Pico Risco, Virgin of Guadalupe


By: Joel Grasmeyer


Bill Oliver and I left the South Bay at about 12:15 p.m. on Friday - our destination: Canon de Guadalupe, Guadalupe Hot Springs, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Pico Risco. After fighting our way through southern California traffic, we crossed the border at Tecate, and began our trek across the bumpy, narrow, and windy roads of Mexico. The final stretch was a 30-mile hard dirt road following the base of a chocolate brown desert range. The last section of road followed a dry wash into Canon de Guadalupe, where we were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of palm trees and several hot pools scattered around the area. This was truly a desert oasis, especially after driving through the dry 100-degree heat. This canyon is a popular rustic retreat. However, summer is definitely the off season, and below the store we had the whole place to ourselves.

The area is actually a private, rustic campground run by an American who married into the Mexican family that owns the land. There are at least ten different hot pools, each receiving its water via hoses connected to the hot water spring further up the canyon. Each hose has a valve on the end, so you can control the temperature of the water in the pool. The pools are built around existing rock formations, using rock and cement to maintain the natural appearance. One of the pools even extends into a cave (La Cueva). So, needless to say, most of Friday evening was spent relaxing in and trekking among the various hot pools.

We woke up at about 4:30 on Saturday morning, about a half-hour before sunrise. After eating breakfast and packing our gear, we walked silently into the stillness of the desert morning. The ascent was via an old Indian trail that followed an adjacent canyon around to the back of Pico Risco. After reaching the head of the wash, the trail then begins to ascend the back side of the peak, which has a more gradual slope than the steep face dropping directly into Canon de Guadalupe. The Indian trail was quite amazing. In a landscape of sheer cliffs and endless scree slopes, the trail maintained an even grade with a minimum of vertical exposure. The chosen route had obviously evolved from hundreds of trial-and- error trips over the back of the mountain, with each journey adding a new turn here, and a shortcut there. The trail is still evolving. Eventually a flash flood will erect a roadblock of boulders into a wash, or a prickly Cholla will lay claim to a section of the trail. The human travelers will unconsciously adapt to the changes and maintain the path of minimum energy up the mountain. Bill claims that this is proof of the theory of "Genetic Trail Optimization."

Our final destination, Pico Risco, is flanked on the southeast by a comparatively small but very prominent rock pinnacle called the Virgin of Guadalupe. The objective of the day was twofold: attempt to "mount" the Virgin, and then climb to the summit of Pico Risco. After about four hours of hiking, we arrived at the base of the Virgin.

The sight before us was enough to put a chill in the spine of any mortal man (I always have been intimidated by tall women). We inspected her many faces, searching for the path to her heart of stone, but none promised much success. Only one route up her unguarded backside appeared to be climbable. However, the beginning of the route is overhung. The first climbable section is marked by a jagged knob 25 feet off the ground. With nerves of steel (but bodies of engineers), we made several valiant attempts to attach a rope to the rocky knob. The theory was to ascend the rope to the knob, and then climb a sloping face laced with cracks to the top. First, we tried the lasso technique. Bill tied a loop in the end of the rope with a bowline, and after a few warm-up cowboy "whoops," he gave the rope a toss. To his despair, the coils of rope just bounced limply off the rock, far below the intended knob. For the next attempt, both of us grabbed an end of the rope, coiled up some length in our hands, and used the rest to swing a section of rope upward after a series of jump-rope style swings. This technique was also a miserable failure (and a good illustration of our general lack of hand-eye coordination - neither of us had played many video games as children). The main problem at this point appeared to be that the rope simply did not have enough inertia to carry it above the knob. The simple, on-the-spot solution: a rock. First, I tied a rock to one end of the rope, hoping to lodge it in a crack where the knob met the Virgin. The first throw, however, proved that my knot-tying and rock throwing skills had decayed significantly since the days of my youth. The rock bounced off the face, well below the knob, dislodged itself from the rope, and fell into a crevice beneath our feet. The final attempt was to tie the rock to the middle of the rope, with the thought of throwing the rock high enough to loop the rope around the knob. This also was a hopeless effort. The rock did manage to land on the knob one time, but it came right back down when we pulled on the rope. Naturally, there are several jokes that can be made about men mounting virgins (not experienced enough, inadequate protection, couldn't get it up, etc.), but I won't mention them here. So in the end, the Virgin of Guadalupe remained uncorrupted by two sweaty gringos, and the two gringos gained a fresh sense of humility.

In order to rebuild our confidence, we scrambled up a rocky ridge to the summit of Pico Risco - just under 5,000 ft and on the Desert Peaks Section list. This effort also involved the exploration of a few dead-end routes, but no names will be mentioned here to protect the innocent. After Bill finally referred to the route description, we quickly found ourselves on the 4th-class summit rejoicing in our regained manhood. Our time on the top was spent taking photos, signing the register, and sneaking passing glances over at the Virgin.

Our return trip was a little more difficult. We chose to descend directly from the peak into Canon de Guadalupe. This involved scrambling over and around the large boulders which had been randomly scattered from years of flash flooding in the steep gulch north of the peak. However, there was no sign of water on this journey. We had each started with about 3 1/2 liters of water in the morning, but by the afternoon we were down to less than a liter per person.

The desert is very deceptive. Since the air is so dry, your sweat evaporates almost instantly, and you barely notice that you're sweating at all. The key is to begin the hike well-hydrated, and drink often at the beginning of the hike (even though you may not be thirsty). If you only drink when you get thirsty, it may be too late to do any good. Besides providing little shade, the desert radiates heat from the rocks and sand, making the temperature feel even hotter. We eventually ran out of water with about one hour left before we would reach camp. The temperature was probably somewhere near 100, and the sun was still high in the sky. All I can remember was the sound of Bill's voice chanting, "We're getting dehydrated, our blood is getting thicker, our brains are going to fry..." But just as were nearing the lowest level of despair, we looked over the lip of a cliff to see a thin stream of water trickling through the canyon below. Five minutes later, we hastily shed our ragged, sweat-streaked clothing, and we spent the next half-hour standing, sitting, and finally laying in the sandy pools of the desert wash. The best part was a waterfall at the head of the side canyon, where it was possible to stand at the base and let the cool water splash over your head. This experience gave me a new respect for man's dependence on water.

The rest of the hike was trivial, and we were back at camp within a half-hour of leaving the waterfall. The first order of business was re-hydration. We quickly consumed our supply of cold drinks, we found the coldest pool around, with a view of the canyon below, and we ate and drank until darkness revealed the sparkling diamonds of the desert night. It was the best Mexican siesta I have ever known!

Addendum by Bill Oliver:
The new toll road between La Rumorosa and Mexicali on Hwy 2 is open. I think the charge was five pesos. Now, the long windy descent out of La Rumorosa is handled by two separate roads, each two lanes, one-way. There are turn-arounds on either side of the dirt road that leads south to the Canon.

Detailed information for visiting one or more peaks mentioned in this article can be found in the
Desert Peak Section Road and Peak Guides

DPS Archives Index | Desert Peaks Section