El Picacho del Diablo

Nov 1963

By: Andy Smatko


Although Picacho del Diablo has been climbed a number of times in the past, this mountain has thwarted more attempts to scale its summit than successes scored against it. This almost appears to infer that a "battle" is waged by the mountain and its protagonists, and in a sense this may well be true, because this Desert Peak, more than any other on our list, is guarded by a most difficult approach, difficult class 3 pitches in the canyons leading to its summit, confusion in finding the correct routes, and at times rough stretches of brush, cats claw and cactus.

The long four-day Thanksgiving holiday saw thirty-three humans near the mouth of Canyon del Diablo. Six made a false start up Canyon del Diablito before realizing their mistake. On the evening of Thanksgiving Day was staged a dramatic breech in the defense of the mouth of the Canyon with its poet and waterfall. Three men, Gordon Duce, Vernon Stiles, and Herbert Sargent, performed a feat that earned the warm thanks of the rest of the party following the next day. Gordon waded into the pool to his neck in the cold water, and after several attempts, successfully landed the end of an 18-foot plank on the lip of the falls. To the upper end of this plank had been tied a 550-lb. test nylon string. While Gordon stood shivering in the pool with only his head showing and holding the plank steady, Vern balanced his way up the slippery board holding on to the string while carrying a 120-foot climbing rope. The nylon string was tied to a bush upstream to prevent the plank from slipping from the lip of the falls. Then Vern tied the climbing rope to a sturdy bush 40 feet upstream and threw the other end to Gordon and Herb who tightly secured the rope to a stout bush below the pool on the left. This rope therefore angled against the shoulder of the cliff forming the left wall of the falls (see Sketch #l).

The main party spent about an hour climbing hand over hand with packs up the hold-less granite into the trough above the falls. The rope was left in place to aid in the return over the falls. Again many thanks to Gordon, Vern and Herbert.

Since the fire years ago, considerable brush had grown in the canyon making the going pretty slow and rough up-canyon. The brush obliterated landmarks, so that Vern Jones, Gordon Dues, and I, who had previously been up the canyon, found accurate route finding difficult. About 4 pm a fairly level spot near the stream was located and the advisability of making camp here was apparent, as there were several people 15-20 minutes behind the main party with darkness approaching. Since Canyon del Diablo is completely trail-less, the large party had experienced a 1ong day of brush-wacking, boulder-hopping, and class 2-3 scrambling with peaks. The camp - which I hesitatingly will call "Smatko's Camp" easily accommodated twenty people. Six others had pushed on up canyon in an attempt to reach Cedar Camp, but darkness thwarted them also.

From Smatko's camp - now easily located since fire pits and leveled areas abound - the view looking E by SE appears as in Sketch #2. I feel that this is a good camp to start the climb from because it can comfortably accommodate a large party and there is plenty of easily accessible water. It would be easier to locate than Cedar Camp by future parties.

Early Saturday morning fifteen climbers left Smatko's Camp and joined five of the six who had camped further up-canyon. Vern Jones the co-leader had incapacitating knee trouble which prevented him from attempting the climb. An attempt was first made to find Cedar Camp, but although Vern, Gordon and myself had been there in past years, the camp was not found this day. It was later learned that the group had bypassed it and crossed above the camp without realizing it. The re-growth of brush and trees probably accounted for this circumstance. Heading E and guided by Gordon Duce and I, we ascended a steep ridge (which we thought was the correct ridge leading out of Cedar Camp) for a gain of about 350 feet or so. Nothing looked familiar to either of us as we crossed ever to the left (N). We decided we were one ridge too far south and the party traversed into a wide canyon towards the next ridge north. It was necessary to drop the 350 feet gained. From this wide canyon only one canyon ascended eastward, but it was totally unfamiliar. It was already well after 10 o'clock and all but five decided net to proceed with the climb. Arky Erb and Ed lane led three others up the ridge to the N towards a "summit" (9100' on the sketch). Paul Nelsen, Neko Colevins and I proceeded up-canyon to reconnoiter. Arky and party succeeded in climbing the 9100' summit, from which they could see a higher summit SE (apparently the N Peak of Picacho del Diablo). It was too far and too difficult to attempt at this late hour. Paul, Neko and I climbed about 1800' up the canyon eastwards but did not proceed up to the ridge line, but we did see a high class 4 to 5 ridge leading SE - the north summit ridge of the N. Peak. From our position the climb of the mountain would have been extremely difficult.

All returned to Smatko's Camp at varying intervals. Several including Vern Jones, had departed down canyon to make the Sunday exit easier.

Sunday the main party descended Canyon del Diablo while six remained to attempt the summit the same day. Arky, who led this group, related later that they found Cedar Camp on their return from climbing a 9600' summit south of Picacho del Diablo, again missing the right ridge. No time remained to make the true summit, and they reluctantly returned to camp. Picacho del Diablo had triumphed again, and convincingly so, since this was a strong party.

The return over the rope at the waterfall was uneventful. An underwater swim retrieved one climber's eyeglasses from the bottom of the pool, six feet down.

The owner of the Santa Clara Ranch was presented with a gallon of wine and a carton of cigarettes, and I would strongly urge future visitors to this canyon and the Peak to bring some gifts. Perhaps some small trinkets or clothing for the several children and women on the ranch would continue the good will of these people for the road traverses their property.

Although the excursion did not succeed in the objective of climbing the mountain, everyone was enthusiastic in their praise of the beauty of the desert and particularly of the rugged scenery all the way up Canyon del Diablo. This canyon and peak are worthy of more than one trip. Having been there twice, I am looking forward to visiting it again in the future. This view is shared by practically everyone who hiked up the canyon.

One more note: This peak has been called Picacho del Diablo in the past and the canyon is still named Canyon del Diablo. I am in favor of retaining this most picturesque and appropriate name for this king of the Desert Peaks. On some maps it is called Providencia Peak, and on others Cerro de la Encantada. Neither of these latter two names connotes to the mind the savage, rugged beauty of this forbidding peak. Long live Picacho del Diablo. Let's hear expressions from others in the section on this initiative. We can have our own name for the peak.

PERTINENT DATA: The eastern road approach is via the Mexicali-San Felipe Highway. From the Mexicali border-crossing drive south 96.1 miles to Kilometer 142 marker where sign on right (w) says "La Trinidad". Proceed 14.5 miles W on dirt road to intersection, where sign indicates Santa Clara Ranch to left. Proceed south across dry lake 19.4 miles to junction where sign to right (w) says "Santa Clara Ranch". Proceed .6 mile to ranch and 5.8 miles beyond to end of road. Wood but no water. From here a trail leads N past Diablito Canyon mouth to mouth of Canyon del Diablo. From roadhead to mouth of Canyon del Diablo is about 2 miles. Distance up canyon from falls to Smatko's amp about 8 miles. Cedar Camp about 1/2 mile beyond. Elevation at roadhead - 2100'; Smatko's Camp - 5550'; Cedar Camp - 6600'; Picacho del Diablo - 10,136'. Total gain: 8,036 feet.

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