El Picacho del Diablo DPS

Sun, Apr 13, 2008

With: Rick Kent
Miguel Forjan

Story Photos / Slideshow Map

One of toughest peaks on the DPS list is El Picacho del Diablo (The Devil's Peak), the highest point in Baja, Mexico. Also known as "Big Picacho," it is one of the very few peaks on the DPS list not generally done as a dayhike. It was first climbed by Norman Clyde and party in 1932, on what must have been a very ambitious adventure, given the remoteness and isolation of the peak. The peak lies in the San Pedro Martir National Park, more than 50 miles from Highway 1, in a high mountainous region halfway between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The summit is one of only a few places that both bodies of water can be seen from.

Joining me on this venture was Miguel Forjan who had first expressed interest when I brought it up back in January. Rick Kent and Matthew Holliman soon signed up as well, after which I didn't seek any more participants - it was as many as I could take comfortably in my van for the long drive. Our plan was to do the climb, normally done in three days, as a dayhike. It would be no first by any means - more than half a dozen dayhikes have been recorded in the DPS archives, taking around 16-18hrs. As far as I could tell these all started from the shack at Las Llanitas, about an hour closer than the 2WD trailhead further north where we would start. Based on the stats for the hike, 16mi and 8,200ft of gain, we guessed it would take about 14hrs.

1:30a Saturday morning found me waking to my alarm in San Jose, after which I was soon driving to Milpitas, a twenty minute drive to pick up Matthew. When I arrived at his place, his car was nowhere to be found outside as is usual. I wished I had a cell phone at this point, but thinking he may have misunderstood my instructions and driven to my place, I retraced my route back home. Still no Matthew. I hopped online in order to find his phone number, only to find an email from him the previous evening telling me he couldn't make the trip due to a family illness. That'll teach me to check email before heading out on the next trip. Back in the car, I headed to Bakersfield and Rick's apartment, a three and a half hour drive. We had Rick's gear quickly packed, I gave him the keys, and promptly climbed into my sleeping bag in back in an effort to recoup some lost sleep. I must have dozed off, because almost too quickly Rick had driven the two hours to Los Angeles and Miguel's home. There was more manuevering and packing of gear, then a quick stop at the grocery store for breakfast. Rick continued with driving duties through San Diego, until just north of the Mexican border. It had been around 50 degrees when I had driven through the Central Valley, but it was already 85F in San Diego just after 10:30a. It was looking like unusually hot April weather was in store for us this weekend. Just short of the border, we stopped for a quick last meal in the US, gave Miguel the reigns to the van, and headed into Mexico.

We had all brought reading materials for the trip - myself a book by William Faulkner, Rick a half dozen climbing guides for the Pacific Northwest, Miguel the latest issue of Playboy entitled, Russian Bombs - the only reading material that any of us actually used (btw, this is an important point to consider when choosing your next climbing partner). Miguel has none of the cautious driving skills exhibited by Rick and myself, showing little concern for speed limits and other hindrances in a foreign country, bolting his way through Tijuana and onto Highway 1 enroute to Ensenada. The three toll booths were about the only thing keeping him from making record time along the coast. Even with a strong wind it was 95F before noon. Dust and debris were clouding the air, trash blowing across the road at intervals. A huge piece of cardboard cartwheeled its way across 4 lanes, prompting laughter and amazement (followed by sobering realization of danger) from the three of us. Huge billboards seemed to smother the scenery, such as it is, on both sides of the highway. One massive contruction project after another dotted the coast south of Tijuana, though none of them seemed to be in a finished state. Whether this partially constructed landscape was a result of a faltering economy or fraudulent real estate deals was impossible to guess. Twenty story towers of concrete, adorned with cranes and other construction gear, almost looked more abandoned than under construction. We stopped at an overlook just north of Ensenada, the hectic development pace seemingly at an end. Ensenada itself was a frenzy of activity, with street vendors, hustlers, and tourists blending in a mix of cheap goods and services, without any sort of order or architectural harmony. The Starbucks was as out of place as anything else in town. Miguel handed me his camera to take some random shots of the street scenes as he distractedly took in the views while somehow managing to drive in the heavy traffic. Spotting a vendor selling Mexican wrestling masks, he immediately pulled over, parked the car illegally, and got out to buy one of the colorful masks. $10 later Miguel is back in the car with a poorly constructed mask sporting the Mexican tri-colors, stitching already loose and the fabric dirty from being handled by a hundred tourists. He loves it. Back in the car, we drive by the port with several cruise ships at the docks, a huge flag waving gently in the wind. Missing a turn, we backtracked before pulling into a Pemex station for fuel. Not quite on empty, we managed to make the drive from Bakersfield to Ensenada on one tankful. Being run by the government, Pemex is the only gas station available but no one complains since it's more than a dollar cheaper than back in the US. Though prices are given in pesos, dollars are readily accepted at the exchange rate of about 10.6 pesos to the dollar. Miguel, a native of Spain, has no trouble speaking the language and quickly rattles off a negotiation to convert the peso price into dollars. Rick and I are glad to have him along. Off we go. Near the outskirts of town the driver of another car sporting California plates gets our attention. I rolled down the window to hear them asking us what's ahead. As far as I can tell, it's a long haul on Highway 1 to the interior of Baja. Miguel is the first to respond, "You want beaches? Yeah, lots of beaches ahead," like he's a native or something. This seems to satisfy them as they speed off. "Miguel, I don't think there are any beaches ahead on this road," I comment. "Ah, they'll figure it out!" as he laughs a bit. A mile or so later we spot them making a U-turn as we zoom by.

