacles such as large boulder fields and dense brushy sections. Our motto of backtracking to last duck got us back on route in this area at least four or five times. Eventually the route began to climb more steeply and we could see the “Cleaver”, a significant landmark that the climber must pass on the left. As we entered the gully to the left of the cleaver, the route followed the left side of the canyon to circumvent numerous waterfalls. There were a few sections of slick rock above some exposed areas that required care, as well as one or two places where we encountered a few class 3 or 4 moves to surmount an obstacle. (These could probably be passed by more careful routefinding if one felt uncomfortable with that level of climbing or exposure.)
Class 3 friction slabs
After passing the falls area, more scrambling up slope in a generally leftward direction brought us to the bottom of the class 3-friction slopes. This section looks steep, but it is actually a large right facing dihedral that I found to be a relatively easy part of the climb, allowing us to make fast progress. At the top of the dihedral, we again trended towards the left and up, eventually to the entrance to Wall Street.
Looking down the class 3 slabs
The bottom of Wall Street has a few more friction slabs that work up to a narrow gully. This narrow part of the gully is climbed via a few class 3 moves on the right side to bypass the steepest section.
From there it’s a steep hike up loose talus almost right to the summit. As we ascended the talus above the Wall Street narrows, we finally began to get into a bit of sun. We had been fortunate that the route stays in shade most of the morning. Starting early helped to keep us cool as we climbed. We took a short break under a tree to eat a snack and rest up. We were close to the summit. Moving upward again it was only some twenty to thirty minutes later that we arrived at the top of Wall Street. Just at the top of Wall Street the climb turns to the left to ascend the final summit block. We had reached the top in four hours and twenty-five minutes.
Hero shot in memory of my brother
The peak experience on this summit was extraordinary. This is truly a peak that must be earned, but the reward is well worth the work necessary to achieve it. We stood on the top of Baja and reveled in the awesome view in all directions. We sat and enjoyed the scenery and the solitude.
After spending maybe thirty minutes on the summit, we decided that we would make an attempt at the South summit as well. I had read that the traverse is something in the class 3-4 range, and it looked as though we would have a pretty good shot at making it. We took off down the ridge from the North summit, but in only five or ten minutes came to a deep notch that would require class five down climbing, or a larger drop in altitude to traverse below the notch. Both of us decided then and there that the South summit was not all that inspiring after all, and we would be content to bag the North summit alone.
We traversed back to Wall Street, and then retraced our steps down to Slot Wash. Matt had run out of water, so we stopped at the one place we had seen a pool of water at the base of one of the falls in Slot Wash. Matt filtered a liter out of the pool and we continued on our way down. Finally we crossed the ridge back into Night Wash and could see the bottom of the canyon. The descent took longer than I had expected, largely due to the fact that the route is so coarse, not to mention that my knees were now complaining about the abuse they had been subjected to in the past twenty-four hours. We were back into Campo Noche in about three hours and forty-five minutes.
We spent the rest of the afternoon laying around camp and then filling up water again. We made dinner, and once again hit the sack early. The plan was to awaken even earlier in the morning to get going as soon as there was enough light in the sky to navigate the streambed leading up towards the exit slope.
As the sunlight faded away, camp was filled with the glow of the early rising moon. Even with the bright moonlight, the view of the stars was incredible. Lying back and gazing up at the night sky through the canopy of branches and leaves of the oak trees provided a peaceful way to drift off to sleep. Campo Noche has an aura about it. It truly is a unique environment. A riparian habitat that exists only because of the trickle of water that provides life.
We had read that there is a ring-tailed cat that sometimes is seen in Campo Noche. That was one of the reasons that we were hanging our food at night. Last year we saw no sign of such an animal. Late on our last night, I was awakened by Matt calling my name. He was asking me where my camera was because he had just had an experience with the ring-tailed cat. Apparently, while we slept, the cat had crept up and touched Matt on his head, much the way a house cat will put it’s paw on someone. Matt awoke to watch the cat wander through our camp. It checked out his pack and then went under a rock where some previous campers had apparently stashed a plastic tarp and an MRE. Matt could hear it under the rock, but never got another glimpse of the animal. We later joked that the cat had chosen Matt, and that it was his spirit animal or totem.
SUNDAY, APRIL 29TH
The alarm went off at 4:30 am. By headlamp we broke camp, made breakfast and packed up our backpacks. It was just gray light when we began to move into the streambed. We had hoped to make better time than last year, and although we maintained a good pace, it seemed to take a long time to get to the falls at Gorrin’s gully. After an hours worth of scrambling, we had made good progress up the canyon. I should note here that although we were able to follow a use trail down into the canyon, that same trail is very elusive on the way back up. More than once we found ourselves in a different part of the canyon, sometimes bushwhacking where we had not had to do so on the way in. Even when we got to the wooded slope leading up to the saddle, the route was sometimes difficult to follow.
We had hoped to make the saddle at Cerro Botella Azul in four hours, but it took just a bit longer. Not stopping at the saddle, we continued downward through the aspen groves and manzanita, reaching our cut off point to the Llanitos shack in about thirty minutes. Another hour and a half walk through the woods following GPS bearings and we were back at the shack and the truck. It had taken just over six hours to get back from Campo Noche.
After cleaning up a bit and changing into some clothes that were less estinky, we loaded up the truck and headed back to civilization. The drive through the woods was peaceful, and we noted how dry the entire forest of the Parque San Pedro Martir really is. Driving down the grade from the park, we never saw another vehicle until we passed the village of San Telmo. Back on Mexico 1, we stopped of for fuel and then headed for points north. I made a quick phone call home to let everyone know that we had been successful and were on our way back.
Things went smoothly until we were just north of Puerto Nuevo. We had been clicking along on the toll road when suddenly the truck began to loose power. I knew almost immediately what was wrong; the catalytic converter had fouled. As luck would have it, we were able to slip right off the toll road onto a seldom-used exit. My first thought was to unbolt the cat from the exhaust system, but the rusted nuts stopped that idea right away. Out with the hacksaw, and two well-placed cuts later we had a large opening through the catalytic converter. I fired up the truck and with the exhaust coming straight out of the headers it sounded like we were running a class 8 truck. But it was running, and the throttle response was better than ever. Roaring back down the onramp, we were headed back towards the border after an unplanned thirty-minute pit stop. My only concern was driving the truck without the exhaust system in the states, but that proved not to be an issue.
Listening to XM, we were able to tune into the San Diego weather and traffic station and learn that the border wait at San Ysidro was about seventy-five minutes. Otey Mesa wasn’t that much better at sixty minutes, so we decided to just stick with the direct route. It was only a few minutes less than the predicted wait and we were back in the states and headed for home. Just a few minutes before 9:00 pm we rolled into my driveway and revved the “race-truck” a couple of times to get everyone’s attention. We were back.
Thus ended a very successful and rewarding trip to the top of Baja. We had done our homework, having “scouted” the route the year before. We were in good enough shape to be able to do the route, and we felt prepared not only physically but mentally as well. Picacho del Diablo is a worthy climb. It’s not a walk up by any means, but its summit is well worth the effort and work it takes to get there.