El Picacho del Diablo

May 1968

By: Howard Stephens



For those of us who enjoy peak climbing nothing seems to rankle us so much as the defiance of the peak we failed to get. The nearer the miss the greater the call to return.

El Picacho del Diablo is becoming an increasingly popular challenge to climbers and true to its devilish nature, frequently refuses to submit to conquest on one's first attempt.

Nine of us, being Jim Jenkins, Lew Hill, Horace Ory, Bill Rausch, Dick Searle, Abe & Helen Siemens, Mal Terrell, and myself evened our score with the "Peak of the Devil", (or if you prefer to be official with" Peak of the Enchantress") over the Easter 1968 week.

We had previously attempted to find the fog-draped summit on the partially successful, ill-fated 1967 Thanksgiving weekend jaunt. On that event 26 Desert Peakers with the leadership of Ed. Lane along with 5 Paul Nelson-guided independents were forced to turn back just short of the summit due to a multiplicity of adverse conditions, which included fog, rain, snow, and a casualty. Having missed the Wall Street route, time and visibility spell no-go. Eleven had already pressed on and attained the summit.

Now nine of us had returned with greater determination and more time. We had five days and planned a bivouac on the mountain if necessary. As we crossed the desert on Sat Apr 6, the mountain stood clear before us. No clouds. The desert was in bloom, the temp warm and pleasant with bright prospects. By 10:30 AM we had arrived at the roadhead be1ow Diablito Canyon and were ready to hit the trail northward into Canyon del Diablo.

The desert growth is luxuriant in this area and now it was just coming into bloom. Palo Verde, mesquite, catclaw, giant cardon, and pitahaya towered above the cars. Beneath smaller cacti bloomed in profusion.

The stream formed a large, deep pool below the first falls. In order to expedite passage of our group with packs it would be necessary to attach ropes to bolts which were placed high on the polished granite walls. The ropes could be placed only from above the falls. Searle, Ory, and I climbed the class 3 buttress and rappelled down the upper side above the falls and placed the ropes. Soon we were all above the falls the only 6th class pitch on the route, but several falls and class 3 pitches were to be found in the 14 miles ahead.

Travel up this Canyon del Diablo is uniquely difficult, interesting and pleasant. Repeatedly challenging but never impossible, the canyon abounds in route-finding an climbing problems of a continuously changing nature. The lower canyon is narrow and the sculptured walls bottom in great boulders with stream likened sides that offer slight friction to climbing boots. We marveled at the small frog that were hopping about the vertical walls without seeming concern. Sometimes we circumvented the obstacles by friction climbing, other times there were small holds, but generally it was through, around, and over great boulders! Doubtful friction on a narrow cliff high above the dry stream pools created excitement, while brush was another source of consideration. Everywhere, boulders from watermelon to room size, were scattered in profusion. We conservatively estimated that each one of us hopped at least 40,000 of them during the course of the trip along with hundreds of stream-crossings. We had lunch in a lovely shady spot. The temp was 71 degrees (LA was having a 90 degree heat wave!). We camped for the night about half way up the canyon-a real wilderness area. There are no trails. We saw only the ashes of our last November fires and the bolts in the cliff above the falls to remind us that we were not making the very first ascent of the canyon. We saw no animal life except for the frogs and one water snake-no mosquitoes. What peace and quiet! We were up early to gain as much altitude as possible in the morning cool, and by mid afternoon we were at Campo Noche, traditional resting place for the big climb. A few fleeting clouds passed and none. stayed. It seemed that luck was with us and that the Devil might really be the Enchantress and calmly submit to our conquest. But we took no chances. We packed our summit gear including the bivouac dinners just in case. A 5:30 morning call put us on the climb by 6:15. Since we were on the west side of a very steep mountain, shade was cast upon us almost clear to the top. In Slot Wash we were able to follow our old trail through the heavy brush. It made the climbing seem easier.

With completely clear skies we had no trouble in finding our way into Wall Street, which leads to the very summit. Although with some class 3 pitches we were able to make good time and the north summit was attained. by 10: 30 AM. In the upper reaches of the Wash we had seen many possible bivouac spots and as the need for such decreased. the pointing out of good sites became the joke of the day.

We spent a pleasant ninety minutes (1-1/2 hours, mind you!) on top, reading the register; taking pictures; enjoying the views; exchanging signals. By previous arrangement with the DPS San Pedro Martir group, led by John Robinson(recorded in the April, 1968 Newsletter) we exchanged mirror signals with those across the great canyon atop Tres Polomas.. Except for a slight haze the view was perfect. Reluctantly we quit our high perch and began the descent back to Campo Noche. Since we had reached the highest point and also a duty awaited us below, we did not attempt a traverse to the south summit.

On the Thanksgiving ascent Joe Darrow had succumbed to an apparent stroke or heart attack and failed to respond to all efforts made to revive him. Dropping out of Wall Street we found the body a little way to the south. A Mexican climbing group, which we met on the way out, had. given it a partial covering and erected a crude cross of pine boughs. There was no sign of molestation by predators of any kind. We quickly completed the stone covering and left only the cross to indicate the spot.

By early afternoon we were back in camp. We decided that as we had enough time and food we might as well enjoy the canyon. We descended, leisurely and made our last camp Tuesday night about a mile above the lower falls. Roping down the last two falls told us of the easy walk back to the cars and still in early morning we begun the daylight drive back north of the border.

We were satisfied with our victory and the thought that we would not have to struggle up one of those Baja California canyons again.

But subsequent reports of an ascent by Providencia Canyon and the inspiring sight of the "Big Picacho" from Tres Palomas has awakened a new desire and someday we'll return for another climbing adventure, which, by the way, will have to really be something to beat this everlasting five-day memory.

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