As we head south and east of Ensenada the development drops off to nothing, as do tourists, and even natives for that matter. This is the Mexico I really like. Life here moves slower, friendly people, nobody trying to hustle you, the land rugged, hot, dry, and very beautiful. There is a roadblock about 10 miles out of town, manned by the Mexican army. Notwithstanding the display of weaponry, they seem a friendly bunch and wave us through. Miguel's four hour driving stint comes to an end when we reach the turnoff some eight miles east of Colonet, and it is now my turn. The road to the park is more than 50 miles, but as we come to find out, it is mercifully now paved the entire way to the park entrance. Though long, steep, and quite windy, it makes for a very enjoyable drive. Starting from near sea level and 95F in the hot desert, we gradually move up to the highlands dominated by manzanita, chaparral, and eventually pine, cedar, and aspen forests, looking much like the Southern Sierra. The temperature was a cool 60F when we topped out near 8,000ft.

For two hours we saw no other cars on the road, and once at the entrance we see no one about. We probably could have just driven in and avoided contact with anyone, but I decided we should pay our respects (and fees) at the entrance station as the signs politely ask us to. A park ranger sporting a sweatshirt from Aspen, CO comes out to greet us, a bit puzzled by the mask Miguel is wearing for a photo op. Removing the mask, we go inside where Miguel launches into a protracted discussion with the ranger concerning our plans, fees, and other details. It seems regulations have changed over the past year and much of the area is now closed to overnight camping including the trailhead we intended to use. We were welcome to camp in the immediate vicinity of the entrance station where campsites are plentiful, but it is almost an hour drive from there to the trailhead. Eventually Miguel notices ambiguities in what the ranger is telling him and what the map on the wall depicts, and he concludes that the trailhead is just outside the day use only area. Fees are now 40 pesos per person per day, so we fork over $12 and are told we must return to the gate by 8p the following evening since it is locked promptly at that time. The ranger has serious doubts that we can reach the peak in that time, but Miguel reassures him that we are ultra-marathoners (which none of us are) and off we go.

The pavement ends just past the entrance gate and we are soon driving on a nicely graded dirt road heading towards the observatory. We passed through a delightful meadow called Vallecitos where deer are quietly munching grass until spooked off by our approach. We turned off the main road (and away from the observatory) with a sharp turn to the south, past a well and heading towards Las Llanitos. By 5:30p we finally reach the trailhead. A 4x4 road continues past this point, one sign indicating a speed limit of 15km/h while a contradictory sign says only hiking is allowed. We parked. There were no other cars at the trailhead, and other than the ranger we saw no one else at all in the park. It has been 15hrs of driving from the Bay Area and I have had as much of sitting in a car as I can stand at this point. While Rick and Miguel unpack and look for flat spots, I ate some of the food I had brought in the way of dinner, though it was seriously lacking in anything substantial since I had assumed we'd eat dinner somewhere in Mexico. The others had done a better job of bringing food, though not much better. Most of the next day's adventure would be fueled by food consumed back in the States.

