Text and blisters by Mike Huckaby
Baja’s high point is a fun endeavor and an obvious destination for Sea of Cortez kayakers, mountaineers of all stripes, and beach goers frolicking in San Felipe. Four-wheelers love to spin sand on the road to the trail head, and naturalists love the inviting freshwater pools near the trail head. What’s not to love? Stately cardon and the umbrella canopy of ocotillo dot the beautiful Baja desert. Robin’s egg blue skies meet the immense upwelling of a 10,000 foot spine of rock. And water. Cool, clear, fresh water seals the deal.
The trail head is an easy day’s drive from Tucson, and only about an hour from the pavement of San Felipe. Just head west on the sand road south of the PEMEX. Bear right for San Pedro Martir. As you see the escarpment across the valley, aim for the hidden drainage behind the prominent ridge just north of west. There is a network of roads that can be confusing, but inexplicably we’ve never gotten lost. Long stretches of loose sand may give cause for pause, but never had to use our four wheel drive.
There are three primary approach. The western approach is said to take a long difficult day, but can be traveled by car. Even though the drive is longer, I think the approach to the climb is shorter. Plus you can visit the Observatory, or Mike’s Sky Rancho. You can park at Blue Bottle past San Pedro–but go guided. We recommend Sofia ([email protected]). She’s fit, friendly, and you’re guaranteed to make the summit. Actually, she will easily make the summit, but a 4000 feet climb in barely 2 kilometers of distance can be daunting for some folks. A third approach enters from the north about 20 miles west of where (Ensenada-San Felipe) Highway 3 splits off of (Mexicali-San Felipe) Highway 5. Four-wheelers in sand rails and Humvees like to speed to the eastern approach across the dry lake bed. If it’s rained recently, they’re probably still stuck!
From the trailhead camping, follow the cairned trail northwest below the bluff into the drainage and hike upstream. The fun starts quickly on the eastern approach. Just a half hour from the trail head into the 2 day route up to Campo Noche is a reset button. You’re stopped cold. You’re faced with a beautiful granite face in the center of which is a gurgling stream falling four feet into a deep turquoise pool. But then, you notice something. Just left of the drainage and about 20 feet up is a climber’s expansion bolt with a wire rope attached to it. There is a smaller cord anchored above a tiny, dry rock hump to the left of the pool, and another smaller cord is anchored just out of sight, to the right of the lip of the granite face, on dry rock. Both of these smaller cords loosely connect to the bottom of the wire rope. The idea is to use the small cord to pull the wire rope to the dry hump, grab on tight, and run across the face of the rock to the lip of the pour off. There are just a couple of things to remember. One, is that you have better friction if you are perpendicular to the surface across which you’re traveling. Two, is to keep up your momentum. Easy. Muy facil. Just put theory into practice. The anchor with the cord above the lip of the drainage is there to pull the rope back into the drainage on your return.
Once up, you’ll notice that there are no more cow pies, no more cow tracks. There may be bighorn tracks and scat here and there. The route up is cairned but so are the mistakes that people make in heading up canyon. Generally, stay left.
There are a couple of ropes to assist in getting up rock faces, but the moves are easily accomplished without the rope. It’s best to check an anchor anyway. If you make it to the major canyon split on the first day, you’ll reach Campo Noche late afternoon on the second day. The first third of the route is mostly rocky. Boulder hopping, gravel bars, circumnavigating rockfall and brush still allow some sense of accomplishment. The second two thirds get a little brushy. Gorgeous, colorful agave bloom in the spring. Rhododendron bloom in winter. Scrub Oak mix with spruce and hemlock. Catclaw idly waits to sample blood. Cattails grow in the marshy shallows with horsetail ferns. Periodically, you get shuffled into tunnels of brush. The growth is impenetrably thick, but brush aside a branch and voilá, an opening. The tunnels can be elusive, convoluted, and frustrating. Progress, too, seems elusive. Go slow, watch for cairns; and good luck! We passed a giant cairn at Campo Noche and commented on it. Less than 20 minutes later, we faced a climb that we hadn’t done before and backtracked. There was our spacious camp on the eastern slope above the giant cairn. We happily remembered the “Campo Noche” carving in the giant log laying through camp.
From Campo Noche (6300 ft) the summit is only 2 km and 4000 ft (1300m) away. For roughly an hour, the route ascends over white granite through a labyrinth of manzanita on Night Wash before joining Slot Wash to the east (left). Following Slot Wash, remember to stay in the main drainage. It’s easy to get sidetracked, and difficult to get back in if you leave the main drainage too early. The summit of Picacho del Diablo is a bit different from most summits in that it is constantly in view. The approach on the slanted slab hides detours, but the goal is deceptively hiding in plain sight. We climbed slowly, over rocks and trees. Twice I led us the to left, only to avoid left at the crucial “Wall Street” exit. As fate would have it, this took us to the south pinnacle. We were happy to get there, having made the north summit 16 years prior. However, as we took photos, we noticed that the south pinnacle which is listed at 10,152 feet had a 3 foot cairn. Even though the north peak is listed at 10,154 feet, given our southern perspective, might we have been higher?
We exited off the east side, and followed steep ledges on a south face. The exposure was pretty forgiving, and we didn’t have to backtrack on an uncairned route. It took us 8 hours of ascent, and only 2 hours to get down.
This is not necessarily a fun mountain, except in retrospect. But I’m definitely not waiting too long to climb it again. The route can be confusing, so anyone should do their homework, or go guided. Upon our dusk return to Campo Noche from our summit bid, we found a large group had set up camp. They were a Mexican hiking group of mixed ages and were heading up the following morning. They were gone by 6:30 am. Their leader Sofia ([email protected]) has 37 summits, and plans a full summer of guiding the uninitiated. With her guidance you’re sure to reach the top. She also knew that the INEGI topo map was mislabeled with Baja’s highest points not labeled at all. If you count the contour lines, the peak labeled Picacho del Diablo is at 2800 m while the highest point at 3100 m goes unnamed. Cool, huh? Obviously, it’s intentional, just to prevent copyright infringement….