Ascent of Picacho del Diablo on 2018-04-14

Climber: Marcus Lostracco

Others in Party:Connor McEntee -- Trip Report or GPS Track
Date:Saturday, April 14, 2018
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Picacho del Diablo
    Elevation:10154 ft / 3094 m

Ascent Trip Report

Picacho del Diablo - the highest point in the Baja California in Mexico at 10,154 ft, lying within the beautiful complete remoteness that is Parque National San Pedro Martir. Climbing it involves a 5-mile hike to a valley where a 3000+ft downclimb is required to reach the overnight campsite (Campo Noche) at 6230 ft, and then another 3800+ft ascent to reach the summit, and then out back the same route. Not to mention the terrain - which is notorious for being brutally strenuous involving continuous route finding and sections of extended full, hands-on scrambling. What more can you ask for in a peak!

I had been trying to assemble a group to do this mountain throughout the month of March without any luck in firming up a date. Just before giving up on doing it, out of the blue, I was contacted through Peakbagger by Connor McEntee asking if I would join him on a hike up Picacho. Funny how things work out sometimes.

Thursday, April 12, 2018:

Connor and I left Carlsbad, CA at 9:30am in his 2014 Subaru Forester to drive down to The San Pedro Martir national park in Baja California, Mexico where we would set off with the intention to bag El Picacho. We had secured tourist visa application forms, although when we crossed the border into Mexico, there were no signs indicating where to take these forms to be validated... so we just kept rolling and hoped it wouldn't come up throughout the trip (it did not). We stopped for lunch in Ensenada around 12:30 and then reached the entrance to Parque National San Pedro Martir at 4:30pm. We checked in at the office and were given paper wristbands, had our mugshots taken, and also presented our "zapatos" (boots) to have the tread photographed. The two guys working in the reception area were friendly and seemed a bit surprised we wanted to go up there. I asked how many others are out on the mountain and he said "no mas!"

We drove past the KM 90 sign on the way to the trailhead and set up camp for the night. Although it said no fires are allowed, we went ahead and did it anyway, and it was a good thing we did since the night time temperatures were getting below freezing. I had not prepared for those temperatures but I was ok in my tent.

Friday, April 13, 2018:

The following morning we debarked on our journey to Campo Noche. Right off the bat I knew my pack was too heavy - I was carrying nearly 5L of water, and this was too much for this day. We got started at 7:20am and we played with the idea of summiting that same day. We got a bit off track at the very beginning following an old road bed, when our GPS track (Rob Woodall's) followed a wash. We had about a 1-mile cross-country bushwhack to get back to the route. Passing through a nice Aspen grove and some blooming wildflowers, we were able to reach Blue Bottle saddle in just under 2 hours, and finally, the peak became visible for the first time - and man did it look mean! We could also see the dense greenery far, far down at the bottom of the valley below, where Campo Noche is. It looked really far down there and very steep to get down to it as well.

From all the reports we had read we learned it was key to stay high as far east as possible before you start to hike down into the valley, so we thought we did that and we still ended up going down more westerly than the GPS tracks we had loaded. It was quite steep loose dirt at this part of the trail. It soon led into the boulders which is a part of a gully that leads all the way down to the bottom of the valley to Campo Noche. This boulder hopping, down-stepping, down-climbing was taking a toll on me with the heaviness of the pack I had on my shoulders. I really enjoyed this type of climbing/hiking - it keeps you focused! Certainly if you have a misstep or hit a loose rock coming down here it could have some serious consequences. As we descended we could start to hear some rushing water below. This was a motivating sound. We reached some nice small waterfalls with some crystal-clear water, and the vegetation became very lush - ferns, agave, moss. A real desert oasis. We finally got to Campo Noche at 12:30pm. I was spent and my back was killing me from carrying the load. We spent the rest of the day lounging around in the sun around Campo Noche. There is a big pool of super clear (and cold) water nearby which is great for a quick dip. As we were tending to our fire at around 6pm we started hearing some voices! Another group was coming down. This was a big group of 7! They said they had started at 10:20am.

At night it was not nearly as cold as at the trailhead. A solid 10 degrees warmer. Connor had some almonds stolen from him by the ringtail cats that frequent the campsite - they were swift!

Saturday, April 14, 2018:

Alarm went off at 4am - I got up and made myself breakfast and espresso and got my pack ready. On these overnight trips I've been taking my single-espresso mocha with me as a luxury item. Espresso comes up really quickly with the camping stove. Love it! We were on the move by 5:15am with our headlamps on in the dark as we set off up the "trail" towards the summit. We stuck very close to the GPS track once again and still had to make route-finding decisions due to our GPS position not being totally accurate so deep within the valley walls. At the start we were really booking it - full of energy and motivation. By 6am we had already gained 1,000 feet and we were in the clear to remove our headlamps. I had already stopped using my poles at this point also - if I were to do it again, I'd leave them at Campo Noche. The ascent to Picacho is simply too steep to really be using them consistently in addition to there being many thick brush areas to go through which makes poles a bit useless. We had some pretty cool alpen-glow lighting projected on the opposing valley wall, which was fun to look back at as the sun came up. Since we were out of the wind, the temperatures were very pleasant. I was wearing a t-shirt and felt fine - but might have saved some scrapes and scratches if I was wearing a long sleeve.

