El Picacho Del Diablo
By: Steve Smith
After getting snowed off Big Picacho last Thanksgiving with Dale's group, Vic and I decided to try the peak again by doing a double traverse. This would allow everyone to experience both traditional routes without having to double back or do a shuttle. We scheduled the trip for Easter week with Vic, Sue Wyman and Bill Gray making up one team while my wife Debbie, Desert Survivor Morgan Irby and I formed the second team. Of course each team wanted to do the east to west traverse to claim the more difficult 12K gain as opposed to the more civil 6K gain of the west to east traverse. Somehow my team lost?" on this deal and ended up with the easier west to east direction. Not wanting to miss out on too much though, Morgan compensated by carrying extra gear (including blue pajamas!) in his pack and taking it all the way up to the summit!
Amazingly, everything went exceptionally well on all the critical phases but we did have one hitch on what we thought was a routine part of the planning. We all met at the last toll booth near Ensenada Thursday morning at 6:30a.m. and set up our meeting point for regrouping on Monday to exchange cars back after the traverse. Vic and his group headed to the eastern trailhead on highway 3 - not knowing if due to the recent rains they would be able to get across the playa. My group headed south on highway 1 for the western trailhead not knowing if the heavy spring snows would stop us from descending from Bottela Azul down to Campo Noche.
The lower portion of the road in to the observatory was barely passable for 4-WD. Water was flowing across the road at several points and heavy equipment was working to repair the damage at a couple of arroyos but with 4-WD we forded the streams. None of us had ever been at the Rancho Meling Guest Ranch so we stopped to find out about the accommodations and learn what we could about climbing conditions. The ranch is in a nice setting and the cost for two people is $90/night which includes meals and activities such as horseback riding. Their brochure gives a phone number of 619-758-2719 for reservations. The news on climbing Picacho was not good. Two other climbers had turned back the week before due to snow but the road was passable to the starting point.
The upper road was much rougher than last fall as a result of some bad winter weather. A snow bank stopped our vehicle right at the point where the ducked trail begins for Cerro Botella Azul. While getting ready to start, a group of seven Mexican Alpine climbers walked out and reported they had climbed Botella Azul but turned back from Picacho due to steep snow where the route drops into Canyon Diablo. We camped at the base of Botella Azul and Friday morning were soon on the summit.
Looking across the canyon, we could see that the route up Picacho was practically clear of snow so we knew if we could descend 1,000' into Canyon Diablo and get below the snow accumulation at the south end, the rest of the trip could go as planned. It was slow going without proper snow climbing gear and at one point I broke through the snow and scrapped my leg up pretty bad. Morgan, a Contra Costa firefighter and experienced in such medical aid problems quickly bandaged the scraps and had me back plowing through the snow. By tying together with several small pieces of rope, using vegetation for belay points and carefully plotting our course, It was mid afternoon before we got out of the snow. We made it to Campo Noche at 7:00pm. and amazingly, just 10 minutes later, Vic's group arrived from the east side. Vic reported that a heavier than usual water flow had increased the challenges of negotiating countless waterfalls through the lower canyon.
Everything was routine on Saturday and all six participants made the summit. The register showed that two other people had climbed the summit two days earlier by using a route down from Scout Peak south of the observatory after they had been stopped by snow from the primary route. We all stayed at Campo Noche that night and were joined by a group of three that had just come up the canyon. Sunday morning, we exchanged car keys with plans to meet by 4:00p.m. in Ensenada on Monday. It was slow going down canyon having to get through the heavy waterflow and numerous waterfalls which were really impressive. At one point, Debbie spotted poison oak and we encountered it for about an hour in the brush we were fighting through. We kept covered up and only I came down with a few small rashes. By going all day, we were down to 3,000' by darkness and in good position for being out late the next morning in plenty of time to reach Ensenada the next afternoon.
Vic's group also had a challenging day Sunday climbing back up to the plateau - the snow had gotten softer and they continually broke through. Bill ended up shuttling Vic's pack in addition to his own in order for Vic to belay a couple of pitches on the approach to Blue Bottle and to break trail through the 1'-3' snow drifts. They were just able to make it to the canyon rim at 9,000' to camp that night. They were out to the car Monday morning and had just enough time to stop in at the Meling Ranch where after relating their story of the climb out were rewarded with an all you can eat breakfast for $5 each. Meanwhile, by 11:00a.m. my group was at the mouth of Diablo Canyon and after Debbie deftly jumped 10 or so feet sideways when a rattlesnake got her attention, we quickly used the cable around the entrance waterfall and spent a relaxing 30 minutes swimming in one of the great natural tanks with a heavy waterfall spraying over us. Everything had gone so well on a traverse with several critical planning points that we should have known something would happen. Following the use trail out of the canyon mouth, we reached a road and parked vehicle but could not find Bill's vehicle.
It seemed we had reached the road sooner than I anticipated from Vic's description of the route out and the roadhead they had described should be farther south but there was no use trail we could find going farther south and I knew they would have told us if they had walked across a road that was closer to Canyon Diablo. So we searched the area north and east of the parked vehicle for four hours. Not finding Bills vehicle, Morgan and I went back to Canyon Diablo and filled all our water bottles, expecting to maybe have to hike out to the ranch on the playa and wait for Vic's group to drive around. After two miles, we came to a fork in the road and walking back in on the southern branch, found Bill's vehicle on a road about one mile south of the one we had found. This latter trailhead is at the mouth of Canyon Diablito.
Everything worked out fine since we intercepted Vic's group in the dark about an hour out of Ensenada as they started the drive around to find out what had happened to us. It was a happy reunion along Highway 3 as we were all glad that everyone was okay and we tried to figure out how the second road had appeared between Bill's truck and Canyon Diablo. They had never seen the road when walking northward from Canyon Diablito and we could not find their use trail heading southward past our road. There had been some recent use by cattle so their tracks may have obliterated signs of the use trail. The road we found branches off of the traditional road and angles northwest to within just a 12 minute walk of Canyon Diablo. Since Vic, Sue and Bill had already had dinner, they headed north while Debbie, Morgan and I went on into Ensenada and found a restaurant. It was late and they were starting to close but after hearing our story of the climb, stayed open an extra hour. We were enjoying the meal so much they brought plenty of extra side dishes to help us celebrate our first regular meal in six days. It was a happy ending to a great trip and fun way to climb Big Picacho by going all the way through using both the upper and lower routes.
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