Picacho del Diablo

11-16 Mar 2000 - by Paul Wilson

The mountain is Picacho del Diablo, also known as Big Picacho or Big P. It is a twin summit at 3095m (N) and 3094m (S). Elevation gain is 2505m (8218'), 10 map miles. But the elevation gained and the mileage walked should be increased by at least 20% due to all the devious routing around the obstacles.

After a lot of dithering and reading Sierra club reports at SierraClub.org/dps and getting good advice from Rudolfo from the high-altitude list, I decided that this climb sounded like a fun trip to get away from the usual Colorado winter trips. Most of the trip reports were from the southern California climbers using a route from the West with access from Observatory Road. But I liked the easier drive from the East (from Colorado) and I knew I could have a relaxing place and a safe place to store my vehicle near San Felipe at a camp called Pete's.

I noticed the tall mountains while on vacation in March 1999. I set out alone in my truck to head south on March 6, 2000 . While at a layover in the Phoenix area I studied the weather and decided to abort again. But by March 15 the jet stream had shifted north. The snow line was 3500' on the coastal range near the border. The trip was back on.

I found the trail head easily between Diablito and Diablo Canyon and found the well marked trail. This TH start is in the desert at 590m. I identified Suhrago, Palo Verde and several varieties of cactus, but no Cholla (a good sign for this desert rookie). This desert vegitation is about 20 feet high indicating to me that there is plenty of water nearby.

Over my March11 through March16 climb I saw the foliage change from the above desert setting to willows along the stream to scrub oak then juniper and beautiful cedar trees then a new variety of pine I have not seen before. Then up high more scrub oak and manzanita. In places the cover was very dense and it made passage with my big pack very testy.

I saw cow tracks and deer tracks between the first two waterfalls so I guess they come down the really steep hillside for water. In places there had been much rainfall so the hiker path was difficult to follow but one person had walked up the as far as Campo Noche and back. To the pass the time I tracked him to make the routefinding easier. There were lizards and frogs everywhere, scampering and leaping into the pools. Most lizards were 6" long and skinny as a pencil. But several were king size. The frogs were all the same color as the rocks whether light gray or rust color. Lots of small birds chirping. It was an interesting diversion.

At my high camp (2280m) I was examined by a Ringtail Cat who thought I was very interesting. It was a very pretty animal. And at the TH after my climb I was awakened by a bunch of Coyotes probably fighting over early morning food.

In preparing for the climb I had obtained the correct topos and Jerry Schad's map/guide instructions from the Map Center in San Diego mailed to my home in Colorado. The Mexican topos were difficult but Mr. Schad has really got it together. The first day started at Pete's Camp about 10:30AM. We arrived at the trailhead at 12:30. The walk to the entrance waterfall took 1/2 hour on a well flagged trail then up the stream bed. The entrance waterfall is unclimable (660m), 15 foot deep pool and a 5 to 10 foot waterfall. The rock is an aid climb. The previous climbers have placed a ladder and 2 steel cables and a ladder to get the climb started. You pendulum from the first cable to the ladder, up the ladder down the other side into the creek bottom with the other cable. OK without a pack but impossible with a 6 day pack. I hauled the pack (not recommended). The correct way is to use a prusik to hold you and the pack so you can get purchase with the feet then walk to the ladder. On the return is even harder because you have to run uphill from the ladder to a boulder, it took two tries on the return and I really went hard the second time.

The second waterfall is harder. Schad says go left up a 20 foot crack then up 10+ foot sketchy slab. It cannot be done with a pack (for a normal hiker). I went up the right side until the sketchy nubbins disappeared then frictioned up the rock. Then hauled the pack (difficult). On the return I could not down climb this route - to scary. 20 feet with no place to use my 60' rope. It needs a rap bolt really bad. So I downclimbed the Schad route without a pack. The moves were 5.2 or 3 with 20 feet of air. Not good for a solo climber. No place of a rap anchor here either, anyway my rope was hopelessly tangled in my pack down on the creekbed. Everything goes wrong when you are trying to be ultra careful. I was really concerned more than any time before.

Here is how I did the down climb without benefit of seeing it or studying it from below. It is a wide crack starting down about 10' on an OK slab with a narrow sloping ledge leading to the crack. I could see two chock stones and several 3/8" edges for my feet. I put one foot on the top stone and grabbed it with one hand and did the classical lieback and moved that foot to the crac k and let it slide down to the next stone. All the time scratching for a foot hold on the face of the rock with my free foot. Then repeat for the second chock stone, foot and hand on the same stone lieback and lower. One foot found a small bump and held. The other foot fit the crack, I extended my arms and jumped the last 4 feet to a flat surface. Sounds OK for a 5.7 lead climber the biggest problem was the lower chock stone "WIGGLED", boy that gets your attention.

I didn't get very far the first day, HA. After the second water fall there is an uphill bypass through a dense briar patch. Really tough going with my big pack. Then 15 to 30 minutes later is another boulder problem I could not do with the pack but I ducked a Class 3 difficulty bypass, but it has over 20 feet of air (maybe it a Class IV). It is safe due to the very grippy places for your feet, careful balance is required as there is no place for your hands.

