El Picacho del Diablo
By: Sue Holloway
El Picacho del Diablo Devil's Peak Big Picacho call it what you will. Because it's on "the list", it's a DPS emblem peak, it's the highest mountain in Baja California, it's prominent and it's "there", a group of us simply had to climb it (or re-climb it, as the case may be). Read the stories on the DPS Archives about past climbs of this peak or talk to other list finishers and you will have no doubt that we are all obsessed. . . .or is it possessed?
This climb has been on my schedule for 5 months and the interest in joining the group was HUGE. I had put a limit of 15 on the group and still had a waitlist. Two weeks before the trip I sent regrets to those on the waitlist and then there were a few last minute cancellations so we had a group of 11. And what a group it was 4 going for their first ascent, 4 going for their second, 2 going for their 3rd and 1 going for his fourth. John, Dave and Ken had Eckert's waypoints from his 2001 trip entered in their GPS receivers while Ron's navigational chip is embedded in his brain. Heck, all I had to do was decide on meeting times and other minor logistics, put out a trip sheet and fall in line. You know what they say; the key to success is to surround yourself with smart people.
Nine of the group met at John's in San Diego and we loaded our gear in 4 vehicles and headed for the border shortly after 8 a.m. on May 18. Some still needed insurance so we stopped at the border to get that. (The consensus regarding auto insurance for Mexico is to simply buy the policy on-line and print it out at home. You save a few bucks, plus you don't have to make the stop at the border. It also costs less than the Auto Club and the insurance carrier is the same however you do it.)
We stopped at a decent restaurant in Santo Tomas and had a filling meal and we also made a gas stop on the way down (gas was $2.25/gallon.. . .what a deal!). After the turnoff from Mexico Highway 1, the road is paved for 70 kilometers and then excellent dirt after that. We signed in at the entrance station, paid the fee of $8 per car and the ranger unlocked the gate for us. (We noted that the station is manned from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. so future visitors should keep this in mind in their planning unless they want to camp outside the gate.) The excellent dirt road continued all the way to the turn-off at the far side of Vallecitos meadow. The dirt road to the SE that one turns off on and drives 2.3 miles was in decent shape and the 2WD vehicles had no problems getting to the Blue Bottle campground. We arrived at this, our destination, a little before 5 p.m.
After setting up camp, several in the group went on a hike to stretch their legs after the long drive. When they returned, they reported that the chain blocking the road to Los Llanitos was on the ground and that, as far as they walked, the road was definitely passable with 4WD. Even though there was a sign that "discouraged" entry, there was another party that was starting from the shack. Since starting from the shack would cut 4 miles (RT) from the climb, we decided that we'd drive to that alternate trailhead the next morning. So, at 7:30 a.m. Friday morning we consolidated into our 4WD vehicles and left the 2WD cars parked at the campground. As it turned out, the road to the shack was fine (but definite 4WD), with well established detours around all barriers.
The one thing I remembered from my first climb of this peak is that it is very easy to get lost. Well, we didn't get lost... .not once. We made decent time getting to Blue Bottle Saddle (3 hrs. 25 mm.) where we stopped for a long break. I didn't remember that I'd climbed Blue Bottle Peak in 1997 so Dave, Ken and I set out after lunch. There was a very good use trail to the summit and it only took us about 10 minutes to get to the top. The views were excellent in all directions so we spent some time enjoying them and taking pictures. Once we got back to the saddle, we started our descent to Campo Noche at 12:50p.m.
Well, the one thing I didn't remember from my first climb of this peak is how difficult the terrain was. Wow!!! For the most part, we stayed together though one of our party had a very difficult time and required a lot of assistance that Ron and Ken ably provided. That caused them to get to camp an hour after everyone else. Since we were all tired and we were going to get an early start for the peak, it was a quiet camp and everyone turned in just after dark.
Summit day was another tough one. We started at 6:30 a.m. and, once again, the route finding (primarily by Dave and Ron) was excellent. In contrast to 1997, when it seemed like there were ducks leading every which way, I thought the ducks in place now were pretty helpful. By our 10:30 a.m. break, it was obvious that we weren't going to set any records on getting to the summit. It was a combination of the overall difficulty of the terrain and significant waiting for one of our party. John very graciously stayed behind to provide the considerable assistance required by one and, as it turned out, deprived himself of reaching the summit. The rest of us were on the summit by lunch (12:25 p.m.).
We left the summit promptly at 1 p.m. Some of us were running short of water so we stopped at an area where there were a couple of pools of standing water. I treated a quart of water and ended up drinking every drop of it prior to arriving back in camp. (Obviously, I sorely misjudged how much water I was going to need.) We were back in camp at 7 p.m. after an 11 Y2 hour day. Fluids, food and relaxing consumed the remaining hour or so of daylight. Again, it was lights out by 9 p.m.
