By: John Robinson
For years I have roamed the high country of Baja California's Sierra de San Pedro Martir, climbing the various high points of the range for a panoramic survey of the terrain. Always, far to the south, almost mystical in the bluish haze, loomed the cone-shaped silhouette of Matomi Peak, dominating the southern terminal of Baja's grandest mountain range. Had anyone climbed it? How difficult was the climb? What was the best approach to the Peak? These questions mulled in my mind as I contemplated the conquest of the last major peak in the San Pedro Martir still virgin to me. I received some information from the Hunts -Tom and Trudie. They had attempted to approach Matomi Canyon from the gulf but had reached nowhere near the peak. Then in the October 1970 DPS Newsletter came the electrifying news that Louise Werner had successfully scaled the mountain from the west in an all-day marathon. I had to get it now.
Edward "Bud" Bernhard of Coronado, California-"Mr.Baja California" to many because of his encyclopedic knowledge of northern Baja back country suggested an eastern approach via Canyon Matomi, Bud had led several San Diego Chapter groups in that way. Pinning Bud down, I extracted a promise that he would guide our group to the "promised land" and get us close enough to the peak to attempt it. The opportunity came over the New Year's holiday, 1975. Charley Owens and I led an Orange County Group 4-wheel drive-backpack trip to Matomi Canyon with Bud as guide. Along were a number of old-time Desert Peakers such as Bob Greenawalt, Bill Clifton and Tom Amneus. We assembled in San Felipe and, after filling up on Mexican gas at 90¢ per gallon, drove westward across the San Felipe Desert. The pyramidal, forked crown of El Picacho del Diablo loomed higher and higher as we approached the eastern rampart of the Sierra de San Pedro Martir. Before reaching the spiny lower spurs of the peak, we veered south and followed the sandy wheel ruts that parallel the Eastern foot of the San Pedro Martir.
We weaved our way south, passing the imposing portals of Canyons El Cajon and Cardinal. A few days before, a storm had visited the country and left its marks on the land. The desert was moist and fragrant with the pungent perfume of damp chaparral. Winter's frosty mantle glistened on the loftier ridges of the San Pedro Martir. Our tracks crossed the broad wash of Canon Agua Caliente. Jeep tracks lead three miles up this chasm to the only hot springs in the range, guarded by a few scraggly fan palms. Beyond, our road veered out into the desert, traversed the sandy washes emitting from Canyons Carrizo and Verenda, and finally turned up the broad gateway to Canon Parral.
We car camped two miles below roads-end at Rancho Parral, on a sandy bench next to the road. Almost directly south of camp was a distinct break in the canyon wall-"Gunsight Notch", according to Bud, our gateway to the fabled Matomi. Next morning we hoisted packs and headed toward the notch in the skyline. Our route took us across a desert garden dense with cholla. Anyone who does much hiking in the Baja desert comes quickly to respect cholla. This ornery little cactus is coated with needle-sharp spikes that penetrate the skin with remarkable ease. Some hikers who have encountered cholla too intimately insist the needles lurch at their victims. What's more, the spikes have minute hooks at their tips which allow them to resist removal with amazing stubbornness. We gave the pain-inflicting little plants a wide berth.
The sun was unusually warm for a January morning as we toiled slowly onward toward the gap in the ridgeline. We picked up, then lost, a faint trail that wound among the cactus and boulders, higher, ever higher. A final steep lunge brought us to Gunsight Notch. A quick survey southward revealed that we had another desert valley and a second, slightly lower notch to climb over before reaching Canon Matomi.
Two hours later we stood at the second pass, on the very threshold of Matomi. A breathtaking panorama opened before us. Ahead and below, about three miles away, was the great abyss. Looking westward, we could see where Matomi emerges from the confinement of the mountains to become a broad, steep-walled valley. From here eastward to the Gulf of Calif. it is known as Arroyo Matomi. Cutting a path down the middle of this wide basin is a shallow canyon, crowded with literally thousands of blue fan palms, nourished by a small watercourse. As a grand backdrop, the 2,000 foot banded cliffs rising to Matomi Mesa glimmered under a thin layer of snow. Pico Matomi, ever elusive, remained out of sight beyond the mesa.