The rest of the approach just follows ducks but significant route changes were always marked with a least at 2' high cairn. (Note a duck is a one stone cairn?). Hikers place a round a 2" to 10" stone on a big rock and you walk either where the duck is or beside the big rock where the duck is. Its hard to make the classical cairn with round streambed cobbles. I was surprised to find several crawl throughs along the way. Very interesting.

At 1450m there is another big waterfall (15") with a friction slab. I climbed up a short gully and stepped up onto the ledge system above the slab and just walked across. 50' of vertical down the slab to the pool of water if I screwed up. It was Class 2 difficulty and I was not concerned. My way looked better than the smooth slab.

After the water flow disappeared (1850m) it returned and I was at Campo Noche (1900m). This place is identified by 2-3' high cairns. Turn left (E) and find several large camp sites. I found the duck and proceeded up Night Wash. The going was brushy and the shady spots were full of snow. My method was to avoid the snow but keep the ducks in sight. It worked OK but was difficult. At the crossover to Slot Wash I left my pack and explored for a campsite. Slot Wash was full of snow where one might pitch a tent. So I made my high camp on the ridge at 2280m. It was a short day (I stopped at 2PM) but I knew I could summit from there and it would be easier with less weight in the pack.

The next morning I set off and the snow got really bad. I took my axe but decided that the crampons were unnecessary (correct, as they would never be necessary under any situation for this mountain). Taking an axe on rock climbs is common for me. I use it for aid when things get touchy. I bypassed a long section of the wash on slabs on the left (N) side and the progress was excellent. No marginal slabs were noted. I never saw the S summit gully but found a big cairn on a large tree stump. I assumed it was the left turn to Wall Street but not so, a right turn and some slabs are next with a sketchy ledge and a tree-hug move. All this was easy compared to the lower canyon problems.

I summited at 11:30AM on Tuesday March 14 and was back to my camp at 2PM. The register is full and in the past year 30 parties and well over 100 persons have summited. They were mostly from Ensenada, but a few others were noted from Southern California, Arizona and Colorado. My Peru climbing partner, Jim Rickard summited in June '99. When his report becomes available I will post a URL. He was as impressed as I was. I think only Jim and I summited from the East.

The views were great to the lake bed to the East. There are several farms identified by large green squares on the East side of the Diablo Lake. The air was still full of the sea haze to the West and beyond the dry lake bed to the East. The observatory is a prominent feature when looking NW across the huge Canyon del Diablo.

The trip down from the summit left me with some scrapes but I managed to avoid any falls even small ones. I had to make tracks to meet my ride on Friday AM. I made the TH at 4PM Thursday afternoon so all was well. My son picked my up about 10AM and I headed for the showers and some good food at Pete's.

My evaluation of the climb: What a blast, walk for 5 minutes boulder hopping in the creek bed, then do a class 3 boulder problem. Day1 was 3 hours of marginal climbing, day 2 had 9 hours, day 3 had 7 hours, days 4 & 5 had 8 hours. A leisurely pace is required due to the intense route finding. Two persons would go much faster as the ducks would bed located much faster.

Next time: I will take a bolt kit and place at least two rappel bolts. The entrance fall ladder is getting much usage from the locals and the rungs are showing serious weakness and splitting. I would rather see an aid route placed so one could go from runner to runner and just avoid the ladder all together. The obstacle goes up vertical for about 15 feet then lays over all the time traversing to the right.

If you do this climb here is my recommended gear: At least a 60'X7mm climbing rope, 2-1.5'X6mm prusiks, 2-4'X6mm prusiks, 4 caribiners, 1 locking caribiner, webbing to make a diaper sling, An axe for winter months, Jerry Schad's map "Parque Nacional San Pedro Martir". It had route descriptions and an accurate topo. And last of all an altimeter which is easily resettable to the landmarks on the Schad map.


Drive S on Mex 5 from Calixico/Mexicali to first Pete's Camp El Paraiso for about 2 hours (120 miles or so). Then S past the Crocodile sign on your right. Turn right on the paved road called Saltito Rd or more commonly "Zoo Rd" At Morelia Junction keep right. Again keep right at the earthen dike. Don't get stuck in the sand there are several parallel roads. Choose a well traveled one. After the cattle guard you are on the lake bed. Follow tracks the don't sink in the mud. Stop on the high ground in case the army wants to inspect you. Try not to stop on the flat where it is soft. (GO fast). This route is a gun/drug contraband route so be courteous to the army guys.

Pass two signs on the right for roads leading E to Providencia Ranch. Pass an unreadable sign on the right. Turn left toward the mountain at the buried tire. Drive the path to and through the trees and though the ranch and keep right. I think this may be Vallecitos' shack I was told about. (May be he will watch your vehicle.) If you go straight, you will be at the mouth of Diablito Canyon and an army camp. Following the right fork leads to a large parking area and the beginning of the trail. Elevation 590m N31deg 04.456, W115deg 21.90. You can plot this on Mexican topo#HIIB45. The adjacent map shows a place called Santa Clara but I cannot verify that it is the ranch above? All the canyon labels on the these topos are incorrect. The Schad map shows a shack at the mouth of Diablito Canyon. It does not exist unless it is the ranch above.

Do NOT leave a vehicle at the trailhead on Saturday & Sunday as there is much traffic from locals on the weekend days. There are too many people who could cause mischief. Find a driver to drop you off and collect you later.

Buy Schad's map and the topos from Map Center 888 849 6277 or 619 291 3830.

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