The next morning Ron and Christine left at 5:30 a.m. as they wanted to get back to LA that night. The rest of us were packed up and hiking by 6:45 a.m. There had been another couple camped at Campo Noche Saturday night and they stayed with our group on the descent back to Blue Bottle Saddle. I'd thought for sure that I would be pulling up the rear but, thankfully, everyone was going slowly and resting often so our core group arrived together at the saddle by 11:30 a.m. We rested there for 30 minutes and then talked to John (who was again shepherding the laggard) on the radio. He said they were at 8,000' and going very, very slowly. He thought they would have to spend another night out, probably at Blue Bottle Saddle. Bob sacrificed a liter of his water for John and left it at the saddle. The other couple had planned on spending the night at BB anyway so we knew our friends would have company.
There were a couple of spots on the way back where we spent extra time consulting the GPS's. (You think you have memorized the terrain but, really, it all looks much the same.) We ended up following a decent ducked trail and were back at the cars a little after 2 p.m. It didn't take us long to load up our packs and drive back out to the campground. We saw that Ron and Christine's car was gone so we knew they'd gotten back safely. Virgil and Gloria headed for home while Dave, Bob and Anne were heading to the Meling Ranch for dinner and camping. John had made reservations for the 7 of us for Sunday night but, unfortunately, he was stuck out another night and Ken and I didn't want to leave until we knew he was back safely. So, we were going to spend another night at the campground. We kept our radio on, hoping to hear from John about their progress but there wasn't any reception.
Any hope of getting out early on Monday was dashed when, at 5:10 a.m. it started to snow! Ken was sleeping in his van but valiantly got up and put his tarp over most of the gear that we'd left outside. I stayed in my tent, wondering how John and party were fairing. About 7:30 a.m. while I was still in my bag, there was a loud "crash". Ken was outside by now and saw a big tree fall over our road out! By now it had snowed about 3" and, though it had stopped, the skies still looked very threatening. Since we didn't have a 4WD vehicle, we decided we should pack up and drive out to the good dirt and wait for our friends there. As it turned out, it didn't snow much more and by 9 a.m. the sun was coming out. By 11 a.m. much of the snow had melted and we drove back to the campground to continue our vigil. Finally, around 1:45 p.m. our radio came to life with John reporting that they were back to his car and starting the drive out. Once we heard they were fine, we started for home as we were both anxious to be on our way.
We'd talked about just driving non-stop to San Diego but we ended up having to make one unexpected stop. We were moving right along on Hwy. 1, north of Santo Tomas, when Ken passed a big truck that wasn't going very fast. As luck would have it, a police car was coming in the other direction and, very quickly, all its flashing lights went on as we were being signaled to pull over. Gulp The officer introduced himself, shook Ken's hand and asked where we were from. He then informed us that the solid yellow line in the highway meant no passing and that Ken had passed the truck in just such an area. As Ken was complying with the request to see his driver's license and vehicle registration, I played my part as a dumb blonde and told the officer that, while I realized it was our responsibility to know the local traffic laws, we didn't know that's what the solid yellow line meant because, if we did, he wouldn't have passed the truck (yeah, right...) Anyway, the officer explained to Ken that he was going to have to give him a traffic ticket and retain Ken's license as a 'guarantee' that Ken would pay the fine. He said that Ken could go to Tijuana on Tuesday, pay the ticket and then he would get his driver's license back. While we both knew that something had to be done to avoid that, I was the first to speak up and ask if there wasn't some way we could pay the fine on the spot so Ken could keep his license. As luck would have it ( (c)), the officer said, if we paid the fine directly to him, he would be happy to take care of "paying the ticket for Ken" and then Ken could keep his license. Unbelievable as it may seem, the officer was even able to offer a 50% discount from the usual fine for committing that particular offense. What an interesting "system" So, the officer took some cash, there was no ticket written, Ken got his license back and we continued on our way, both happy that we were able to get the situation resolved. The rest of our drive was uneventful, our wait at the border was only about 15 minutes and we were both home before 8 p.m.
It was a pleasure to share yet another adventure with these friends and I want to again express my thanks to those on the trip who were so patient with all the waiting and delays. I'm just happy we all got home safely. We were able to check this peak off our various lists! Immediately following our return home, the unanimous chant was "never again". Now that a few weeks have passed, it's probably not a stretch to say, "well. ....maybe....in a few years...."
The participants on this trip were Ken Barr, Ron Bartell, Gail Hanna, Bob Hoeven, Gloria Miladin, Christine Mitchell, Dave Perkins, Virgil Popescu, Anne Rolls and John Strauch.
Detailed information for visiting one or more peaks mentioned in this article can be found in the|
Desert Peak Section Road and Peak Guides
|DPS Archives Index | Desert Peaks Section|