Climbing El Picacho del Diablo, Baja, Mexico

A 10,000ft mountain is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Baja, but traveling the peninsula or even looking over the Golf of California from the coast of the state of Sonora one cannot miss this imposing sight. So it is not surprising that the idea of climbing this mountain crossed our minds on various trips in the region.

Picacho del Diablo is the most popular name for this mountain for English speakers. The official name is Cerro de la Encantada and another alternate name is Picacho la Providencia. The first known (accepted) ascent occurred in 1911 by Donald McLain. It's interesting to read about the early attempts to climb this peak in the books referenced below. The mountain is located in the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. The park contains pine forests and high meadows which provides habitat for Bighorn Sheep and the California Condor (re-introduced). There is also an important astronomical observatory. To reach the park drive about 140km south from Ensenada on Mex 1 to the village of San Telmo and turn east for about 100km to the park. The road is paved all the way, but was showing some damage from last winter's heavy storms.

Canon Diablo
Canon del Diablo

In 2005 we made our first attempt on the mountain. At the time our research indicated that spring or fall are the best times to attempt the climb. Summer (June-August) was to be avoided due to heat concerns. So we scheduled our trip for April. Unfortunately we picked a wet year and there was still a lot of snow on the north face of the Cerro Botella Azul (Blue Bottle). We were not equipped to deal with these conditions and were forced to abandon our attempt. Here is Scott's report from that trip.

In 2009 a friend asked me if I was interested in another attempt and we went in October. That time a very strong rain storm foiled our attempt by soaking our gear and making climbing on the saturated ground and slippery rocks rather precarious. We did get a little further than on the first attempt, but ended up turning around about half way down Canyon Diablo.

This time we decided to pick a better time of year and settled on the middle of June. We met on June 17 at the trail head. Greg coming from the south after spending some time exploring Baja with his brother and family and Al and I coming from San Diego. Greg and I were going to do the climb while Al would stay at base camp / trail head to watch over things and us. We carried a radio and planned to check in periodically to keep Al posted on our progress. It was certainly comforting to have someone close by in case of an emergency since the climb takes one to a relatively remote area with help quite far away.

Day 1: June 17, 2010

The drive from San Diego was uneventful. We stopped at the border for my tourist card and headed south. For lunch we stopped in Santo Tomas with impeccable timing: Just in time to catch the 2nd half of the Soccer World Cup game between Mexico and France. Everybody was paying attention to the game and it appeared quite a few people extended their lunch breaks to catch the game. Of course everyone was happy when their team won 2:0.

After lunch we continued south with a brief fuel stop just a couple of miles north of the turn off of the road to the park. We reached the park entrance around 4pm, paid our fees of 50 pesos a person for the whole stay (this was a change from last October when we had to pay 44 pesos a person per day).

Greg and his travel companions were already at camp having arrived earlier that afternoon. We spent the evening exchanging travel stories and preparing for the hike out the next morning. The night here above 8000 ft turned out to be a cold one with temperatures dropping to almost freezing.

There are many stories to tell and maybe someday we'll find time and inspiration to write them down until then please enjoy the pictures with the brief captions

Day 2: June 18, 2010

There are numerous trip reports with detailed route descriptions on the internet, so I won’t repeat all that information here. There are at least 7 routes to the peak, but except for the route from the west they all contain some class 4 sections. We choose this “easy” route for which we found the report by Steve Eckert (see References) to be the most useful. It contains key GPS waypoints and a very good route description. So we took a copy of the report along in addition to GPS, compass and Jerry Schad’s map (see References).

The route starts at the eastern arm of Vallecitos at the trail head for Cerro Botella Azul. Up to the saddle below Botella Azul route finding is relatively easy since the route sees enough traffic that a use trail has developed in some areas. Where a trail is not readily recognizable one will find plenty of cairns. Caveat: several slightly different routes are marked with cairns, but they all end up at the same destination. From the saddle one has the first real view of the impressive Devil’s peak (the ultimate goal) and Canon del Diablo with Camp Noche (the intermediate goal).

Canon Diablo
Lowering Pack, Canon Diablo (Photo Greg S.)

The route now traverses the north face of Botella Azul and is again well marked with cairns and a use trail is recognizable except in the very rocky sections. Slight variations are possible as my GPS tracks show that we did not use exactly the same route as in 2009. Once the route heads north into Canon del Diablo the going is fairly easy on a dirt use trail which even has some hints of switch-backs rather than going straight down.

