El Picacho del Diablo

Nov 1971

By: John Robinson


57 Climb Picacho del Diablo; Trip Marred by Injuries

El Picacho del Diablo (The Peak of the Devil) lives up to its foreboding title. The Devil indicated his presence on our Thanksgiving weekend trip in the form of a sprained ankle, a wrenched knee, a dislocated shoulder and a broken leg. These misfortunes - particularly the last two - marred an otherwise successful adventure that saw a record 57 of 61 participants reach the summit.

Thursday morning we met on the Valle Trinidad road, caravanned some 38 miles to the Canyon Diablito roadhead, hiked north to the mouth of Canyon del Diablo, and climbed over the entrance waterfall. Two hours were required to get our large party over the fall with a pendulum traverse anchored to a bolt. No one fell into the pool, although one unfortunate young lady skimmed the surface when she slidtoo far down the rope. We ate an early lunch, then started the long boulder- hopping trek up canyon. A mile up canyon occurred our first misfortune - a sprained ankle. The victim tried to continue with us but found the going too painful, so he gave up the effort. During the confusion caused by the ankle injury, the party became separated. Half went on ahead and camped that night about 6 miles up canyon. The rest, including the two leaders, stopped about 5 miles up. The night was mild, and the half moon shone brightly on the towering granite sidewalls of the gorge.

Friday morning we reunited and continued up canyon; all except one individual whose knee was sore from a wrenching the previous day. The going became more brushy in the upper canyon, and several obstructions had to be circumvented by climbing steep granite slabs. By 3 p.m. we were all selecting camp spots under the tall cedars at Campo Noche, 14 miles up canyon.

At precisely 6 a.m. Saturday, a line of 57 climbers began snaking up Night Wash toward the North Summit of Picacho del Diablo, 4000 feet above. Across the ridge, into Slot Wash, upward, ever upward, we traveled. High above, the sun shone brilliantly on jagged ridges of white granite, but we remained in the cold shade throughout most of the climb. The leader, to his embarrassment, missed Wall Street on his first try, and we passed the grave of Joe Darrow. A quick 200 foot descent and traverse to an adjoining gully got us on the right route, and we scrambled up the narrow chute of Wail Street to the 10,154-foot North Summit, arriving about 11 a.m. All 57 who started reached the summit, including Fred Bode, 72 years young, who became the oldest ever to reach the top. The view was fabulous, stretching from fog banks over the Pacific eastward to the sparkling blue Gulf of California.

The party was in good spirits as we began the descent. But not for long. Assistant leader Jay Wiley was leading and I was taking up the rear when, about a third of the way down the Slot Wash, we heard a woman scream, "Help! Quick!" One of the party - Ed Sweeting of Pasadena - had lost sight of the hiker in front of him and tried to descend into the bottom of the Slot Wash instead of following the easier route that traversed around and down. He had fallen about 15 feet onto rocks, bouncing twice before coming to rest. Jay hurried to him with his first aid kit while I hurried down from above. By some miracle (judging from those who witnessed the fall), only his right shoulder appeared to be injured. Jay applied a splint to the arm and tied it against the body, and gave the victim Darvan pills to relieve the pain. Most of the party was sent on down to camp, while both leaders and 6 volunteers remained to help Ed slowly down the mountain. His shoulder was in severe pain, made worse by the jarring involved in climbing down over large boulders. In steep spots, Jay belayed him from above while several others gently lowered the victim. It was after dark (about 5:30 - the accident occurred at 2:30) when we finally reached Campo Noche and put Ed into his sleeping bag near a large campfire.

Jay and I decided to send the main party out the next day and ask for volunteers to remain with us to help get Ed out. Seven volunteered. If Ed felt he could walk the next day we would escort him down: if not we would send for a rescue party. Eric Schumacher and Dick Akawie were appointed to lead the main group out.

At 6 a.m. Sunday the main party left Campo Noche. Ed felt he could walk, so a short time later we started down very slowly, pausing often to let Ed rest. His shoulder was still very painful.

