Cerro Botella Azul
By: John Robinson
38 CLIMB BLUE BOTTLE, BUT FOREST FIRE MARS TRIP
This year's San Pedro Martir backpack trip (April 3-7) attracted a record 55 participants, saw a record 38 reach the summit of Blue Bottle Peak, and ended with everyone battling a forest blaze - an action packed five days.
Leaders Bill Clifton and I assembled our large group under sunny skies at the Meling Ranch on Saturday morning; then we caravaned up the much improved Observatorio road onto the San Pedro Martir plateau. After a liesurely lunch at Vallecitos Meadow, we hoisted packs and hiked five miles southeastward to Los Llanitos, a small clearing near the great La Tasajera rock ridge. Here we made camp. Because of the size of the group, about ten separate cooking fires were utilized. That night the wind blew at velocities ranging from an estimated 20 to 40 miles per hour.
Next morning after breakfast (featuring bacon and eggs supplied by a generous Freda Walbrecht), we packed up and hiked southwest into the intricate La Tasajera country. Boulder-hopping down winding arroyos, scrambling across rocky ridges, we reached La Encantada, the largest meadow in the range, by early afternoon. The meadow was surprisingly dry, but we managed to find a small spring at the north end. Here we set up camp, with a beautiful view across the four mile long meadow surrounded by boulder stacked ridges.
Monday was a layover day with something for everyone. Some just relaxed in camp, while others explored the meadow. Bob Vinton made what he hoped would be a first ascent of South Palomas (9100'), only to find that a group from Arizona had climbed it 21 years before. I led 38 up Blue Bottle (9550'), the highest point on the plateau. We utilized a good trail from La Encantada to a high mountain bench below the peak, then scrambled up easy second class ridges to the summit for a breathtaking closeup of magnificent El Picacho del Diablo. But most of us were not looking at El Picacho, Down to the northeast a tongue of smoke was rising from the forest. We immediately recognized the spot as Los Llanitos, our previous night's camp.
A call went out for volunteers - only strong hikers - and 13 responded. Hurriedly we raced down to fight the blaze. Les Reid and Art de Goede were left to shepard the main party back to camp (which they did admirably). It took but an hour and ten minutes to descend the four miles to Los Llanitos. As we approached the endangered camp, we saw columns of smoke pouring from the forest and wondered about our chances of containing the fire. Arriving at the scene we fanned out and surrounded the blaze which was consuming approximately two acres on and immediately around a forested knoll. Working in extreme heat and choking smoke, without water, we managed to clear a six to eight foot perimeter around the fire and smother some of the burning brush and pine needles. Fortunately the wind had died. After 3-1/2 hours of intense work, we determined that, barring a high wind, the fire was under control. Although there were several hot spots where large stumps or logs were burning, they were mostly well within the perimeter. Thanks go largely to Milt Macauley and his "Marauders" (six teenagers) who did splendid work in containing the blaze. Milt was the only one of us who had previous fire fighting experience. We left the fire scene shortly after 4 p.m. and moving rapidly, reached our La Encantada campsite just before dark, weary and foot sore.
I determined that the entire group should return to the scene of the fire the next day (Tuesday), rather than continue the planned loop around the plateau. So Tuesday morning we headed back in four groups. We were relieved to find the fire almost out with only a handful of hot spots still smouldering. These were smothered with sand and soil. About half the group continued out to Vallecitos that afternoon. The rest remained at Los Llanitos one more night just to make certain that the fire was out. The next morning we made one more careful cheek of the burned area, buried several warm spots, and hiked back to the vehicles. Before leaving the mountains, several of us drove up to the Observatorio which is perched on the 9000 foot eastern escarpment with tremendous views of El Picacho, the desert, and the distant Sea of Cortez.
I would like to make the following observations regarding the fire. (1) The fire was obviously caused by our party, as no one else was in the area. Its probable causes were the strong wind and the closeness of some of the cooking fires to forested and brushy areas.
(2) I, as trip leader, accept the main responsibility for the fire because I allowed too many cooking fires, some of them in locations too close to combustible materials, and failed to personally check out each fire the following morning to ensure that each was completely extinguished.
(3) Fires such as this are likely to occur on other club trips under similar conditions, as we have no concrete and enforced rules concerning the number and locations of cooking fires, and leaders as a rule do not personally check each fire before leaving.
(4) We need to study this problem and come up with fire policies that will insure that this never again happens on a club trip. (5) The episode was highly embarrasing to the leader, the party, and to the Sierra Club as a whole.
The DPS has now twice scheduled Blue Bottle Peak (1969 and 1971) and once led Tres Palomas (1968), both prominent and interesting summits in the San Pedro Martir Range of Baja California. Both of these peaks would be worthy additions to the qualifying list and as such should be nominated for addition next spring.
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