Picacho del Diablo trip reportGetting Ready
We had done our research and just needed to find a date that worked for the four of us (Mike, Murray, Gary, and me). We desired a date in May, but because Mike was working hard to complete his first Marathon we could not go until June. It happened that we all had the weekend after the Rock and Roll Marathon available for a backpack trip of Picacho del Diablo (June 6 – June 9). We had read that the Mexicans did this peak in April the Unitied States citizens in May and the locos (crazies) in June, but it was the only time that we all were free.
The safety of the drive down Baja has varied over the years. The number of incidents this year were at an unprecedented high. Because of this we had decided that we did not desire to drive after dark.
I purchased auto insurance for the Explorer (at www.DiscoverBaja.com), packed my stuff, got a hair cut, and was on my way to work to pick everyone up to go to San Pedro Martir National Park when the car stopped running. We quickly huddled to consider our options and decided to take another automobile (as it happens the problem was only a lose connection and was fixed in an hour after getting it to the mechanic). To take the other automobile we needed to cancel the Mexican insurance on the one car ($10 fee), buy Mexican insurance for the other car, take the camper off the truck, and put on the tailgate. We did this in parallel so that two of us were getting the truck ready while the other two went to get us lunch at the local deli chain (12” Submarinas). We did things so efficiently that the issue with the auto cost us less that 1.5 hours.
The truck would be a little less comfortable than the Explorer, but it certainly made for easier loading of the gear as we simply piled everything into the bed.
Drive to San Pedro Martir and our Trail Head
We ate half of the sandwich for each of us on the way to the border saving half of the 12” sandwich for later.
We picked up our Tourist Visa at the border. To do this, stay to the right and park to the right of the Mexican secondary. You go into the office and they provide some paper work for you to fill out then go to a teller window a short ways away to pay and bring back your receipt and you get your tourist visa. I had needed a tourist visa about a year earlier so I was familiar with the process plus we had a couple people who speak OK Spanish for gringos (I do not speak Spanish) so things went smoothly.
We had read a trip report that had mentioned a house on the way down that looked like a naked woman. We looked for the house but could not find it. We ended up finding it when going home and we do not believe it is visible when south bound.
We stopped in Colonet for gas and to use the rest room. Diesel was noticeably less in Mexico than it is in the United States.
We got to the San Pedro Martir National Park and checked in to pay our admission. The cost is $4 person/day. Murray joked with the ranger that it was too much and that we had to go back to the states. Seeing that there were four of us and we were planning on four days we paid $64. This is more than it would cost us to backpack in a National Park in the United States, but they charge the same for camping in the campground and the money supposedly goes to the park’s conservation.
In our discussion with the ranger we informed him that we were going to go climb Picacho del Diablo. To our surprise he did a quality check asking to see our boots and our first aid kit. We showed him our biggest first aid kit and he indicated it was too small. He was satisfied with our boots. He indicated that they prefer that people climbing the peak use a guide, especially if no one in the group had done the climb before (as was the case in our group). Our gear must have met minimum expectations because he bid us our farewell.
We left the entrance station and were cruising down the observatory road when he caught up with us in his vehicle. He had forgotten to give us our wristband entrance passes.
We once again headed to our trailhead passing a large group of deer at a meadow just before the turnoff off of the Observatory road. One of the deer leaped a short fence, but it cleared the 3-4’ fence by around 6’ for a ~10’ vertical leap. As we got to the primary trailhead we saw two trucks parked there. We speculated on if they were climbing Picacho del Diablo. We mostly thought being this late in the year we would be the only ones to be climbing it. We proceeded to head to the Los Llanitos shack. This was our intent anyways, but with the other cars present at the primary trailhead it made the decision seem better.
The drive in was slow enough that much of our group believed we should have just stayed at the primary trailhead. The extra drive saves around 2.5 miles round trip, but takes over 30 minutes each way. After a slow drive we arrived at the Los Llanitos shack (more of a teepee structure than a shack). It was almost dark so we quickly setup camp and ate what was left of our sandwiches from lunch.
