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The final day of my 10-day desert venture promised to be one of the better ones. Picacho Peak is rated as the technically toughest of the 99 peaks on the DPS list. Its class 6 rating is a bit of a misnomer, once used to describe aid routes. A more modern rating of the peak is somewhere around 5.9-10, though few visitors actually climb it free. Most use several ladders that have been left in place to aid the ascent, and we planned to do likewise. Located in the far southeast corner of California, it is undoubtedly one of the longest drives from the Bay Area one can make and still remain inside California. Joining me for this venture were Matthew and Evan, both of whom I'd been climbing with for the past few days, but not on the same days. Evan had climbed the highpoint of the Little Maria Mtns to the north the previous day while Matthew and I were in Arizona tackling a few DPS peaks there. We all met in the early morning before sunrise where the pavement turns to dirt, piled into Matthew's rental car, and headed for the trailhead.
Being the clever (and somewhat lazy) boys we were, we thought we'd take the DPS Route "B" approach - a longer drive but shorter walk to the peak. The guide indicates "2WD" for this alternate, but after struggling along a badly rutted section between the Little Picacho Wash and the White Wash, we decided to back off that plan (it was a bit much even for the higher standards demanded of rental cars) and stick with the more excellently graded Route "A". We parked the car shortly before 7a where the road was wide, and set out up the wash.
Only it wasn't the Little Picacho Wash as inidicated in the route description, but a subsidary one closer to the fenced-in mining tails just to the south. It didn't seem to matter much. Eventually we realized the error, climbed up and out of the wash to a broad, low plateau, and continued west to the correct wash. Picacho Peak loomed high and impressive-looking before us, almost frightful looking on its East Face. It was certainly going to be a fine climb. We followed the wash up the sandy middle, through a narrow gap and eventually up and around the south side of the peak. We picked up a very nice use trail where we left the wash and headed up an easy ridgeline leading to a saddle on the southwest side of the peak. It was 8a when we reached this saddle, and from this vantage we could see the lower part of the scramble ahead, a 200-foot rock-strewn gully.
The use trail continued on a traverse along the base of the West Face to this gully which we found easy enough to climb, mostly class 2. The gully led to a notch between the main bulk of the peak and a detached pinnacle to the west. This is the point where the fun begins. The notch afforded a fine view of Picacho State Park and the Colorado River to the north, a taste of the even better views to come. The rest of the route up the West Face follows a series of ramping ledges, somewhat confusing but made obvious by the presence of bountiful ducks, and the occasional but unnecessary and offending red arrow spraypainted on the rock. We found both ladders as described, saving us the necessity of attempting to climb rock faces we would probably have failed at miserably. The first wooden ladder was short, maybe 10 feet high, bridging a small overhang between two of the ledges. Shortly after this easy ladder we came to the airy gap that has been described as turning back more than a few climbers. The air below gave us pause, but the rock surface was excellent - volcanic in nature, pockmarked with good holds, and not in the least slippery. Evan and I jumped across the gap in short order, Matthew taking more time to consider the consequences should he fail and weighing this against the calculated value of his life. He was not happy with the tradeoff and let us know it in curses, hesitations, and other nervous habits. This had a dual effect on Evan and I, alternating between wanting to laugh at his antics and offer reassurance and assistance in getting him across the gap. Funny as it was, we really did want to see him get across and up to the summit. Matthew wanted this badly as well, and eventually this drive won out over his more natural fears.
After a few more zig-zags up the ledge system, we came to the north end of the last ramp and the second, taller ladder. This one was not as trivial as the first, about twice the height and not situated nearly so well. Were the ladder to tip over, it would send the unfortunate occupant over the ledge and into the abyss on the left side that would certainly result in having a very bad day, death, and most likely both. To oppose this tendency of the slightly tilting ladder, a sling was attached to the top going up to an anchor point we could not see and had no way of verifying its integrity. So I did what any competent mountaineer would do in similar circumstances - I let Evan and Matthew go first. Because Evan had half a foot and forty pounds on me, he provided the additional security of proving the ladder would be able to hold my weight when it was my turn to climb it. Satisfied that there was no danger, I followed.
The top of the ladder led to the summit ridge, sweeping views, and for the most part easier ground. Half way across to the highpoint, located at the southernmost end of the ridge, we came across a small aluminum plaque fixed to the rock. It seemed to serve no other purpose than to prove three others had reached this point in climbing the peak some seven years earlier. And it wasn't yet the top. Odd. Beyond the plaque was a short class 3-4 section that needed to be surmounted, but we were all out of ladders (the DPS describes this as the false summit block). Fortunately we had a rope and other gear with us because we knew the hardest part still lay ahead. Examining the rock features, I decided the holds were good enough and I scrambled up the 15-foot obstacle without much trouble. A belay anchor atop suggested it was not uncommon to use a rope on this part. I tied into the anchor, tossed the rope down to the others, and in turn they both climbed up the short wall belayed from above. After this we gathered up the gear and walked to the south side of the block to the final and crux obstacle. The block overhangs slightly, 15 feet down to a notch from where it is then easy to reach the summit. Getting over the overhang would be easy, getting back up would not. Because of this, we took great precaution to ensure we could get back up before commmiting all three of us to the summit side. I'd brought two etriers (used for standing upright in while aid climbing) that we attached to loops tied in the rope and tossed over the edge, secured to bolt anchors atop the false summit block. I then rapped off the false summit using the remaining length of our rope, and once off rappel I immediately climbed back up using the etriers with a belay from Matthew above. Having never used these contraptions before in my life, it was rather awkward, difficult, and a bit frustrating. But eventually I made my way back up in ugly fashion, then rapped down a second time. Matthew and Evan followed. We left the rope and gear in place and climbed the remaining short distance to the highpoint.
It was 10:20a when we reached the top, and by the smiles on our faces it was obvious that we were very happy with our success. It was a bit breezy and cool atop, but otherwise fine weather. We had views of the wild desert country all around us, taking in parts of both California and Arizona in the bargain. There were several registers to be found, one held in a rather elaborate cement encasement in a crevice in the rock. This construction was an eagle scout project, designed to help keep the summit climbing records safe from harm, whether from humans, animals, weather, and quite possibly rapture and the apocalypse. I can't say I was thrilled with the result. Hopefully, the much more useful ladders were part of the same project, otherwise I'd have to judge it was more of an eyesore than a helpful effort.
After our short stay at the summit, we reversed course, one by one going up the etriers (with varying degrees of aesthetic success, mine being among the least) on either top rope or belayed from above and then gathering up the other stuff we'd left there. Evan and I downclimbed the north side of the summit block with a belay from Matthew, after which Matthew rapped the short distance. We had no trouble descending the tall ladder, recrossing the airy gap, downclimbing the short ladder and returning to the notch. The fun over, we made a leisurely effort of the return via nearly the same route, only this time taking Little Picacho Wash all the way out to the road. Along the way we stopped to marvel at and photograph the occasional tiny flowers that provided the only color to an otherwise blanched landscape. In particular I was taken by the species of tiny poppies that I had seen in only a few places throughout the desert. Only half an inch across, they were miniature versions of their regular-sized cousins.
Driving back out to where Evan and I had left our vehicles, the three of us split up for different destinations. Evan was driving home to the coast of Southern California, Matthew off to climb another peak before returning for his flight home out of San Diego. I steeled myself for the long haul back to the Bay Area, more than nine hours of driving with only two fuel and potty stops. It had been a good ten days, long enough that I could enjoy the long drive by reminiscing about the fine days of climbing and hiking just completed...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Picacho Peak
This page last updated: Thu Nov 5 10:52:36 2009
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