In the summer of 1967, when I first heard about El Picacho del Diablo, I was still young enough to think I was indestructible. I was a smart-assed college student at the time, with more daring than good sense, attempting my first wilderness adventures in the mountains of Utah and on the granite walls of Yosemite Valley. I was convinced that injury and pain were experiences only other people had to suffer, and that death was just one more thing the older generation had lied about.
Other climbers, some of them my mentors, told me about a mysterious mountain in Baja California that had acquired a reputation much larger than its actual size. The mountain was barely over 10,000 feet in elevation, but it rose out of the harsh San Felipe desert with such abruptness, and towered over everything else around it with such brazen confidence, that its relative height put it in a class with the major peaks of North America.
Climbers who had been there spoke of an elusive, almost indefinable quality that the mountain seemed to have. They talked of a long and grueling approach; of beautiful. High Sierralike scenery on the plateau to the west; of a tricky, though nontechnical ascent if you’re able to stay on course.
They said that most people who went there never reached the summit, and that the area was so remote that if you got in trouble, there would be nobody to help you — you truly were in trouble. All of this intrigued me. But what fired my imagination the most — other than the exotic and lyrical name, El Picacho del Diablo, the Devil’s Peak — was the way the climbers tried to describe its personality. It was sweet and brutal, beautiful and horrifying, gentle and cruel. If it were human, it would be a basket-case schizophrenic.
In February of 1967, climbers were fascinated with a story in the news about two students from Claremont College near Pomona, Ogden Kelly and Eleanor Dart, who had failed to return from an attempt to climb the mountain. The search went on for days, then weeks, with no sign of them.
The terrain was so rugged that even an aerial search was difficult, and most of the work had to be done on foot. A check of the register on the peak showed they had reached the top but had apparently disappeared on their descent. Finally, more than a month later, a mountaineer from Coronado, Bud Bernhard, who knew the area intimately, found them both very near death from dehydration and exhaustion. They had simply misjudged the mountain and the difficulty of the terrain.
Over the next few years, as my love for the wilderness increased, I became aware, through a series of mishaps, that I was not indestructible after all. I could freeze, dehydrate, be cut, bleed just like everybody else. What an amazing discovery it was for a young man. I saw other climbers die, and as I helped slip their bodies into the plastic bags, I couldn’t help noticing how real they were, how much they looked like me. I was learning how to be afraid.
I continued to think about El Picacho del Diablo. Once, in 1976, I was ready to climb it with another mountaineer when a fall storm destroyed our plans the day before we were to have left. I happened to come across an account written by the great mountaineer Norman Clyde, describing his tortuous ascents of El Picacho in the 1930s. I read in old copies of Summit magazine about the grueling ascents by the large Sierra Club climbing parties in the 1950s; they told of exhaustion, dehydration, heart attacks, broken legs, and many failed attempts. I read of Bud Bernhard’s discovery of the Slot Wash route, which is the only class-three route on the mountain, meaning it can be done without ropes and technical equipment if you are able to find, and stay on, the route.
In the spring of 1984 I was ready to try again. I began making phone calls around the country to some of my old climbing buddies, now in their midthirties. “That sounds great,” one of them said. “But my wife just had a baby. I can’t leave now.” “I’d love to go down there,” another one said. “But I can’t get any more time off from work until Christmas. Can you wait?”
No, I couldn’t. I called a San Diego climbing store to ask for first-hand information about the mountain, and to hint that I was looking for a climbing partner. “We really don’t want a lot of people to know there’s a 10,000-foot peak just a few hours from San Diego,” the manager said when I told him I was a writer. “We’d like to keep it in the family, if you know what I mean.” I knew exactly what he meant, but I kept my opinion of it to myself.