We went to bed, but between the various snoring and an owl it was not easy to sleep. Each of us stated the others were the ones who were doing all the snoring.
Trailhead Camp to Campo Noche
We woke early, ate breakfast, packed our packs, left our base camp setup and headed out due East from the Los Llanitos shack. We quickly found a trail marked by red (now somewhat pinkish) ribbons and cairns. In the various trip reports we had read numerous times that the red ribbons were the surest sign of being on a prime trail. I agree with this sentiment. The cairns often mark a good trail, but occasionally they mark a secondary trail or lead to dead ends. It is not that the cairns on the prime trail are not good as much as that there are a few cairns that mark paths that are not on the prime trail.
The trail to the canyon rim is fairly easy to follow. There is a dry waterfall to negotiate (a little more challenging to go down than up), but it is not too challenging. This dry waterfall is before the merge to the trail from the main trailhead and therefore does not need to be negotiated if departing from the main trailhead. There were pools of water at the dry waterfall, but they were quite stagnant. I would pump from this source only if I were somewhat desperate or had a filter that had a removable filter cartridge that could be rinsed later (such as the MSR Miniworks). I would not classify this source of water year round, but I suspect that when it is dry no one would be trying to hike Picacho del Diablo (I suspect it will be dry from August to the first rains). At this dry waterfall we encountered the first of many ladybug infestations we would encounter on this trip. Here they were not all flying and therefore were not a nuisance.
The trail is not marked well were it merges with the trail from the main trailhead. I suspect this is to not confuse people on the return trip to the main trailhead. Simply note were you catch the main path and make sure on the return trip you exit the main path here.
We quickly arrived at the Canyon rim having little issues following the trail. Furthermore there was virtually no trash on the trail to the canyon rim (what little there was I picked up on the way out). We ate an early lunch at the canyon rim then headed down into Diablo Canyon. The trail started off as a traverse for a short ways then
transitioned to short and steep switchback for ~1000’. After the switch backs the trail transitioned to boulder scrambling. The trail continues to be marked fairly well; trust the red ribbon more than any cairns. It negotiates a series of dry waterfalls that would be impressive to see in peak flow, but it does this using a low class 3 route that is slightly harder in the down hill direction than the uphill direction (I may class it as class 2 in the uphill direction).
Not long after the end of the dry waterfalls the bottom of Diablo Canyon is reached with its nice and clean creak. We did get on non-prime trails occasionally on the way to Campo Noche, but the hiking in this stretch is very scenic with lots of green, quite a few little pools, and quite a few little waterfalls. On the down side there is camping trash at various spots through here. Clothing that was not carried out, a knapsack that was not carried out, and a tent that was not carried out.
We soon arrived at Campo Noche. There were five backpacks and associated gear at the main Campo Noche camp. We speculated that the backpacks belonged to people who were climbing Picacho del Diablo today and were hoping to get some pointers. We also speculated that they were the same people whose trucks we had seen at the main trailhead. Our final speculation was that they were gringo because we had heard that the Mexicans like to do this hike in April and the gringos in May. That leaves the loco gringos for June :=). The main Campo Noche camp is very nice. It has a big log to act as a windbreak, is in the shade, and has a nice fire ring. There are two little pots left at this camp for public use.
We set our packs down while we explored the area. We found various other campsites in the area of the main camp, but had not found the high camp. We decided to soak our feet in the beautiful pool of water by the main camp. After cooling our feet we found the high camp. It was virtually as big as the main camp with a little less shade, but also a few less bugs. To find the high camp go up river from the main camp ~30’ on the trail and then go up hill about 15’ to catch the trail that leads to the high camp. This also ends up being the optimal departure point for Picacho del Diablo.
