It actually started a few years ago when Joe gave me an old copy of Camping and Climbing in Baja by John Robinson (La Siesta Press). In that book is a description of the various routes up Picacho del Diablo. That got me thinking, and as do many of my schemes, this one began as only a thought: “What about climbing it?”
Fast forward a few years, and the thought had become a verbal invitation to a select few friends. In the end, it was down to three people who had the time to commit to the dates I had chosen for the attempt. Matt has been a long time friend, with whom I have spent many trips in the mountains over nearly thirty years. Joe (the unknown instigator of this whole endeavor) has also been a long time friend, and we’ve spent many nights in the Sierra together over the years as well. Joining us would be another friend of Matt’s, Eric. Although a few years younger than the rest of us and perhaps with not as much mountain experience, Eric’s fitness and personality were a perfect match for this experience. The group was set.
I’d done my homework and research for this one. This was no mountain to be taken lightly. I’d read many trip reports, researched the mountain and it’s routs on-line, downloaded maps and coordinates. In the months leading up to our attempt, I had trained by hiking in the hills, taking the steep trails up and down to get my legs and body ready for the pounding I knew was in store. In short, I was ready.
Wednesday, May 3rd
Matt and Eric arrive at my house in time for dinner. We sit at the bar and share a cervesa as Matt and I catch up, and I get to know Eric a little. We eat a wonderful meal prepared by my wife Stasi, and soon we have all of our gear strewn about the floor of the living room, sorting cooking gear, food, sleeping bags, pads, backpacks, etc. The idea is to try to go as light as possible. (A notion somewhat foreign to my good friend Matt, as almost every trip we’ve been on his pack out-weighs mine by a fair margin.) And it’s a good thing that we do attempt to pack light, as some last minute details slow our next day’s departure time, thus necessitating a change of plans regarding food.
We get the gear sort complete, and the packs are mostly ready to go. Out to the truck to get a few things ready there as well. I’ve already loaded most of my standard gear, like tow strap, tire iron, compressor, jumper cables, etc. We have four adult men on this trip, and we’re taking my 1989 Ford F-250 4X4, standard cab. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that somebody is going to have to ride in the back. But all is well, as the truck has a nice camper shell on top, and carpet and padding in the bed. All we need is a couple of low-profile beach chairs, and we’re good to go. It looks like there will be plenty of room for passengers in the back, even with all the other gear. We get the other tools and preliminary stuff loaded and call it a night.
Thursday, May 4th, Departure day
Joe and I both had to work half days at our respective jobs, so we can’t get on the road ‘til about 2:30 or so on Thursday. I was off a bit earlier than Joe, so at the house I spent the last few minutes getting the truck packed before we left. We headed over to Joe’s place around 2:00, and as soon as Joe got home, we loaded up and got ready to leave. That’s when our first minor set back occurred. As we were getting ready to load up, Joe’s wife noticed that the registration was out of date on my truck. As luck would have it, I had left the sticker on the counter at my house. I briefly debated taking the chance of making the trip with an outdated sticker, but decided that I didn’t need to give any extra reason to get pulled over, especially with passengers in the back sitting in beach chairs! So, we headed back to my place to get the sticker. Along the way, Matt and Eric opted to stop off for some late lunch and to do a bit of last minute food shopping. Joe and I left them there while we went to get legal.
It was a good 40 minutes later when we picked them up, and low and behold Matt had purchased four nice looking T-bone steaks for dinner that night. NOW we were set.
With that we got on the freeway and headed south. Traffic was pretty bad on the 15 to the 805, but by 4:30 we were in Mexico and on our way.
The drive down the toll road was nice, and we made it to Ensenada pretty quickly. Once there, I was obliged to stop and pick up some Tecate, and to share my favorite taco stand with my friends, so we stopped for tacos and tortas at Taqeria el Pique.
With full bellies we piled back into the truck and headed for points south.
Traffic was not bad at all, and in no time we had made it to the Pemex just before the turn off to the Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir. We topped off and quickly made the left onto the road leading to the Parque.