At about 7700’ things change and the dirt trail ends and scrambling over boulders begins. It was around here that we encountered the first obstacle, a waterfall, where we needed both hands for climbing. We actually decided to lower our heavy packs on a rope and to climb down without the extra weight on our backs. From here on route finding becomes more of an effort. Throughout the route is marked with cairns and red surveyor tape. We found that the route marked with the tape is generally the best, unfortunately there were large gaps and we had to rely on cairns also. On the way down Canon del Diablo we had no problem finding a good route, but on the way up we were misled a couple of times by cairned routes that led to places where we didn’t want to be. Fortunately we caught our little mistakes quickly and corrected.

Coming down we started to hear water and soon reached a point where the vegetation was lush. There was running water with fern and moss growing everywhere, almost jungle like. A little care was necessary since some of the plants happened to be stinging nettles. After pushing through this little jungle the route crosses the water to the left bank and becomes a use trail which climbs up a little to parallel the running stream. I believe this stream has year around water. Progress is slowed a little by the dense vegetation and low branches. Soon the route enters the wash again and some more boulder work is necessary to finally reach Camp Noche on the right hand side of the stream. The Camp offers plenty of flat space and features a large fire pit with simple benches around it.

We paced ourselves on this first day knowing that much more was to come. It took us about 8.5 hours from the trail head to reach camp. After setting up our resting places we went to the stream and cooled our feet in the icy stream. When the day light faded we prepared dinner and soon crawled into our sleeping bags to get some rest for summit day. Night time temperatures were very pleasant.

Day 3: June 19, 2010

Summit day. We got a little later start then we initially had planned, but we were not too worried having read numerous articles where people reported summit round trip times of between 8 and 10 hours. We headed up into Night Wash from the main camp site with the big fire pit, but it’s probably better to go to the end of the upstream camp site and then head up from there via another camp site a little higher up from the creek. We only discovered that upon our return even though this advice is also given in Eckert’s report. So much for following instructions… We followed cairns up to the ridge at the top of the wash. Going was steep, but easy with only moderate (low) brush.

From the ridge a use trail leads to the next narrower wash. Here vegetation gets more dense and route finding becomes more tricky with apparently various routes marked and higher brush obstructing the view. As described in various reports there are pools of water between 8000 and 8500 ft. We had brought a water filter and made use of this water resource on the way down.

From around the pools the route becomes steeper and there are numerous climbing sections, i.e. hands and feet are needed to pass. In a couple of places we discovered that we could circumvent the climbing section, but for the most part there were no options. Then there were areas were we saw cairns in places we certainly didn’t want to be and we where wondering how one even could get there without some very serious climbing.

Climbing friction slab
Climbing on friction slab (Photo Greg S.)

We were really glad that we had thought of bringing gloves along as our hands were constantly in contact with the abrasive granite or we were holding on to dead trees with their splinters. I don’t recall reading about gloves in other reports, maybe it’s too obvious, but I certainly recommend bringing some tough gloves. At the end of the day my leather gloves started to develop holes and I can only imagine what my hands would have felt/looked like!

Climbing continues and it felt like it would never end but finally there were no more boulders to climb, we had reached the top. Before settling down for a nice lunch we gave Al a call to let him know that we had made it. Then we signed the register. There were several books with the current one only showing three other entries for the year so far.

After lunch we headed down the way we had come up, at least to about the pools. Where the rocks were especially loose we took turns going down waiting for the lower climber to get out of the path of any rocks we might kick loose. At the pools we took a nice long break to top off our water bottles. Then it was back into the bushes and downhill. We managed to find routes different from our up-route and spent some time getting back on track.

Since we had spent more time on the climb than anticipated our late start almost became an issue. Once we reached camp it was time to get the head lamps out. Hiking even just the lower portion in Night Wash with a head lamp does not sound appealing. Finding the route/cairns would be rather time consuming and judging the stability of the loose rocks would also not be too easy.

We ended the day with cooling off at the stream and a nice dinner. Well, nice for me anyway. Greg’s dinner did not quite agree with him. By the time we went to bed we started to feel some soreness all over. Sleep came easy after 12.5h on the trail.

Day 4: June 20, 2010

Time to climb back up to the Blue Bottle saddle and hike out from there. Unfortunately Greg’s stomach situation had not improved much and he was looking at a long, torturous day. We decided to take it one step at a time and see how far we would get, keeping the option of another night on the trail in mind. We did want to make it to the top if possible, however.