As we were preparing our dinner down came the hikers from the primary camp. Our assumptions about them were correct except for one; they were not loco gringos, but loco Mexicans. We introduced ourselves to each other. They were very nice and from Ensenada. One spoke very good English. We learned that they were all rookies except for one grizzled veteran (Pablo Rojas) who had just completed the peak for his sixth time. I was wondering how many times various Americans who were associated with the park had climbed the Peak (John Robinson, Bud Bernard, Jerry Schad) and what the record was. Needless to say we were impressed about it being his sixth time. They were tired and wanted to start on dinner, but Pablo indicated he would provide some pointers about the summit trip later.
After giving them some time to prepare dinner and get settled we went to get some pointers on attaining the summit. It is lucky when you can get such a fresh trip report and real lucky when you can get it from someone as experienced on the peak as Pablo Rojas.
His pointers included the following:
· Bring at least 3 quarts of water. They all ran out on the way down.
· There is a large rockslide on the West side of Diablo Canyon that lines up fairly well with Campo Noche. On the way down make sure that you are headed in the direction of the rockslide and you will be close to camp.
· At the stagnant pools make sure you go left. If you go right you will go to the South (lower) summit.
· To go right following the trees after this left (never saw this, but we must have done it).
· A picture of Wall Street with a human reference below the wall. This picture left an impression that I knew I was on the correct trail when I saw the same wall.
· A left to the summit just before topping out on Wall Street. It ends up this does not matter much because Wall Street tops out just a few vertical feet higher than the left to the summit.
We all slept well with no snoring complaints; I am sure we were snoring just as bad as the night before, but being tired from the walk meant that it did not disturb us. The night was warm enough that a fairly lightweight blanket would have sufficed as my 20 degree sleeping bag I draped over only a fairly small amount of my body.
Campo Noche to Summit
I took off from camp a couple minutes after Mike, Murray, and Gary had left camp. Typically Mike and I are out front so the assumption was that I would soon catch up with them. I passed Gary in the first hundred vertical feet, but it took me to a couple hundred vertical feet to catch Murray and Mike. I caught them just before a trail split. Neither route was well marked. They decided to head across a rock field while I headed up a steep well worn dirt trail that slightly leveled off after ~20’ vertical gain. Within ~20’ Mike and Murray indicated they were on the correct trail. I was convinced that my trail would merge with their trail and I did not desire to give up the >20’ vertical gain so I did not immediately turn back. I proceeded further on my trail and it was progressing further North and pregressively getting to be a less used trail (such that I could tell many people had made the same mistake and had turned around). After ~5 minutes I decided to turn around with my route mistake number one probably costing me 50-70 vertical feet and ~10 minutes. I was now at the back of the pack but still feeling strong.
I quickly started gaining elevation and soon passed Gary again. However, I soon was following a not well cairned route (but there were consistent cairns). The route soon petered out at a ~40’ vertical down climb. I got on the radio and contacted Mike and Murray telling them I thought I was off trail. They asked me my elevation and it was 7500’ (75xx’ I do not remember the exact elevation). They informed me that they were on trail at 7400’ (74xx’). Clearly I had not passed them; this was very discouraging. I started down and near the origin of my mistake (over 100’ vertical mistake) I encountered Gary on the same incorrect route. At least I saved him from duplicating most of my mistake. My route mistake number 2: cost of >100’ vertical (probably closer to 200’ vertical) and at least 20 minutes. We were soon on the correct route, but I was feeling a little discouraged when Gary informed me that he thought he would not make the summit. I provided him the radio with the realization that I was a long ways behind Murray and Mike.
I started to attempt to be very careful at attempting to stay on the correct route and for the most part it worked. I made one other significant route finding error. I crossed a granite slab that ended up heading directly into a 20-25’ chimney. I shimmed up the chimney thankful that there was a tree at the top making it easy to get out of the chimney. I then walked less than 50’ to see that the trail actually had traversed right from just below the chimney. I had a choice to either down climb the chimney or make a ~12’ vertical down jump. I decided on the down jump and was quickly back on track but exerted a lot of energy for a ~25’ vertical mistake. There is nothing on the correct route as hard as a 20-25’ chimney (or even close to as hard – if you have a vertical of more than 5-6’ you are off trail).