By this time it was dark, so the drive up into the mountains was pretty uneventful, with the exception of occasional vado (dip) that seemed to sneak up on us without warning. It wasn’t so bad for Matt and I in the cab, but for Joe and Eric riding in the beach chairs it meant finding something to hold onto, or brace against the roof to keep from being bounced out of their seats. I’m not sure of the mileage or elevation, but somewhere after the Meling Ranch, we popped through the ceiling of the marine layer to a beautiful moonlit and starry sky.
Once we reached the Parque, we were discouraged to find the gates closed and a sign indicating hours of operation. It seems we were about an hour and a half past closing time, having arrived at 9:30.
As we sat there idling in front of the gate, a light came on in the gatehouse. Out came the gatekeeper. We explained our plan to climb Diablo, and asked if there was any way that we could get in that late. At first it seemed that we were just out of luck, and that we would have to start our hiking later than expected. But as Matt talked with the gatekeeper, he seemed to have a change of heart, and soon was inviting us into the gatehouse to purchase our entrance tickets and to get a map and poster and parking pass.
As I walked towards the gatehouse, I tripped on a wire in the dark, and as the lights went out I immediately realized that I’d tripped over the connection from the battery of the gatekeepers truck, which was the sole source of power for the office. A quick re-connect, and the lights were back on.
In no time we had paid our entrance fees and the gate was being unlocked and opened for us. We hurried through with cries of “Gacias” to the gatekeeper.
The road through the park is nicely graded dirt, and we made good time towards our destination of the Llanitos shack, past the end of the Vallecitos area of the parque. After a couple of wrong turns in the dark, we’re on the right road, which we can tell by the rapidly deteriorating condition thereof.
I lock the hubs and put the truck in four-wheel drive, and we slowly begin to motor up the road towards the shack. About a half mile in, there is the sudden sound of what Matt and I think is something spilling in the back of the truck. Cries of “Whoa!” from the back confirm that something has gone wrong. What we thought was a spill was actually shards of shattered glass of the camper shell window breaking from the strain of being twisted on the rough road. It had rained down all over Joe in the back of the truck. But being the trooper that he is, he told me to just keep going, that everything was fine. A few minutes later we pass a lone vehicle parked along side the road, no one around. Well, we’re not alone on this trip, I guess.
What seemed like hours later (but really was probably more like 30 minutes) we finally arrive at the dilapidated remains of the old hunting shack known as “Llanitos”. And much to our surprise is another vehicle! It’s beginning to look like this is going to be a popular weekend on Dibalo after all.
We find a place to park, and proceed to get out our gear to spend the night. It takes about ten minutes to clean up most of the broken glass from the back of the truck. By this time it’s obvious that we’re not going to be cooking steaks for dinner tonight. By 12:30 we all are bedding down to spend a chilly night.
Friday, Cinco de Mayo, The hike in
Up early, I get the stove going and start to get some water boiling for coffee and oatmeal. The rest of the crew gets up, and soon we’re packing and getting ready to go. The weather is spectacular. Cool, but not a cloud in the sky. Perfect hiking weather.
With the morning light, I realize that the other truck parked near us has two tents pitched behind it. Now I feel like a horses @ss for coming in so late and making a bunch of noise, disturbing the neighbors and their peace and quiet. A little while later I see them getting up, so I walk over to make apologies. They are two couples, and the one that’s up seems to be somewhat wary of my approach. I immediately offer up an apology, which they accept, and soon find that they are on the same schedule as we are…hiking in today, climbing tomorrow and hiking out on Sunday. The young lady wants to know how we found the place in the dark, and how we talked the gatekeeper into letting us in so late. I told her that he must have taken pity on us, and that we simply followed our headlights (with a wrong turn here and there) to get to the Llanitos shack.
Since the window in the shell is broken, we put everything in the cab of the truck to lock it up. In the cooler is the remaining beer and the T-bone steaks. Collectively we decide to bring the steaks along, as well as a small supply of beer, two each. (A sixer of which found it’s way into Matt’s pack. I told you he packs heavy!)
By about 8:00 we’re headed away from the truck and following the creek up stream to find the use trail. It’s not long before we find it, and soon we’re making pretty good time towards Cerro Botella Azul.
At the crest of the first rise, we take a short break to admire the towering Jeffery Pines and the beautiful forest around us. Nearby is a small stone wall, apparently built as a wind break for a camp many years ago.
