By: Mark Adrian
This past Saturday (2/24/96) a private trip to climb Cerro Pescadores in Baja, about 20 miles south of Mexicali, took an unexpected turn of events. Departing Calexico about 6 AM Saturday morning, our group of four trucks quickly passed through the border and caravaned south on MEX 5, following the DPS's updated 9.1 DRIVE guide (see Sage #240, pp 52). Our original plan was to climb Cerro P. and Mexican BM Puerta to its NW as an exploratory since it's not clear which is the exact range highpoint.
Near the base of "7 antennae hill" the second-in-line of our four trucks became stuck in deep sand. While the lead truck worked on pulling the stuck truck out of the sand, the remainder of our group stood back watching the "rescue". I was milling about my truck staying "out of the way" when I noticed "something" moving through the brush heading towards me. I couldn't quite make it out, but then I saw another and I soon realized it was a ten-man battalion of heavily-armed Mexican Army soldiers in full uniform and ski-mask garb. A bit startled, worried and anxious, I stood still keeping my arms away from my body and making NO sudden moves. "Buenos dias Senor" were my first words, my eyes focusing on his armed-and-ready Mexican-made automatic machine gun. My hiking colleagues soon realized we had unexpected guests who were more than curious as to our intentions.
Our broken Spanish convinced them that we were "alpanistas" and we'd come to climb Cerro Pescadores (the soldiers called it Cerro Iguana, the AAA map calls it the Sierra de Los Cucapah, and the nearby Mexican benchmark is named PUERTA). Nevertheless, they surveyed the contents of our trucks and were, in general, "professional".
Now, the scary part of the story is that they were on patrol in that area to arrest (shoot at) drug traffickers who routinely air-drop shipments and then "run" them to the States or south into Baja. The commander wanted us out of "his" area by 5 (five) PM because he said is it was "muy pilegro en el noche" (dangerous after dark) due to ruthless drug runners and potential crossfire. In the States, our govt. would have probably demanded we leave the area immediately. This firsthand encounter clearly manifests Mexico's (President Zedillo) attempts at combating drug trafficking and becoming a narco-state. However, this is a discussion for another forum. Unfortunately, mountaineering objectives are sometimes caught in the collateral effects of political maneuverings and military warfare.
Fortunately, we had plenty of daylight to do the climb and the Army Commander was accommodating to our now-truncated hiking plans. Our leader voluntarily decided to stay with the trucks while the rest of us hiked the peak (and not the BM), during which time, he was "babysat" by one of the soldiers. Using binoculars, they watched us climb and we figured the soldier stayed around to insure our safety as he was spooked any time a plane flew over. The commander also filed a report on our presence.
We "flashed" the peak in seven hours and were "outta there" by 3:30 PM under the watch of the Mexican Army who we noticed had a watchtower atop a nearby bumplit. We also learned that there were patrols stationed around the entire perimeter of the range (Sierra de Los Cucapah) on an indefinite basis. The patrol we met were on their last of a ten-day stint.
My opinion is that this is a virtual "war zone". Any climbing party traveling to this trailhead should be aware of these risks and the extreme resolution would be to temporarily delist the peak.
Later that evening, after a great Chinese dinner in Mexicali, we got in the border crossing line, which took an hour to inch through. You should be aware that there are two border crossing traffic lanes and a neighboring third lane that is CLEARLY NOT a border traffic lane as BIG signs more than indicate. If you're caught "cutting in line" via this neighboring third lane, you pay the price as I've read about in a recent Sage report. A relentless motorcycle patrol insures you'll be "arrested" for this "crime".
For some reason, maybe my grubby looks, or my wild Messner wanna-be hair, I got pulled over into secondary inspection. When I told the agent my story, he apparently had heard enough and passed me through without so much as looking into my truck despite my invitation.
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