Picacho Peak


By: Penelope May


It was Thanksgiving and, after ruining ourselves on the usual traditional food and wine with friends, Alois and I set off for that most exquisite and noted destination, Yuma, Arizona. This little known resort has a surprisingly beautiful park nearby, the Picacho State Recreation Area, running by the Colorado River, in nearby California. Here is the unique opportunity to climb a significant edifice, Picacho Peak (1,950')... .by laddering.

For those of you yawning at this moment, I'd like to remind you that climbing with your hands and feet is just not always what it's "cracked" up to be.. .and aging Himalayan climber Alois Smrz was glad of this exciting chance to pursue this uphill obstacle course with the promise of a peak garnered with aid.

We left our comfortable camp in the desert wash at about 7 am.. .and took a rough dirt road (high clearance required; 4-wheel optional) to the start of the climb. This can be reached by driving in from the "Winterhaven/ Fourth Avenue" exit from the 1-8 freeway, north along S24 and then, when the pavement ends, following the road, occasionally sign-posted to Picacho Park, about 5 miles to a bridge; after crossing the bridge, at 15.5 miles, past the Chemgold Mine, there is a turn-off on the left, a BLM road, marked by a brown stake, A278. This eventually ends.

From there we hiked up a wash for about 1/2 mile to an obvious phallic tower on the right: here we turned left and picked up a use trail which took us up to the wall of the monolith. From there we slanted left up a chute which led to a notch between the west and the east side of the peak. Here we donned rock shoes (and helmet if we had been smart) and gazed upwards at an apparent labyrinth of steep volcanic rocks with crumbly pockets. Following directions from the Sierra Club's Desert Peaks Section's guide, we moved upwards and to the right along various viable walking ledges and, amazingly enough, found a wooden ladder! This greatly assisted the climb up a 12 foot step and avoided all effort.

Continuing to wander around these ledges we quickly came upon the "step across", a rather more intimidating prospect. Bolts have been removed and protection is sparse, but we belayed each other over the step, about 36 inches wide, and awkward at each side and spread over a drop of several hundred feet. Buoyed by our success we continued up and around the ledges, first to the left a couple of hundred feet, then to the right, and then to the left again. There was the other ladder, over another 12 foot step, this one overhanging a bit. Alois concluded that the alternative (i.e. old-fashioned climbing) would be about 5.10, and a bit of an effort. We laddered.

From there we followed the ledges upwards and to the right up a Class 3 route to a point from where the false summit can be climbed up a short but exposed Class 4 face. The bolt which had provided an anchor had been sawed off, but we were able to find two places for a nut and a cam and carried on. At the top of the false summit we enjoyed the panoramic view, puzzled over the purpose of two facing bolts in the rock and waltzed over to the other side, the summit a mere hop, skip and a jump away, quite literally. Unfortunately, we realized that there was a small but unpleasant chasm between us and success. We noted two rappel bolts, so far apart that a 24 foot sling was necessary (not in our equipment) and a 15 foot overhanging drop to a narrow saddle which was definitely nasty. The recommended technique is to rappel over it and use two etriers tied together to make a 12+ foot ladder for the return. Since we had neither pieces of gear we wondered where a ladder was when we needed it. Soon, Alois drummed up a solution, calling upon many years of Himalayan experience, and rigged a short sling reinforcing the old 24 foot sling in place, and we rapped over the edge. The Hilary Step it was. From there we sort of sauntered our way to the summit and signed the register. The return up to the false summit was challenging. It was overhanging and the lie-back moves at the start were strenuous. Alois led it; I hauled him up with the belay. He claimed it was 5.9 and enjoyed the ride. I followed up after him thinking that the etriers swinging in the now vigorous wind would have been worse than clawing up the rock. A vote for old-fashioned climbing.

We then returned the way we came and found ourselves back at camp at 4:45 pm, just 15 minutes before dark. Perfect. If we had known the way, the climb would have been a lot shorter. We fired up the bbq and opened the " wine. The moon and weather were clear and beautiful. Everywhere else in Southern California it was pouring down. We purred. We had the canyon to ourselves. Life was good.. .and the aging Himalayan mountaineer had chalked up another 600(0) meter peak!

If you are interested, there is a good write-up with more detailed directions which supplement those of DPS, by Christopher Brennan at www.dankat.com/swhikes/picachl htm.

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

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