There is no obvious trail other than the 4WD road leaving from the trailhead, so Rick and I decided to head off and scout the route using the GPS coordinates provided by Steve Eckert on his climber.org website (found at the end of this trip report). We started up the dry wash heading southeast, found bits and pieces of a use trail to one side or another, but spent much of our time hiking the sandy wash in the middle of the drainage. The rolling nature of the terrain and fairly thick forest cover made the GPS essential. Even with it we managed to take one wrong fork after another, forcing us to bushwhack and scramble to get back on route. We decided to head out to an overlook (marked "24" inside a square on the map) for a view east to Picacho del Diablo. It was a bit more involved than we had planned, but when we finally reached the edge of the western plateau we were treated to a fine view of the peak just before sunset. Rick took a few pictures before we started our retreat, a little worried since we didn't have our headlamps with us. Our return was partially via a different route not because we wanted to, but because we easily got off-track again despite the active use of the GPS for navigating. It did indeed grow dark before we returned, but a half moon high overhead made it easy enough to find our way back down the wash, the white/gray granite sand nicely illuminated in the moonlight. It had grown considerably colder, now in the 40's as we approached the campsite. Miguel was in his sleeping bag as we expected, probably wondering what had become of us, now more than two hours since we'd set out. We tried to sneak up on him to give him a scare, but the absolute stillness of the night (there was no wind any more) made this impossible. We only managed to creep within 20ft or so before he noticed us. Off to bed we went ourselves, setting the alarm for 3:30a.

It was 34F when the alarm went off, much colder than any of us had expected it to get. I was only saved from an uncomfortable night in a 40F bag by sleeping in the back of the van. My first task after stopping the alarm was to start the engine and warm up the inside. Three of us were soon eating breakfast inside, but shortly after 4a we had packed up and started off. In order to get back to the gate before 8p, it would be necessary for us to complete the hike in less than 15hrs. As a measure of progress we had the split times for Ron Hudson's 17hr dayhike more than 10 years earlier (Ron had graciously provided these to Miguel), and we would constantly refer to them in order to judge our efforts.

The excursion the night before, taking in about half the route to Botella Azul (Blue Bottle Saddle), had been a helpful exercise as we only got lost about half as much as we might have without previous knowledge. By headlamp the route was even trickier, and though we found the GPS indispensible, it had its own headaches, time lost while consulting it, and a few miscues that had us wandering off in the wrong direction. Ducks, normally a sign that you are on route, were close to useless here, we came to find out. There are literally ducks in every side wash and and all over the hillsides. We'd reach a juncture, wondering which way to turn, when someone would say, "Here's a duck!" At least half the time it would only take seconds for the chorus, "There's a duck over here, too!" The Eckert coordinates were fairly good, though as we came to find they did not have the optimal route to the saddle. As daylight started filtering through the trees we found a use trail at the 2hr mark that seemed to be just the thing the doctor ordered. It led us gently down a slope for some time, only to end rather abruptly, leaving us askew of our target and having to cross some gullies to get back on course. I was swearing by this time, having been led to believe that the initial section between the start and Botella Azul was a gentle climb, almost flat. We were finding it anything but that, with what seemed like constant up and down for the last hour. By the time we had reached the saddle at 6:30a we were already tired. Our time of 2.5hrs was half an hour behind Ron's, but we continued with our belief that we would make up the time one way or another.

