El Picacho del Diablo


By: Penelope May


Naturally, we were not prepared for the brutality of the terrain ... DPSers had smilingly said that Big Picacho was "difficult"... and that, well, we would "see", in fact, they grinned from ear to ear when hearing our plans to attempt it....but but the 60-lb packs that we prepared had all the "essentials" we needed for this expedition: French Roast ground coffee, frozen Half & Half, a bottle of chardormay, spare boots, comfortable chair .... and you know, sleeping bags and stuff. So, carrying an extra gallon of water apiece as well, Kathleen Edwards and I set off into the breach....ignorant, happy and fortunately, pretty fit!

The first day after reaching the "shack" on the Western approach, we made a casual and late start to hike the mile or two up the wash ... errgh, that was the dawning of reality: three hours to boulder up to the dry waterfall ... a beautiful, tiered, stone monument. We reached the top of the saddle area at about 5 p.m. and decided we had experienced enough weight for the day and the site looked flat, comfortable and inviting. We quickly dropped the big packs and dashed off, light as feathers, to the top of Scout Peak (9,350'). What a dramatic view met us as we set surprised eyes for the first time on Big Picacho: wow ... say, wasn't it rather big, tall, steep, and well, kind of rough looking? After trying to match the terrain with the map, we signed in at the peak and hightailed it back to camp for dinner.

After temporarily misplacing ourselves in the dark, we persisted for some time with night-time navigation, and finally relocated our packs. With great relief, and with sensible motivation, we proceeded to eat and drink the heaviest parts of our packs: portabello chicken with bing cherries (freshly made and frozen at home), mashed potatoes with sour cream, fresh asparagus with parmesan shavings, washed down with a nice bottle of chardonnay. Phew, we certainly felt quite virtuous getting rid of all that weight.

Next morning, after a delightful breakfast, we proceeded the short distance to Blue Bottle Peak (9,689') where we enjoyed another stark view of Big Picacho, over a nice lunch. Leaving there at 1.30 p.m. we found the proper (Blue Bottle) wash and started slipping down it. It was only 3,000 feet of loss, which had seemed insignificant on paper, until, in the field, we found the stacks of boulders, brush and timber which blocked our way, and the somewhat burdensome nature of our packs which, although surely down to only 55 lbs., were swinging and banging away. Still, we pressed on, reveling in the use of an alternate set of leg muscles.

Parched, we finally reached the water at Goring's Gully: we sat catatonic among unseen stinging nettles guzzling down a couple of quarts of that delicious water. Perhaps we had exerted ourselves a bit? Night began to fall and although we knew we were near to Campo Noche (due to altitude reading), it was a bit tricky balancing on those boulders in the dark and we also wondered if we would recognize the camp, as yet sight-unseen and ominously noted as "concealed" on Jerry Schad's map. Hmmm.. obvious solution: camp and dinner. We cooked up a nice dish of chicken and cracked black pepper tortellini with another home-made frozen dish, putanesca sauce with chicken basil sausage (and fresh shaved parmesan, of course). While it was cooking we solaced ourselves with a nice margarita, complete with rock salt on the rim of the (plastic) glasses and a fresh lime. We were feeling better already.

Next morning we got a really early start, cutting back on the cooked breakfast (but not on the French Roast) and hurried on down to Campo Noche. The large cairn in the wash was the best thing I had seen in several days and I fell to my knees to worship it. We then unloaded and lightened up for the peak climb, changing into our second set of boots, setting off gaily but incorrectly up the side of a cliff. However, we soon found ducks and tape ("duct/tape"?) and started bouldering our way upwards. Using the altimeter and Jerry Schad's map, we found the turns at Slot Wash, the Book and Wall Street and in next to no time (7 hours later) found ourselves at the peak.... After the appropriate chest-thumping, phototaking and register-signing, we left some (satisfactorily heavy) summit goodies for DPSer Terry Flood and his friends scheduled to summit the next day, and moseyed on down .... reaching Campo Noche with all limbs intact just after dark.

There, recovering from the heat and 11 miles of boulder-hopping from the eastern side along Canyon Del Diablo we found three of the expected DPS friends (Carl Johnson, Bruce Kocka and Dan Nagel), but no Terry Flood or Linda Roman. In addition, there were three members of the Baja Mountaineering Club. Brief conversations ensued, none of which explained Terry and Linda's absence, after which all the men went to bed. Kathleen and I, euphoric from our accomplishment, settled down to a round of margaritas and dinner: sweet and sour soup with shitake mushrooms, followed by Jamaican barbecue chicken, with beans and rice. Then, sweaty and all charmingly stuck together we collapsed into our very fine beds.