As for a climbing partner, he said, “We’re kind of a close-knit group. We’d be reluctant to climb with somebody we didn't know.” I could understand that. Hanging onto the side of some mountain is not the time or place to discover the true personality of your new climbing partner. The wilderness has a way of bringing out unexpected qualities in people, and when things turn bad, your partners will either support you with their energy or drag you down with their fatigue.
Then the manager added, “If you're willing to pay enough, we could probably find somebody to guide you to the top.”
I was insulted. I had been told they were an arrogant bunch, but I couldn't believe this. “Adventure is all I can offer,” I said.
“Well, we’re not interested in adventure. We're just trying to make a living.”
“Thanks,” I said, more determined than ever to climb the mountain. After thinking about it for a while, I realized I didn’t need or want anybody else to go with me. I could do it alone.
Not so many years ago the idea in adventuring was to always minimize your risks. There were several rules of caution you followed, and one of them was never to go out alone. This conservative kind of thinking, along with several innovations in equipment, led to the mastering of most of the world's great adventures — not just once, but many times. Before long it was all getting too easy. The rules of the game had to be changed to make the game more challenging. The trend in Yosemite was for climbers to do the same old routes on El Capitan, but to do them unbelayed and with a minimum of hardware. Winter mountaineers would go on long trips in the wildest country with only the most basic food and gear, almost tempting nature to give them hell. And a lot of adventurers, weary of people and the problems they brought with them into the wilderness, tired of arrogance and elitism, and craving the purity and intensity of a solo experience, started going out on adventures alone. It was still considered unsafe, just not that unusual.
So I would climb El Picacho alone. But it seemed like a shame not to share the rest of the experience — the drive into Baja, the hike to the mountain, the scenery of the lovely Sierra de San Pedro Mártir— with somebody whose yearnings weren’t quite as stubborn as my own. Although I wouldn’t admit it, maybe I also wanted somebody who could direct a search party to “the point last seen.”
I called up an old, trusted friend — Carmen — with whom I had shared many enjoyable weeks in the Sierra Nevada. I knew she could be counted on to be a spirited, enthusiastic, occasionally reckless, and always enjoyable companion. “I’d love to go,” she said. “When should I be there?” “How about the day after tomorrow?”
“Sure!” she laughed.
I picked her up at the airport, and we were on our way to Mexico. As soon as we crossed the border. Carmen tuned the radio to an Ensenada station playing the local “ranchitos” — the country music. Carmen was born in Peru, but she hadn't been to Latin America in more than ten years. Her father, who had been in the Peruvian military, had to flee the country after a sudden change in power, and Carmen spent the rest of her childhood in San Francisco, where her father would sit her on his knee and read from the Latino newspapers about the wonderful adventures of the revolutionary, Ché Guevara. She was thrilled to be back in a country where everybody spoke her native tongue. Once she even insisted that I stop the truck so she could play soccer with a group of kids alongside the road.
We stopped at a penadería, and bought a bag of fresh Mexican pastries. Carmen nibbled on them sparingly, but I was already worrying about the test of endurance I knew was waiting for me, and gorged myself on the sweet rolls while Carmen watched and wondered what had gotten into me. As the day got hotter, I stopped now and then in the dusty little villages along the way while Carmen ran into the stores to pick up a couple of cold beers, which we drank on the road while we argued Latin politics.
At Colonet we pulled into the only Pemex in town to fill up with gas before heading into the mountains. The woman attendant looked at our gear in the back of the truck and asked if we were going to the beach. “No,” Carmen said, “to El Picacho del Diablo. Do you know that place?” But the woman just looked at us as if we were crazy. Still, she seemed curious about Carmen’s accent, and the two quickly struck up a conversation about everything from the humid weather to the coyote that was stealing everybody’s turkeys. As we pulled out of the Pemex, Carmen said, “I love the way she talks. It’s so animated.” Then with a sigh she added, “I haven't been this homesick in years.”