Things got easier as we started the traverse east before descending into the canyon. Miguel was the only one who had read the trip reports with any attention, cautioning us against the mistake of starting down too early where we would find cliffs and steep, narrow chutes. A decent use trail and a series of ducks helped in this endeavor, which we dutifully followed. The sun was up now and Picacho del Diablo was in full sight to the northeast. Our route would take us more than 3,000ft down to a canyon west of the peak (Canyon del Diablo) before ascending almost 4,000ft up to the summit. A connecting ridgeline known as Pinnacle Ridge connects Botella Azul with the summit, but it has been described as a difficult class 5 ridge traverse. That Eichorn and company took 2.5 days to complete the traverse was enough to dissuade almost anyone from attempting the ridge as a dayhike. Still, from what we could see, the ridge didn't look too intimidating, and we wondered if there wasn't an easier way by staying just off the crest. We discussed one possibility up a broad, forested gully, but had to admit it would be foolish without seeing those parts of the crest not visible to us. Down we went towards Campo Noche.

I held out another possibility for a short cut that could save us dropping about half the distance to Campo Noche. A break in the cliff on the east side of the canyon looked like it might offer a way, by first climbing a class 3 route up the cliff, then traversing over to the regular route on the West Face. I pointed this out to Rick who although not exactly enthusiastic, didn't vote against it. As we neared that part of the canyon I broke off from the series of ducks we'd been following and headed towards the cliff. A few minutes later Miguel pointed out that we were no longer following the ducks. "When did you notice that?" Rick chided. We filled him in on the plan but he was decidedly unenthusiastic about our prospects. But being a good sport, he followed. I talked up the plan as the greatest idea to hit Mexico in decades. A dayhike, a new route, a short cut - what could be better? I didn't let up my enthusiam for a minute though I really had little idea how it would work - there were parts of the route I simply could not see from above. The route started off much as I had envisioned, but after a few hundred feet things started to get a bit rougher. We fought our way up some tough class 3 with a few class 4 moves to keep things interesting. I looked around the edge of the chute we were climbing at one point only to find massive cliffs on the other side. Would the top of the chute have any better prospects? Where Rick got hung up at one sketchy point, I shouted down that I would take a few minutes to go up to the top of the chute and peer over. Doing so, I found the other side passable and continued over into the next chute. A traverse led across for fifty yards until I was in the chute proper, but it didn't look to lead in the right direction. Exits out of the second chute to the left were all blocked, and the only feasible route looked to be up the chute which led to Pinnacle Ridge, not towards our summit. I retraced my steps and shouted down to the others to abort the effort. I had jeopardized our chances of getting out before the gate closes, but didn't want to jeopardize our chance of reaching the summit by pursuing this line. The others were good about not hounding me for wasted time, but we had lost about 45 minutes, not to mention the effort in climbing an extra 500ft, before we were back in the canyon heading downstream again.

It was just after 8:30a when we reached Campo Noche after what seemed an interminable descent. As advertised, there was a good flow of water in the stream which we used to recharge our supplies. We took a short break to give Rick a chance to change out of his thermals in preparation for the climb ahead. So far we had stayed mostly in the shade and temperatures remained cool and comfortable, but we expected this to change shortly as the sun broke over to the west side of the mountain. Our timing so far was just matching Ron's splits to Campo Noche and we hadn't gained a single minute yet. For the past several hours Miguel had been plagued (or blessed, depending on who you talked to) with noxious gases that had Rick cringing and gasping for breath in his effort to follow. Miguel would laugh, start to offer some sort of weak appology, then break into guffaws as Rick coughed and sputtered. It would be a recurring theme all the way to the summit. What Miguel didn't know was the secret conspiracy that was brewing to leave him stranded in Mexico, as neither Rick nor I had any interest in driving back in the car with a toxic nightmare.