I soon encountered the stagnant pool of water that Pablo had indicated to go left at. I was glad to have been told this because the trail going right was a decent trail and could have been an easy mistake. Before long I was on Wall Street. From Wall Street it would be difficult to make a significant mistake as all routes lead up to the top, just some routes are a little easier than others.
At ~150 vertical feet from the summit I encountered Mike and Murray resting in the shade of some pine trees. They indicated that they had attempted to wait on the summit for me, but the bugs had driven them away. They confirmed that Gary had notified them that he had turned around. They did not have a camera so I asked if they were interested in going back up for summit photos, but they declined. By this point I was not feeling real confident of my route finding skills so I asked if they would wait for me if I kept my summit visit to <15 minutes and they indicated they would. Invigorated by the knowledge that it was ~150’ vertical to the summit and that I was now reunited with my hiking buddies I quickly scrambled to the summit (mostly class 2 so scramble might be an exaggeration). When I got to the summit I was surprised to determine that the most annoying of all the bugs were the ladybugs. They were swarming and literally would fly into your mouth (and they taste bad). I have encountered countless ladybugs in a single location on a few other occasions (including a couple times on this trip), but this was my first time seeing them swarming. I shot some photos of the views, plus a couple self portraits of me on the summit, shot a photo of a plaque at the top with various names on it including Pablo Rojas’, and signed the register taking a photo of my signature page and the page that Mike and Murray had signed. The register was full enough that there was a page or two separating my summit entry from theirs. Three out of the four of us made it to the summit which I thought was pretty good for each of us Being Picacho del Diablo rookies.
Summit to Campo Noche
I soon met up with Mike and Murray and we started down. We did not make any significant route finding mistakes, but we were soon conserving water as it kept getting hotter as we climbed further into the canyon. It was a noticeable warmer day than the day before.
About 1000’ vertical feet above camp, I decided to wait for the shade from the Western Canyon rim. Murray and Mike proceeded to Campo Noche. It was a very good decision for me as the rest period and being out of the sun rejuvenated me so that I was able to make real good time in that last 1000 vertical feet when I got into the shade.
When I got back to camp I drank a quart of water. I made dinner and went to sleep very content that I had made the peak and returned little worst for the wear.
Campo Noche to Trailhead Camp
We packed up early to get an early start with hopes of getting most of the way out of the canyon before the sun would get us. I carried 4 quarts of water mainly because I did not get a chance to hydrate before leaving camp (I had planned on carrying 3 quarts). We got off optimal route a couple times when still inside the Canyon, but nothing that cost us too much effort. Once we started the climb out of Diablo Canyon we took regular breaks and made slow but steady progress. As we approached the rim to the Canyon, Gary and I briefly saw a California Condor (we had seen one in the wild in the Grand Canyon a couple years ago, but it was still special).
Once we got out of Diablo Canyon the pace was quite a bit quicker. We left the main trail at the correct departure point to go to the Los Llanitos shack trailhead. We took a brief rest just before navigating the dry waterfall on this part of the tail. At this rest stop I provided Gary a pint of water; Mike also was conserving water but declined an offer for some of mine. In this area Murray saw a neon blue striped skink Murray and I had seen one in Barker Valley, San Diego county recently.
The trail that we followed encountered the 4X4 road ~450’ from our camp. We quickly got to camp to enjoy ice cold beer and soda. Because we had made such good time getting back to camp we decided that we had time to pack up our base camp and make it to a hotel room with a shower. We quickly packed our base camp, but I had issues fitting the tent into the bag that was supplied with the tent. In large part because of this I was taking the longest. I finally decided that I could deal with getting the tent in the bag once I got home so I loaded it into the truck only part way in its bag and placed the tool box on top of it. I then climbed into the back of the truck cab when I realized that I had not placed my boots in the truck. Gary informed me that he had put a pair of boots under his pack and Mike had indicated he had performed a clean camp. Both comments together gave me comfort that my boots were in the pickup bed so we departed (it ended up that Gary had put someone else’s boots under his pack and that Mike missed my boots when he did his clean camp).