Traveling cross country, we follow bearings towards Cerro Botella Azul, going over hills and dropping into shallow gullies as we contour upwards towards the saddle. Eventually we intersect the trail again, and realize that we could have made better time if we’d found it sooner rather than beat through the brush and aspen thickets in the creek.
Around 10:00 we reach the saddle of Blue Bottle, and the full impact of what we are about to attempt stares us in the face as we take in the awesome views of Picacho del Diablo and the canyon before us.
Wasting little time for more than a picture or two, we begin the traverse across the shoulder of Botella Azul. The trail begins to contour downward and then suddenly drops dramatically as it crosses over a small outcrop of rock and turns northward down slope. Just past the rocks we got to a small snow patch where I stashed two liters of water for the return trip.
Now the real descent into the canyon begins in earnest. In other reports I have read that this slope reaches 40 degrees. I didn’t take any measurements, but I can attest to the fact that it is STEEP! The route is fairly well marked by ducks and an occasional piece of pink surveyors tape, and a good use trial is worn into the slope.
We worked our way down through the forest, eventually taking a break around noon for lunch. At our lunch spot under the trees, we could see the towering buff colored walls of the Pinnacle Ridge above us to the east. The rest break was well deserved, but we knew we still had a lot of elevation left to descend, so we loaded back up and headed downward.
Not long after lunch, Matt mentioned to me that he just saw someone coming up out of the canyon towards us. Sure enough, there was a hiker making his way up through the talus and boulders. We met him at a place where some down-climbing was necessary to pass a block of rock. Stopping to chat, he seemed surprised that we were here on the trail and that our group was 4 strong. He was even more surprised to hear that there was another group of 4 descending behind us. He was solo, and had spent the night high on the mountain, getting back to Campo Noche at 5 a.m. after not reaching the summit. We bid him goodbye and continued our drop to the canyon floor.
Eventually the slope began to flatten out as we got closer and closer to the bottom of the canyon. But now the rock hopping became more difficult. Every foot placement required concentration to prevent a slip or fall, or worse a twisted ankle. The “path” (if you could call it that) consisted of climbing down rocks, going under dead-falls, scrambling through thickets of scrub oak, slow going at best.
Just as we were wearing down from the continual punishment of the descent, there came the sound of falling water. We were nearing the falls where Gorins Gully intersects the main canyon. The sound of the water was comforting, and gave us a renewed mental strength.
Nearing the falls, the canyon became narrower, and was teaming with all sorts of flora. There were patches of Columbines, stinging nettles, ferns, and numerous other plants along the creek bed. We were pretty good about steering clear of the nettles, but at some point I heard “Ouch. Hey! These things hurt.” Eric had apparently brushed up against them, a mistake he only made once.
From here it was a rough scramble along, above and sometimes in the creek, to get to Campo Noche. We passed one campsite on the west side of the creek, but continued on to Campo Noche proper. Within twenty minutes, Eric and I were sprawled out on the ground, waiting for Matt and Joe who had stopped off to replenish their now exhausted water supply. It had taken about 8 hours from the truck to Campo Noche, much longer than it should have.
Matt and Joe arrived and we began to set up camp. As I scrambled around looking for wood for the fire, I stumbled upon what we came to consider the premiere campsite at Campo Noche. It is a few yards up stream from the main camp, and actually lies right at the beginning of the start of the climb up Night Wash. It’s off the main trail, and has plenty of room for a couple of tents (which we did not bring), or ground cloths and there is a nice fire ring.
As we moved our gear to the nicer site, we heard voices and saw that the other party of four (the group from the other truck at the Llanitos Shack) came into camp. They were about an hour or more behind us, and we briefly commiserated about the hike in.
Within the hour Matt did his one match trick and got a fire going. We used only dead oak, which was a bit difficult to find, but we would have nothing less to grill our steaks. As the flames died down to embers, I placed the grill on two rocks and got the steaks going. A little salt and spices and soon the air was filled with the aroma of grilling steak. Joe and Eric made a pot of Spanish rice, and soon we were enjoying one of the best backpacking meals I have ever tasted. Yes, we were really roughing it with steaks, rice and Tecate (with fresh lime) for dinner. We only drank one each of the Tecate, choosing to hide the remaining four in a secret spot in the creek to keep cold for the next night. All of us were quite content that it had been well worth the extra weight to bring the beer and steak, knowing that our packs would be that much lighter on the climb out of the canyon. As dusk came, we got ready to hit the sack, choosing to go to bed early so that we could get an early start for the peak the next day.