We cautiously picked our way down the rough trail into the bowels of the canyon. Our faint pathway descended a rock-bound gully, rounded a spur and reached an isolated growth of palms fed by a trickling stream- "The Oasis", Bernhard said. A quarter-mile farther south we stood on the brink of the inner arroyo. The contrast was startling. From arid desert we abruptly dropped into a watery Garden of Eden, verdant with streamside grasses and succulents and shadowed by a canopy of Erythea armata --the Mexican blue fan palm.
Immediately across the palm arroyo, on a sandy bench just above the stream, we noticed to our surprise a rather well-built dwelling of adobe and wood. Approaching the house, we were greeted by a gaunt, leathery-skinned man about sixty years of age. He introduced himself as Tomas Castro-Dowling, rancher of Ejido Aliso. (An ejido is a collective farm unique to Mexico, a product of their revolution.) Dowling, whose grandfather was an English mining engineer, makes his living herding cattle in Matomi Canyon and raising vegetables. He leads a lonely existence, the sole human being whose permanent habitat is the great canyon of Matomi.
Others lived here. Obsidian arrowheads and other small artifacts are scattered throughout the canyon, a sign that Indians once inhabited the area. The Indians were probably Kiliwas, once the proud dwellers of the San Pedro Martir, who the Spanish padres were never quite able to bring into their fold. It is interesting to note that obsidian should be found this far south of the border. The only major source of obsidian in the Southwest is Glass Mountain in the Owens Valley. Obviously, trading among the native peoples was extensive and wide-ranging. We bade goodbye to Dowling and turned up canyon. A cattle trail, well-defined in places, follows the south rim of the palm arroyo quite a distance eastward. In a half mile the broad valley terminates and Matomi becomes a narrow mountain gorge. We made camp two miles up canyon, on a sloping bench just above the palm shaded stream.
So far we had not caught a glimpse of Pico Matomi. Fortunately, Larry Jones had a bootleg copy of the latest Mexican topo map that shows the location of the peak. With this map, and guessing our location in the canyon, we set off early next morning for Pico Matomi.
The walls of Canon Matomi are high and foreboding, but fortunately there are breaks in them. Immediately south of camp, we noticed a steep, rocky side canyon that appeared to lead to the mesa. We scrambled up this narrow gorge, close under vertical ramparts, circumventing dry waterfalls and jumbo boulders. After an hour we entered a surprise mountain basin rimmed on three sides by banded cliffs, somewhat resembling a miniature Grand Canyon. But still we could not see our peak.
We crossed the basin and climbed a break in its southwestern wall, then ascended, on snow now, a sloping ridge to the rim of the volcanic tableland known as Matomi Mesa. Bud Bernhard got there first and let out a mighty whoop/ A few minutes later the rest of us reached the rim and saw the reason for Bud's elation. In plain sight for the first time, about three miles south, its cone-shaped mass looming high in the cloudless sky, stood Matomi. Stark, windswept Matomi Mesa is not as flat as it looks from a distance. The tableland is cut by a number of steep gulches, each of which we had to cross to reach our peak. Soft snow and a biting wind added to our chore. The climb of the peak itself proved no problem. We scrambled up class 2 volcanic rock to the north ridge, then southward a hundred yards to the summit.
The panoramic view was outstanding, as the peak completely dominates the southern end of the San Pedro Martir. A vast expanse of mesa and canyon country was visible on all sides. Far to the north we could see the rocky horns of El Picacho del Diablo. We caught glimpses of the blue See of Cortez to the east. The Pacific was hidden in fog.
Ours was the third known ascent. A Mexican topographic party was here in l957 and their paraphernalia still litters the summit. Louise Werner, Bob Boyd and Bill Holden climbed the peak from the southwest in April, 1970. There were eight in our party, first apparently to climb it from Matomi Canyon.
Tom Amneus's altimeter placed the elevation as 5460 feet, almost a thousand feet higher than the 4500 feet shown on the Auto Club map.
The frigid wind dissuaded us from tarrying on the summit. We beat a hasty retreat, retracing our steps across snowy Matomi Mesa and down into the deep canyon to camp. Next day we packed back over Gunsight Notch to the cars, satisfied with one of the nicest New Year's vacations in memory.
Pico Matomi, by its sheer inaccessibility and dominance of its area, deserves DPS qualifying status. But so do Tres Palomas, Blue Bottle and Cerro Venado Blanco, all voted down by the membership, presumably because they are too far away. I urge more of you Desert Peakers to try these Baja summits; you will not be disappointed.
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