Trailhead camp to Home
The drive to the park entrance was uneventful. We got out there to talk with the ranger. At that point I realized that my boots were not under Gary’s pack but that someone else’s boots were there. I still held some hope that my boots were in the pickup bed that was quite cluttered in our haste to pack we were pretty much just throwing things into the pickup bed. We knew if we turned around to go get my boots that only have about 30% of their life left that we would not make it to the hotel room and would need to camp at the trailhead. Therefore, it was decided that we would proceed with the hope that the boots were in the pickup bed even though I was thinking it was unlikely. Well the boots did not end up being in the pickup. If anyone makes it to the Los Llanitos shack I will offer a small reward for the return of my Lowa hiking boots that have a Superfeet inside ($40 reward plus shipping payable to a Paypal account upon receipt of my boots – $20 is probably all they would fetch at an REI used equipment sale but I like them as they are broken in to my feet and have yet to give me a blister). My boots should be real close to the Teepee. We have also tried to email the ranger at the park entrance to see about getting my boots back.
We talked to the park ranger about making the summit and asked if he knew Pablo Rojas. He told us that Pablo Rojas was “The Man” which I suspect with 6 summits is warranted.
We stopped in Colonet for a bathroom break and then proceeded to San Vincente were we ate dinner at a restaurant on the North end of town (North of the bridge) by the Mission. I meant to order a side of Guacamole with my carne asada platter and they brought out a hunk of guacamole that was ~4”X8”X2”. Everything was delicious. We ordered 5 meals for the four of us plus drinks, plus the guacamole, fries, and chips and the bill was less than $40US for enough food that it filled us up enough that about 20% of the guacamole went uneaten (and I love guacamole).
We proceeded to Santo Tomas were we got two hotel rooms for $45US each (close to what they would cost in the US). We verified that the rooms had hot showers which was of primary concern. They did have hot showers, but they literally took over 10 minutes to get hot and one of them had little water pressure. We all had a good sleep dreaming of summits, etc.
We ate breakfast in the restaurant associated with the hotel. The prices were maybe even a little higher than in the US, but it was convenient. Before we left the hotel we pretty much confirmed that my boots had not made it into the pickup.
We set the GPS to see the woman house and initially failed to see it, but we saw it looking South from the North bound lane. I do not believe you can see it from the South bound lane and you can not see it from the North bound lane unless you look South (behind you).
The line at the border was not long, but we made a couple of poor lane choices. It is always real difficult to know what lane to pick, but I usually like to stay right. We did not follow this algorithm which resulted in a longer border crossing than justified by the length of the lines.
We were now safe and sound in the US. My wife already had the Explorer back as it was only a lose connection with no associated cost.
Three of the four of us made the summit. The one who did not make the summit indicated that it was the best decision he had made in a while. On the way back to our trailhead camp I thought I would not desire a second attempt at this peak, but after a few days it seems less severe.
During the hike the entire group thought it was the hardest hike any of us had ever done and this group has done many of the California 14ers and some very challenging desert peaks (like Rabbit and 6582).
Except for leaving my boots at Los Llanitos shack which I should have got out of the truck and checked for before leaving the Los Llanitos shack it was a near perfect trip (it would have been nicer if it had been cooler – I suggest going in late April or early May).
If Gary decides he wants to go back to bag this peak I may be interested; but it would have to be earlier in the year. I also would be interested in an East approach to this summit. I say this will full realization that there are many summits that I have yet to climb and knowing that in reality it is unlikely that I will do this peak again.