Around 8:30 a.m. occurred the second major accident. 5 miles down canyon from Campo Noche is a sloping sidewall of brown marbled rock that must be traversed to get around a small waterfall. With packs, it's a little spooky, particularly for those inexperienced in class 3 climbing. Ed Krause of Ontario had completed thedifficult part of the traverse and was about to reach level ground when he slipped and fell, fracturing the small bone in his right leg just below the knee. He was unable to walk and in pain. Henry Heusinkveld carried him piggy-back down canyon about a half mile to a wide, level spot, where the victim's leg was splinted and he was given Codine to relieve the pain. Fortunately, Dr. Frank Risely happened along (Frank had just completed ascending the mountain via the original McLain route). He checked the splint and gave medication to Krause. 5 more volunteers agreed to stay with Ed Krause while the main party continued on out to get help.

About 1:00 p.m. our Ed Sweeting party reached the scene and learned of the second accident. Sweeting was in great pain from jarring his shoulder while walking, so we decided to remain here at "Broken Leg Camp" to await rescue of both injured men. Now there were 14 of us staying behind - the 2 victims and 12 volunteers.

Frank Risely's group and the main party walked out of the canyon without further misfortune, and just after midnight (Monday morning), Frank crossed the border into Calexico and notified the authorities of our plight. The San Diego Mountain Rescue Team, aided by members of the De Anza Rescue Unit and the Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team, started south before dawn that morning.

Monday was a day of waiting at broken Leg Camp. About 2:30 in the afternoon we spotted a helicopter in the distance, and saw another one about 4:30, but neither one seemed to notice us. The day was cloudy and windy and a helicopter landing would have been impossible. Unknown to us, a rescue party armed with two stokes Litters had started up the canyon at 12:30 in the afternoon. Both Eds were kept relatively comfortable with Codine and Darvon (Sweeting was allergic to Codine).

Tuesday dawned cold, clear and calm. At 10 a.m. a large Coast Guard helicopter began circling far above us, directing the ground rescue party to the scene. Half an hour later a shrill whistle announced the arrival of the advance guard of the rescue party. Right afterwards a small helicopter roared up canyon and, in an amazing exhibition of flying skill, set down at the lower edge of our camp. The sheer canyon sidewalls were not more than a few yards from the swirling rotor blades. Ed Krause was flown out first, then the copter returned and picked up Ed Sweeting. The two victims were landed on Santa Clara Dry Lake, then transferred to the large Coast Guard copter and flown to San Diego.

By 11:30 a.m. the rest of us were packed up and moving rapidly down canyon, with the rescue party following behind us. By 5 p.m., just before dark, a11 12 of us were back at the Canyon Diablito roadhead, where the San Diego Search and Rescue's base camp group served us a warm dinner of stew and drinks. Our 6 day ordeal was over.

In retrospect, I would like to warmly thank the volunteers in our party and make some suggestions. The selfless volunteers who gave up two days of work to get the injured Eds out safely were Peter Lyman and his 13-year old son David, Eric Schumacher, Joan Hack, Steve Cabaniss, Chuck Younberg, Bill Winkle, Wayne Vasey, Richmond Quackenbush and his nephew Jim Quackenbush. Assistant leader Jay Wiley deserves commendation for his splendid first aid work. Without Jay's first aid kit, we would have been in trouble. The three rescue units that cooperated in the successful evacuation deserve the thanks of the DPS and a contribution to their worthy cause.

My suggestions are the following:

  1. The DPS should limit the size of climbing parties on class 3 peaks to 25 or less. 61 is far too many for a strenuous and difficult outing such as Picacho del Diablo. Personally, I will never take a group that size to Big Picacho again.
  2. The DPS needs a trip sign-up sheet that includes a list of participantresponsibilities. The great majority of the party was cooperative, but some individuals left the peak and abandoned base camp, without my permission, before the main party was off the mountain.
  3. The DPS needs an adequate first aid kit (or kits) to be carried on all section trips, and at least one trained person who knows how to administer medical help. We were fortunate that Jay brought his own kit and has extensive knowledge in this area. Next time we might not be so lucky.

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