Next morning Carl and co. set off early for the peak and the Mexicans chatted to us girls lying totally grubby, disgusting and just a bit shattered in our bags. They were gallant, however, and invited us to join their hiking club for an outing or a dinner in Tijuana. We accepted in theory and exchanged e-mail addresses. Promptly after their departure, we dropped into the local creek bathtub, and although it was definitely on the chilly side, the resulting sense of cleanliness was awe inspiring. We changed into our clean clothes and prepared for a day at the Campo Noche resort. Breakfast in style, sitting on my resourcefully packed chair, followed: pancakes with walnuts and raisins with loads of syrup ... with French Roast coffee of course. This was all I needed to complete my morning: I fell asleep immediately after doing laundry and the time (day) just flew by...

Soon, it seemed to us, Carl and co. returned from the peak ... a south and north summit achievement in record time (11 hours). Kathleen and I were very impressed! They brought back all the summit stuff we had left for Terry with great hilarity, and returned it all to me, uneaten and untouched... I realized with a sinking spell that I was going to have to carry those two pounds back up that wash. Baths were then taken by the men, photos sneaked by the women and then a fire made. Now this was fiesta time: margaritas, followed by burritos made from fresh Mexican tortillas, chicken, beans, jalapenos, shredded cheddar cheese, rice, salsa and the ultimate, fresh guacamole whipped up by Kathleen from two avocados she had carried down carefully in a plastic container and mashed now with lime, salt and salsa. Yummmm.... We fed the men and ourselves with ,generosity, not wanting to carry any of that food (especially the cans!) back up the hill: they tolerated our motives and complied with our wishes and a great feeding frenzy was enjoyed by all. Surely our packs were down to 50lbs now.

Next morning, I eyed that 3,000' of Blue Bottle Wash, reluctantly put on that heavy pack, groaned just once, and off we went. Carl and co. made a later start, planning to exit about half way down Canyon Del Diablo for the day. I cannot bring myself to admit the number of hours it took us to get up that wash with those (still heavy) packs ... we thought it would never end. Several times we had to pass or rope up packs to get through difficult areas; sometimes we found ourselves caught on a tree, hanging off a ledge with feet poised in mid air; most of the time, we just threw ourselves and our packs forward over rocks. However, as all things do come to an end, so did the infamous Blue Bottle Wash, and to great (but weak) cheers, we found ourselves up on the saddle. Drinking our allocated rationed water, we sat in the dirt with ripped pants and gasped with relief.

From there, we made as mad a dash as was feasible given the unforgiving terrain and "hopped" down the wash (picking up that empty chardonnay bottle from the first night) to the shack, just in time for sunset at the truck. We first of all reached in for a much needed beer, had salt and vinegar chips for an appetizer, proceeded with a light dinner for a change and hit the sack(s). A note in the truck from the missing Terry Flood and Linda Roman, on completely the wrong side of the mountain on the wrong day hiking the wrong peak was reassuring but completely mystifying. Time would reveal their problems locating dirt roads, fixing flat tires, running out of time, water and beer, etc. The summit package was ultimately delivered for retrieval at the highpoint of Carlsbad.

Next day, all three parties made it back home from their various exits. We all pretended that the trip had been completely effortless, and Kathleen and 1, at least ' tended our scratches, bruises, twists, scabs and repetitive showers. Then out came the Champagne as we celebrated completing the 3-day journey in merely 5 days! Was that minimal time estimate man-talk? (We had already learned on this trip that "half a day" in man-talk meant "seven hours".) It was then that we realized that we had been well and truly "Picachoed"!!! which will most certainly come immediately to mind, accompanied by that broad DPS grin, anytime some poor enthusiast states an intention to climb El Picacho del Diablo .... most aptly named. Now, in thanks to all those that guided our way with ducks. I have a new (to be frozen) backpacking meal dedicated to this expedition, "Picacho Duck", roasted with fennel tomato chutney and best served with buttered couscous, a mint vinaigrette salad and a bottle of Merlot. E-mail me for the recipe.... Bon Appetit!

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