We found some ducks leading up from Campo Noche, and soon after setting out to follow them we were able to confirm that they matched the path for the waypoints in Rick's GPS. As elsewhere on the route, it seemed there were ducks everywhere. Large ones, small ones, some adorned with sticks, and about all we could glean from them was that a lot of duck builders had climbed this mountain. For more than an hour we followed the ducks along the route, a relentlessly steep route up one gully, traversing into another, but mostly just continually going up the face. Miguel continued to torment Rick, amusing me in the process, as we slowly made our way up. Eventually we found ourselves off the GPS route, having followed ducks straight up from waypoint DEVIL5 rather than taking a left turn to a side gully. The traverse to get back on route looked tedious. Rick consulted the map and pointed out that our current route was one of the alternatives drawn on the map, so we elected to continue with the direct assault. There was some confusion as to which of several pinnacles above us was the higher north summit, but the map indicated we'd land somewhere between the two summits. For once we were starved for ducks but after looking around a bit we found a few leading ever upwards. As we neared the summit ridge, I started angling right towards the south summit, figuring we ought to tag it while we were so near. But it soon became clear when we could peer over the summit ridge that the north summit was another 20 minutes further left than we'd thought - the pinnacle on our immediate left was just an intermediate point. I abandoned the effort to reach the south summit though I was no more than ten minutes away. In hindsight I should have completed the traverse, but at the time I was more concerned about making up lost time (the "short cut" fresh in my mind still) and getting back to the gate before 8p. So I backtracked to the notch where Miguel was peering over the other side looking for a route to the north summit. Cliffs. Big ones, too.

The only reasonable option seemed to be to go up and over the intermediate pinnacle. I knew the traverse between the two summits was rated class 4, so didn't expect us to have too much trouble. Miguel led up towards the intermediate pinnacle, trying to take advantage of the dubious ledge around the southwest side we had spied from below. As it was starting to get tough, I happened to peer around the ridge to the other side some 50 feet or so above the notch, and shouted out something like "Bingo!" What appeared to be a mostly unbroken ledge led around to the north side of the pinnacle. I climbed around the edge, dropped onto the ledge, and proceeded to pick my way over the traverse for 50 yards or so. It went. It was a good thing too, because the original way we started up looked to end in big air when viewed from the northwest side of the pinnacle. The others soon followed, joining me at the next notch.

The way up from the second notch was more promising, with several options presenting themselves. We chose to take an exposed but fun class 3 route directly up the ridgeline from the notch. It was quite steep but with good holds, and we all agreed it was the best scrambling of the day afterwards, though it lasted all of five minutes. It was just before 11:30a when we reached the summit, finally starting to make up some lost time. True to expectations, we could see both the Pacific Ocean (to the southwest) and the Sea of Cortez (to the east), and it was an impressive sight indeed. The east side of the summit drops off for some 8,000ft, a sweeping view of the Sonoran desert that surrounds us. Miguel donned his mask for some summit shots, though his impersonation of the devil himself left something to be desired. Upon reviewing the photos he lamented, "Ah man, I look gay..." The summit registers were damp within the large PVC pipe that contained them. I took them out to let them dry for the short time we stayed at the summit, but it probably did little good. That the registers would be the only damp/wet thing for miles around was a bit ironic. None of the books nor scraps of papers went back more than a few years, and with the books full we made our entry as many others had done, on one of the empty or half-used pages in the middle somewhere. The peak is surprisingly popular despite its remote location. An alternative to the register was the metal plaque that at least one party mounted on the summit rocks, though this isn't as permanent as it may appear judging from the glue remnants showing where another either fell off or was removed.

For our descent we made the effort to do a better job of follow the Eckert waypoints. We were unsure exactly where to start, and our initial effort down the north side ended shortly in retreat when we reached a huge slab section. Starting over at the summit, we headed west over the ridgeline, with regular ducks soon helping to bolster our confidence that we were heading the right way. We followed down a steep chute named "Slot Wash," or "Wall Street," followed by some slabby sections that Miguel had been looking for all morning ("Hey, maybe these are the slabs!" was a regular feature of his for the last three hours). Not having come up this way, this was one area where we found ducks useful. There are many options to cliff out and it seemed we must have explored most of them. One of us would start down some questionable class 4 slope only to hear someone above call out, "Oh look, a duck over here." This meant the lead would change regularly, and in this somewhat haphardly manner we continued down. Getting behind Miguel in the shuffle was like drawing the short straw.