Our pace gradually slowed down as we got higher. Mostly Connor waiting on me to catch up to him. The hardest part of the ascent was when we would find ourselves in the "wrong wash" or "wrong gully" and have to traverse over to the correct one when we would become aware of a route-finding mistake, but the scramble was mostly easy class 2/3 stuff. No real moment where I felt like if I lost my grip or footing I would fall to my death... I enjoyed the boulder hopping and scrambling - I have never seen so much granite in my life. It was also interesting to notice the erosion on the granite - in the beginning it was quite smooth (due to water erosion, presumably), towards the middle it was more rough and grippy, which was easy to traverse, and then toward the top more smooth again (presumably from wind erosion). The smooth granite is not difficult to climb, but a bit precarious to descend. The "Wall Street" section was pretty cool, and actually one of the easier sections of the hike. 45% incline granite slopes are no big deal. There were some parts where you really had to find hand holds and foot holds and hoist yourself up some ledges, etc. I felt my conditioning from going to the climbing gym come into play here - definitely paying some dividends.

We reached the summit at 9:15am. 4 hours to the summit from Campo Noche. It was windy on top! Incredible views all around. We had a lunch and spent about 30 minutes on the top, grabbing as many pictures as we could. Awesome peak. We both signed the register - which had not been signed in 1 week.

The descent back to Campo Noche was long and arduous. We took it very carefully but made good time. Besides a few minor slips & trips we made it down unscathed and we were back by 12:30pm, making it down in 2h45m.

We took some time at Campo Noche to rejuvinate our energy levels before starting the big climb back to Blue Bottle saddle. I jumped in the pool and we had another meal, packed our packs, and we were off by 2:20pm. We made steady progress towards the saddle, with Connor already waiting on me a lot and I was going through water very quickly. I was carrying 3 litres which I had finished by the time we got up to Blue Bottle Saddle (about 6pm). We made the decision to walk to the top of Blue Bottle peak - which was well-worth it to see a late-day sun-lit Picacho. It was hard to believe we were there on the top 8 hours ago!

The walk back to the car took forever. I was dehydrated. It really took a toll on my pace - and my mood! Connor was in great form, moving easily. I have to thank Connor for being patient, waiting on me, and doing all the route-finding while we walked back in the dark. I had forgotten how long it was to get back to the trailhead - it seemed like we breezed by it on the way out! Finally after several hours of walking through the eerily quiet woods, we reached the car at 9:30pm. 7 hours from Campo Noche.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Our plan was to crash for a few hours and get up super early (2am) to drive out and beat the border traffic. Well, lo-and-behold, there is a gate at the park entrance that is closed between the hours of 8pm-7am. So when we got to it at 2:45am, this meant we would have to wait another 4 hours before we could "Salida" (exit)! We definitely missed that detail on the information of the prior trip reports we had read - you can only enter/exit the park between 7am and 8pm! I joked that this was just practice to prepare us for sitting in the car when we get to the border crossing.

Finally as dawn faded the same guy that checked us into the park came out to open the gates for us. We were free! We stopped in Ensenada for a quick fish taco break (and decided fish tacos are better in San Diego!), and then decided to head towards the Tecate border crossing, thinking it would be faster than the San Ysidro crossing. After the enjoyable drive through the Baja wine valley, we arrived at the line in Tecate at 12:30pm sat in the car for 2 hours, got through around 2:30pm, and we were back in Carlsbad by 4pm. Long day in the car!

What a trip. A very challenging mountain that takes no prisoners - I felt like I had been slapped in the face, whacked in the shins, kicked in the rear, and clawed all over. It's a mean one. But totally worth it. As it is every time.

If I were to do it again here is what I would do differently:
- Travel as lightly as possible! My pack was too heavy on day 1
- Stash water at Blue Bottle saddle for the hike out
- Don't take poles with me on the ascent of Picacho
- Not forget my whiskey flask at Campo Noche! Damnit! A nice gift for whoever gets there next.
- Sleep in and leave the park at 7am
- Maybe summit on Day 1, so you only have one 3000+ ft ascent per day. But honestly I would say the descents were more arduous on my body.
Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Picacho del Diablo seen from Blue Bottle peak in the late afternoon sun (2018-04-14). Photo by Marcus Lostracco.
Click here for larger-size photo.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:8609 ft / 2623 m
    Extra Gain:3000 ft / 914 m
    Round-Trip Distance:17 mi / 27.4 km
    Route:via Blue Bottle Saddle
    Trailhead:San Pedro Martir National Park  7545 ft / 2299 m
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Scramble, Exposed Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles, Bivouac
    Weather:Pleasant, Breezy, Clear
Chilly in the wind and warm in the sun in the canyons and amazing views all around from the summit
Ascent Statistics
    Time:1 Days 
Descent Statistics
    Time:1 Days 
Ascent Part of Trip: Picacho 2018 (3 nights total away from roads)

Complete Trip Sequence:
1Picacho del Diablo2018-04-14 a8609 ft / 2624 m
2Cerro Botella Azul2018-04-14 b 
Total Trip Gain: 8609 ft / 2624 m    Total Trip Loss: 8609 ft / 2624 m

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