El Picacho del Diablo

Oct 1986

By: Duke Blakesley


Cerro de La Encantada

We stood on the west rim of the gorge to study main climbing routes up Big Picacho. Loose vapory clouds and mist driven by a cool breeze obscured a view to what John W. Robinson has called "one of the finest mountains on the North American continent." Suddenly, nature's Grand Theater presented us with an unforgetable performance. The cloudy curtain was raised to reveal a MASSIVE peak of pale granite rock, unique in Baja, stretching upwards 10,154 feet. I was a believer in Mexico's official name of Baja California's highest point - Cerro de la Encantada - "enchanted mountain." Sometime earlier, I had purchased a Mexican topo of the area. The store manger spread the map on the counter. Big Picacho was pointed out to me with a warning that climbers reported the mountain to be in a different location. A moving mountain! Truly, this was a Cerro de la Encantada.

In October, 1986, Peak Baggers' from across the United States responded to a Sierra Club Mexico outing that required "all participant's to be in excellent physical condition with considerable backpacking and mountaineering experience." I lied...and was accepted and assigned to one of two teams, each team consisted of twelve people. Our team leader was Jerry Schad. Our co-leader and only woman was Vicki Hoover. Our team would climb from the Pacific side to reach Big Picacho, while the other team would enter Canyon del Diablo from the desert. They faced a respectable 8,000 feet elevation gain.

We turned to climb "Blue Bottle," high point of the main plateau at 9,450 feet. We DID find a small blue bottle someone had secured to a tree near the register. We signed our names and read a fading notation which informed us of an alleged mountain tragedy. A previous hiker whose name appeared in the clutter of papers had died of a rattle snake bite in a rocky meadow in the near vicinity. Potential hazards in this remote area evoked mixed team reaction. An east-coast man had envisioned a Mexican National Park complete with uniformed Rangers, well defined routes, and overnight trail huts! A mid-westerner, a strong hiker and avowed rap music enthusiast blurted, "I thought you guy's would all be younger!" Polite smiles and stony silence...the gauntlet had been thrown. We turned towards the waiting challenge.

We began our descent into the gorge losing 2,500 feet (mas o menos) struggling with heavy backpacks down steep rugged terrain, silently cursing the clutching vegetation and tree limbs, while at the same time marvelling at the pristine wilderness. We reached the upper region of Canyon del Diablo and continued down canyon past waterfalls and beckoning side trips to reach Campo Noche. Here we met a dejected group from another climbing party. They had failed twice on two successive days to reach the top of Big Picacho. They wished us well and began the long trek back. We made camp and the following morning followed Jerry Schad up the "Slot Wash/Wall Street" route. We had decided to spend the night on the peak summit, so we backpacked sleeping bag, food and water plus extra clothing. Near the top, Jerry scouted a moderate "squeeze chimney," and threw down a rope to haul up backpacks. He alerted us to the territorial presence of angry bees. A New Englander immediately tore into his backpack to remove a small kit. He was allergic to bee stings...a physician was with us, and together they made a hasty retreat to make a lengthy detour to the top. Upon our companions safely clearing the area, we decided to "go for it!" Long sleeve shirts were buttoned and collars turned up. Hats were smashed tightly down, and gloves pulled on. We took a collective deep breath and in a quick moving file entered the chimney and began "stemming" up against the walls. We almost made it...we were attacked by a gathering swarm of winged vengence. The file faltered, but with great shouts of exhortation mingled with yelps of pain, made some classic moves to clear the chimney and break for the summit.

I spent my 51st birthday up there. What a present!

The next morning we returned to Campo Noche, while the other team went for the top and returned late that night. Each team exchanged car keys and continued canyon exploration without having to backtrack. The trip out was done with stops to swim, sliding down slick water chutes to reach the pools. The trip over, we drove to Ensenada to meet the other team, and drove home in our own cars. Two years later, Jerry Schad was kind enough to write and inform me my picture on Big Picacho appeared in the Spring, 1989, issue of "Baja" magazine. Sure enough, there I am in my best "Rocky III" victory mode. Both arms thrust skyward, face puffy from stings, arms bloody from catciaw, and dressed in sweat stained and torn clothing...I LOVED it!

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