Having consumed more than 6 liters since the start including a refill at Campo Noche, Miguel finally ran out of water about halfway down. Rick and I were consuming far less water, but we were carrying less as well, and eventually we ran out too. We were full in the sun now, choosing our route down to maximize shade rather than technical difficulty. It seemed to grow hotter the lower we descended. Hours earlier I had noticed Miguel's tendency to talk in a calm voice entirely too low for us to make out what he was saying. After a few unanwered "Dijyasaysomethin'?"s, I realized he was talking to no one in particular other than himself. This was becoming more frequent now, as I found myself wondering if the heat and exhaustion were getting to him, or perhaps it was just his style. It seemed the latter. Watching him while hidden from view, he'd duck under a tree branch, stand on a rock and say something like "What have we here?" He may have been talking to the mountain wondering which way to go, or perhaps his colon just before the next gaseous eruption. A favorite phrase of his, used repeatedly, was "Lordy, Lord!" Not unlike something my grandmother used to say. It was all rather amusing.

We were all pretty hot and thirsty by the time we arrived back to Campo Noche. There was no discussion taking place as we unshouldered our packs, just three guys rushing to the largest pool we could find and stripping to various degrees to cool ourselves in the chilly waters. It was fairly cold, almost icy, and we screeched and screamed in primal terror as the water shocked our skin. Miguel and I were the only ones to submerge ourselves completely, and despite the screams it was nice once we got out (not unlike the feeling when you stop hitting yourself with a hammer) and started to dry in the sun filtering through the trees. After this short spectacle we moved upstream to get some clean water to drink, then started up for the long climb back to Botella Azul. Only 3,000ft to go!

We all expected this last big climb to be a bear, hunkering down to a slow pace of just trying to make continuous progress. Being the last one to get my act together back at the stream, the others had left me to catch up, which I slowly accomplished over the next half hour. It wasn't hard to find them. For one thing, there was only one basic path up the canyon, steep walls on either side making hard to peel off on a side route with a multitude of ducks all about. But there was also much noise going on to make their whereabouts somewhat obvious. Miguel was still talking to himself (and quite possibly to us, but I don't think Rick heard him any better than I), and periodically would verbalize a much louder groan, grunt, or other low-pitched outburst. Rick picked up on this as well in mimicry, taking it a bit further in volume. "AAAAAARRRRGGGGGHHH!!!" could be heard periodically bellowing out through the trees. Later they explained it to be a technique to rouse them out of their pain and stupor, trying to invigorate their failing bodies. I had gotten ahead of them about halfway up, but I never got far out in front -they were doing a fine job of chasing me uphill even if it seemed we were racing at a snail's pace. Maybe the primal screams were working, but they sure had me laughing.

We reached Botella Azul at 4:15p, having taken just under two hours for the ascent. This was a good deal faster than the three hours we had expected, and we were now back on schedule and making good time. We rested a bit before starting again, though I wasn't at all looking forward to that up and down mess we had gone through getting up to the saddle at daybreak. Fortunately, Rick found a less-traveled, but still serviceable use trail that did a far better job of contouring the little canyon washes and minimizing the up and down portions (northeast of waypoint BLUEB1). I was greatly relieved. True to form and expectation, we ended up taking yet a different set of washes in the last half of the route between Botella Azul and the trailhead. Not surprisingly, there were more ducks found in this last set of washes. We wandered back to camp just before 6:30a, making for a 14hr20m excursion - not very far off our original estimate at all.

We still had a very long haul back to the US and home ahead of us. I took the first shift of driving, almost 5hrs to reach Ensenada while Rick and Miguel dozed off. Miguel took the second shift, driving the rest of the way through Mexico and on to his home in Los Angeles where we arrived somewhere around 4a (no LA rush hour traffic, thank goodness). In our short visit to Mexico we had spoken to exactly 4 Mexicans, not exactly the cultural immersion one might expect on a visit to a foreign country. Rick had the easiest leg to drive, a two hour leg to Bakersfield while I did my best to sleep in the back of the van. I don't think we exchanged more than a few hundred words since we'd started the drive more than 12 hours earlier. It was another three and half hours before I got home to the Bay Area at 9:30a Monday morning. Thankfully, I had nowhere to be and nothing to do for the next five hours, so off to bed I went - stiff, sore, and yet somehow - content...

More photos: Rick's & Miguel's


Submit online text corrections or comments about the story.

Fritz comments on 04/22/08:
Great TR, fantastic job guys!
Cheers.
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