Saturday, May 6th, Summit Day
Waking up sore but refreshed early the next morning, we made breakfast of oats and coffee again. Daypacks were made ready, sun screen was applied and by 6:30 we were starting off up the rubble strewn slope from camp into Night Wash. The climbing was easy, with many ducks indicating numerous different trails up the gully, none seemingly better than the other. Soon we had gained quite a bit of elevation, and could look back down upon the spot where our camp was hidden in the trees.
After about an hour’s worth of climbing, Joe determined that yesterday’s descent had taken it’s toll and that if he wanted to have enough energy for the climb out tomorrow, he’d bail out now and spend the day at camp resting. We agreed as a party, and wished him a safe trip down to camp.
The three of us continued upward, but almost immediately I made the first of three critical mistakes in route finding. At a point where the trail veered left for a short distance and then dropped into Slot Wash, I instead trended right, following a gully that seemed to head more in the direction I thought we were supposed to be going. Some class four scrambling across steep rock faces should have clued me in, but I was determined that I had somehow made a mistake earlier, and needed to be in that right trending gully. As we got to the top of that gully, we were able to locate a duck or two, and so I felt that we were again back on track. (In retrospect, that point was where we could have corrected our earlier mistake, and I kick myself now for not recognizing it then.)
After a brief rest to consult the map and the GPS (Which, by the way, was almost useless in that deep canyon. Map and compass is the way to go.), I was still determined that we were too far left of our intended route, and made the fateful decision to continue trending upward and towards the right. We had by now lost all sign of the ducks and trail, and yet I believed that we would intersect it further up slope. Crossing up and over the ridge we were ascending, we arrived at the base of some steep slabs, which forced us to traverse even further to the right. I could see another gully ahead, and wrongly assumed that this was were we needed to be.
By now the going was difficult, to say the least. Manzanita patches, scrub oak, boulders, rock slabs all seemed to conspire against any decent progress. At last we reached the next gully and began to ascend it. About 500 feet up, we came to our first difficult section. The gully narrowed and forced a short climb up a steep section of rock, getting into low class five difficulty. Stubbornly I still believed that we might get through this and find easier ground above. By now we had wasted at least an hour. In just a few hundred more feet, we realized once and for all that this gully only got steeper and harder to climb. Ropes and climbing gear would be required from here on.
Dejectedly, but still with hopes of success, we retreated back down the gully, finding another route down so as to bypass the difficult climbing encountered earlier. Still lost in the belief that we might need to go further right (God! You’d think I’d have figured it out by now!) I crossed one more ridge to explore our options. In just a few feet, I found myself way out on the exposed slopes of the steep west face, obviously far off route.
Finally the decision was made to traverse back to the original ridge where we first had hopes of getting back on route. This traverse only took about 30 minutes, but by now we had thrashed around through the underbrush and over boulders and slabs for so long that we were wearing ourselves out. Crossing back over the ridge, we found a nice shady alcove to stop, take stock and eat something. We had wasted at least 3 hours off route. Briefly we discussed getting back on route and trying for the peak, but finally decided that we had wasted too much time and energy to attempt the summit today. With much frustration, we headed back down-slope towards what we had determined was the correct trail. In no time we picked up the well-worn use trail, and began a rapid descent towards camp.
Part way down we met up with the other party of four from the other truck at the Llanitos Shack. They had determined that the hike in the day before had zapped them also. They opted not to go for the peak, choosing instead to do an exploratory day hike up the start of the route. We chatted for a while, and then headed off down trial.
We arrived back at camp by about 1:30 in the afternoon. Boots off, we headed down to the pool at the creek to clean up and soak. There we met Joe, who was surprised to see us. We told him of our failure, and that he had made an excellent decision to head down and not join our little suffer-fest. We sat and talked and filtered water, basking in the sun and enjoying the beautiful scenery that makes up Campo Noche.