Our first leg was from camp to where the route leaves the stream. Here we took a break and filled up all our water bottles (Movie, 20Mb) since we knew the water had to last us all the way to the other side of the saddle where we had seen water on the way in. From here to about 7500 ft we struggled a little with finding our original route. That is we ended up following cairns that let us into undesirable parts of the canyon. Except for one, where we climbed a little too high, we caught our mistakes right away though.

Eventually we reached the saddle and gave Al another call. We told him that we would try to reach the trail head before dark but that we had to see how things developed. After a good rest we continued down for the easy hiking to base camp. Not far downstream from the boulders and Manzanita brush below the saddle we stopped at a water hole to fill up our containers. By this time we were almost out of water.

The remainder of the trip was easy hiking. We did manage to miss a turn but the map indicated that the little side canyon we had wandered into would connect to our route with adding much distance so we continued. It took us about 12h back to the trail head. Which is actually a very good time considering how difficult it was for Greg to move with his heavy load!

When we reached base camp Al greeted us with ice cold beer and soda. A perfect ending to a fantastic trip!

Day 5: June 21, 2010

After another cold night we broke up camp and headed down the mountain. On the way out we stopped at Meling Ranch (see References) where Al wanted to discuss some future adventure with the owners. We also updated them with our experience and learned that they have had quite a few visitors who attempted to climb Picacho del Diablo but were not successful. Staying here for the first and last night rather than camping at the trailhead sounds like a good idea, particularly for the last night when a shower and nice home cooked meal are very desirable.

On the way north we stopped at the same gas station and then at the same restaurant. When we reached the Tecate border crossing around 3pm Al estimated the line to be about 45min long and he was spot on (like usual). One new (to us) twist of the crossing was that our trucks were selected to be x-rayed. This procedure, however, added probably only about 5min to the crossing time.

Shredded glove
Glove after one climb
Summary

This was a great adventure and everything went according to plan this time. The climbing from Camp Noche to the peak was more demanding in length and with more near vertical sections than I had imagined from the reports I read. Overall the available trip reports provide all the information needed to complete this climb. This is a strenuous trip though and should not be underestimated. It's a good idea to set a turn around time and stick to it.

A note on terms: Referring to hiking when talking about Picacho del Diablo is a bit misleading. Scrambling and climbing are more appropriate terms. The section up to Blue Bottle Saddle and part of the descent into Canon del Diablo after the Blue Bottle traverse can be called hiking the rest is scrambling with some climbing sections. Here are some definitions of the terms:

  • Hiking usually implies a trail on which one walks.
  • Climbing requires the use of both hands and feet (or any part of the body) to negotiate vertical rock faces.
  • Scrambling refers to travel rough terrain, usually off-trail, frequent use of hands

Thoughts about gear: Besides the gloves I found bringing a light daypack for the summit day was well worth it. This particular pack doubles as a compression sack, so it can replace a sleeping bag sack. I also carried and used my hiking poles. They came in handy up to the Blue Bottle saddle and during large parts of the decent into Canon del Diablo. They really make it easier on the knees during steep descents. I did not use them on summit day, but used them again on the climb out from about half way up Canon del Diablo.


Statistics

Here are some approximate numbers for the distances covered, elevation gained/lost and time spent. (All values are approximate)

  • Trailhead to Camp Noche:
    • 6.5 miles
    • 1300ft elevation gain to Blue Bottle Saddle, 3000ft elevation loss to Camp Noche
    • 8:30 hours
  • Camp Noche to Summit and back
    • 2.5 miles
    • 3800ft elevation gain/loss
    • 5:45 hours up, 6:00 hours down (times including breaks including about 45min at the pools both times we passed there)
  • Camp Noche to Trailhead:
    • 6.5 miles
    • 3000ft elevation gain to Blue Bottle Saddle, 1300ft elevation loss to Trailhead
    • 11:30 hours with many longer breaks


Photos

We were so busy climbing that we did not take a lot of pictures. Here is what we came up with.


References

Map:

  • “Parque Nacional San Pedro Martir (San Pedro Martir National Park) Including Picacho del Diablo, Topographic Maps and Visitor's Guide to Baja's Highest Mountains” by Jerry Schad, ISBN 0-9617288-2-5

Books with some history on climbing Picacho del Diablo:

  • “Camping and Climbing in Baja”, John Robinson, ISBN-10: 0910856230
  • “El Picacho del Diablo: The conquest of Lower California's highest peak, 1932 & 1937 (Baja California travels series)”, Norman Clyde, ISBN-10: 0870932365

Internet reports and other useful links: