What does one do to prepare for a thru-hike? Beat yourself up unnecessarily of course in an attempt to get in shape! For years, I had been wanting to go down to the Sierra de San Pedro Martir, a major mountain range in Baja a little south of Ensenada. It’s a huge granite massif that rises out of the desert floor to over 10,000 feet, and it’s basically a southern extension of the range in San Diego where the PCT starts. So, the few weeks to kill before starting the PCT provided a fitting opportunity to take a weekend trip down to bag the range’s highest peak, aptly named Picacho del Diablo.
I teamed up with Marcus, who had also been eyeing Picacho, and we set out with a plan. I’m pretty fast when it comes to hiking especially off trail, and Marcus runs ultra marathons, so we figured that we could do this pretty leisurely over 4 days: one just to drive down, one to make it to camp, one to summit, and one to get all way out and back to San Diego.
Day one went exactly according to plan. We made it down to the national park in about seven hours with a brief lunch break in Ensenada for tacos. (Spoiler: Fish tacos are better in San Diego than Ensenada.) At the park gate, we encountered the rangers and played charades for a few minutes as we explained what we had come to do. Enough stupid gringos attempt to climb Picacho del Diablo that they took photos of our bootprints in case they needed to rescue us. The ranger even insisted that I show him my satellite device to demonstrate that I could call search and rescue if need be — I’ve read scattered reports of the Mexican Navy having to be called in to pluck people out of the canyon. Anyway, upon receiving our permits we made directly for the trailhead and camped for the night at 9,000ft.
The second day started off just as well as the first. Although it was cold (below freezing), the forest was beautifully tranquil and much of the morning was spent audibly exclaiming to each other how wonderful this all was.
The first five miles followed a ranch road and then a well-established use trail gained a modest 1,500ft all the way to a saddle below the oddly named peak, Cerro Botella Azul. At this point, we could finally see the route to Picacho, which dominated the skyline. Rather than simply being the tallest bump on the high plateau, Picacho stands in opposition to it separated by the enormous Cañon del Diablo. The ridge connecting the summit to our vantage point is riddled with gendarmes and chicken heads, so the standard route drops a heartbreaking 3,500ft down to Campo Noche followed by 4,000ft up to the summit via series of steep washes. This, of course, has to be reversed to get back out.
So, off we went down into the canyon weaving through cliff bands before the use trail completely disappeared into a morass of talus and chaparral. But, all we had to do was go down and we managed to make it all the way to Campo Noche and it’s beautiful crystal clear pool in just a few hours. We had hoped to get there fast enough to tackle the summit, but with reports of some parties spending 10-12 hours roundtrip from camp we decided to spend a lazy afternoon in the sun instead.
We had some concerns about our return to the States. The original itinerary would have us crossing the border Sunday evening, and neither of us wanted to spend hours in the car waiting to get through. So, we hatched a plan to wake up at 4:30 am, zoom up to the summit and head out all the way back to the car thus saving a day. With that plan in mind, we went to sleep.
Campo Noche has a reputation for having some habituated ringtail cats. I had assumed that I could pile up my food right next to my sleeping bag and put my pack on it so that they wouldn’t dare mess with me. Wrong. I woke up completely disoriented to a clamor in the middle of the night. In my drowsy stupor, I turned to my right to see eyes staring back at me from the dark not more than 8 inches away. A pair of ringtail cats had raided my pile of food to steal a bag of almonds, which they had ripped apart spreading almonds everywhere. Every time I would turn away, they would run around picking the almonds off the ground. In order to eventually get them to go away, I had to walk around and collect every almond that they had dropped. I did eventually get to sleep, but I was not a happy camper come 4:30.
We set off up the wash in the dark and slowly watched the sunrise illuminate the canyon as we navigated a labyrinth of manzanita and rock. The route gets progressively steeper and it is riddled with substantial boulder problems blocking the path of least resistance. We were both getting shredded by branches, and I had to wrap my hand in duct tape to keep from flaying a wound. Eventually, we arrived on the summit and enjoyed views from the Pacific to the Sea of Cortez. But, we didn’t spend long and dropped down, since we needed to get out of the canyon that afternoon.
The route out was much more difficult than it was coming down. We were running low on energy and went up the wrong fork once or twice forcing us to backtrack. Slowly, we made it back to the saddle just as the sun was beginning to set. The five miles that were so easy to cover just a day ago became a long slog through the dark and cold. I was hesitant to tell Marcus just how much further we had to go, whenever he would ask. He felt like he was at the end of a 100mi race. Finally, we arrived back at the car at 9:30 pm to finish a day that included 16 hours of almost continuous movement.
We would then sleep until 2 am and start the 7-hour drive to the border, so we would still hopefully miss the inevitable gridlock. Despite sleeping for only a few hours spirits were high as we weaved through the park back to the entrance. There they were crushed when we discovered a locked gate blocking the road. The Mexican park service had actually locked us in the national park. Despite Marcus’ efforts to wake someone up in the middle of the night to open the gate, we were forced to spend 5 hours parked in front of the gate knowing that we would end up repeating this again at the border. Wait we did at the border covered in sweat and dirt watching the menagerie of vendors and beggars weaving through the idling cars. Though I did get some pretty awesome churros, so it wasn’t all bad.