In the afternoon we had cocktails of the remaining Tecate beer, with the last of the fresh lime. The taste of that ice-cold beer in the middle of such an unlikely place is something I’ll remember for a long time. Later that evening we made a huge meal, using up as much of our food as possible so we wouldn’t have to haul it back up and out of the canyon tomorrow. We even grilled up the last of Eric’s summer sausage over the fire. It was almost as good as the steak the night before.
Once again we sacked out early, choosing to get up at O-dark-thirty to begin the hike out. I had hoped to meet up with Doug (Leadmoto) who had been coming up from the Eastern approach, but by the time we went to bed, there was still no sign of them. (The party he was with arrived by headlamp around 9:00 or so that evening.)
Sunday, May 7th, Departure Day
I must have been sleeping lightly, because Joe’s alarm was going off across the camp from me and I was awakened. The time was about 4:15 a.m. We had decided to get up that early so that we could eat and pack up and begin hiking with first light. By headlamps we got ready to go, and by 5:30 there was enough light to begin hiking. Dreading the up-coming ascent, we took a few minutes to stretch before beginning to hike.
By 5:45 we dropped out of our camp sight and began to head up-stream. As we passed the main camp, I could see people sacked out and assumed it must be Doug with his group. I briefly considered stopping in, but my mind was focused on the climb back out of the canyon so I passed on by.
The air was cool, which was a blessing because we began to warm up almost immediately. There were ducks to follow and the going, while rough on the boulders, was not too bad. Within an hour we were well above the falls at Gorins Gully, and we stopped for our first break. It was cool, so jackets were in order to keep the sweat from chilling on our backs. Some water and a power gel to keep fuel in the tank, and soon we were back to work.
We kept the pace steady, and soon we were onto the slope leading to Blue Bottle Saddle. At about 2 1/2 hours in, we took another break. We were making good time and had covered a lot of distance. In fact our time was better than the descent, although at the time we didn’t know how much better. Although it was a workout going up, there was much less stress on the joints than on the descent. As we climbed ever higher, we could start to see blue sky above the treetops at the ridgeline, indicating that we were getting close. As we crested another rise, we were all surprised to come upon the snow patch were I had hidden the two liters of water. We had reached this spot much sooner than any of us had expected. Although I still had a good supply of water in my camelback, Joe and Matt were both out, so they used some of it.
From the snow patch it was just a matter of scrambling back up through the rocky outcrop and then make the traverse back to the saddle of Cerro Botella Azul. We took another small break at the saddle and absorbed the view of the mountain and the canyon we had just climbed out of. We had made the ascent from camp in only 4 hours, a time we felt pretty good about.
From there it was quite literally a walk in the woods to get back to the truck. We made a stop for lunch just before the last downhill section and we were back at the truck by just a few minutes after 12 noon.
There in the truck was our cooler, and as I pulled it from the cab, I could still hear the ice inside. Ice that was covering a 12 pack of Tecate. We wasted no time setting up the camp chairs and sitting back drinking a couple of beers. And while we were frustrated at having not accomplished our goal, there was still a sense of satisfaction in the simple pleasure of completing the trip safely and having enjoyed an area that none of us had experienced before.
The drive home was uneventful, except for the constant flapping of the piece of plastic which we duct-taped to the camper shell to cover the missing window. We made a stop at El Palomar in Santo Tomas for dinner, and then bee-lined it for the border. We crossed just after dark, and made it home by about 9:30.
Will I go to Picacho del Diablo again? Absolutely. In fact, even as we were leaving the canyon, I was already working out dates to come back. I think I have Matt convinced. Not sure about Eric and/or Joe.
As far as doing things differently, the only thing I’d change would be to bring a pair of thin leather gloves to wear. And of course, I’d pay closer attention to terrain features and compass bearings rather than relying on the GPS down in that canyon.
For those considering the trip, do your homework and get in shape. I can honestly say that the training I did before the trip paid off immensely in terms of physical fitness and recovery after the trip. Hiking poles are nice.
If you plan to drive to the Llanitos Shack, you better have four-wheel drive. There was a place on the road where a chain could be hung, but when we drove through, it was down.
So ended a well-planned trip. Were we successful? Maybe not in the sense of making it to the summit. But as far as I’m concerned, any climbing trip that you can walk away from is a good one.
If anyone wants more specific beta, feel free to drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org