Just past Colonet we turned east on a dirt road that led to El Parque Nacional de San Pedro Mártir, a hundred kilometers away. The road had recently been graded after the spring rains and was in surprisingly good shape. We passed the village of San Telmo, where a few hard-working farmers coaxed a little alfalfa and com from the red-clay soil. A vaquero on horseback rode in the dust of a herd of longhorn cattle. Carmen waved to him as we passed, and he waved back listlessly, saving his energy in the intense heat.
The hills were so dry and rocky that it didn't seem as if even a goat could survive on the sparse brush growing there. As we gained elevation, we could see the smoke of a range fire burning to the north. It was several hundred acres in size, but the country was already so parched from the sun that a fire couldn't do any more damage, and it went untended.
After an hour of driving on the washboard road without passing another car, we began to climb more steeply, and soon we entered a belt of scrub oaks and junipers. A road crew was working on a culvert bridge at a small oasis called Los Encinos, and we stopped to ask the young engineer supervising the project how much farther it was to the national park. He examined his notebook, nodded, and said crisply, “Veintiseis kilómetros. ¡Exactamente!”
We came to a cluster of red shacks and a steel gate blocking the road. A faded sign nailed to a tree marked this as the entrance to the park. We parked the truck and got out to stretch. Soon we heard a screen door slam and two men in khaki uniforms came out to greet us. They smiled, said we were the first car of the day, and invited us to sit in the shade of a tree and chat for a while. The older of the two, Pancho Mayoral, wore a black cap designating him as “Captain,” but his assistant, Antonio Ramirez, called him “Chief,” in English.
The Chief was a twinkle-eyed, silver-haired, rustic fellow, and when we told him we were going to have a look at El Picacho, he nodded and said in Spanish. “Yes, yes. I have been there many times. It is very beautiful.”
“The country is so dry,“ I said. “Will there be enough water there?”
“Oh, yes,” he assured us. “There will be enough.”
Antonio Ramirez mentioned casually that two climbers had died on the mountain last year. I had heard nothing about this before and looked at him closely to see if he was joking, but he seemed serious. He looked at our backpacks and asked Carmen how much they would cost in the U.S. Carmen told him about $150. “Ah,” he said. “In my whole life I would never be able to afford one.” But the thought didn’t seem to trouble him much.
Carmen asked if there were mountain lions. “¡Muchas leones!” Ramirez nodded. “But if you smell bad enough, they will leave you alone. Too much bathing is bad for your health anyway,” he advised.
I asked if the road was open as far as Vallecitos, our trailhead, and the Chief said, “Certainly.”
“Why don’t you go with them?” Ramirez suggested to his boss. “Show them the way.”
“I would,” the Chief yawned, “but I am so busy.”
Carmen laughed and told him how much she envied his peaceful life here. We got back in the truck, but nobody offered to open the gate. There seemed to be some embarrassment, a great deal of whispering, and finally the Chief came over and said, “There is a small donation to enter the park.” “Of course,” I said, recalling that it costs about four dollars to get into an American park these days. “How much is the donation?”
“Whatever you would like to give,” the Chief shrugged amiably. I handed him 300 pesos — about two dollars — and the gate swung open for us to pass.
There were a lot of pinyon pines alongside the road, and they seemed to fit this country; but when we saw the first Jeffrey pines, I thought they looked lost and out of place, like gringos on vacation. They were soon joined by sugar pines, white firs, lodgepoles, and cedars — a healthy subalpine forest in the middle of Baja.
Some of the trees near the road had been harvested, we could see. In a nation that makes its telephone poles out of reinforced concrete, such stands of timber are very valuable. But there hadn’t been any clear-cutting that we could see, only selective thinning, and they seemed to have done a good job of it. Still, timber harvesting in an American national park would be unheard of.
We soon saw other evidence that the Mexicans’ idea of a national park was a bit different from our own: ranchers nearby were able to obtain permits to graze cattle in the big, open meadows of the high country and, unfortunately, the grazing had been poorly managed. This had been a very dry year, and what little grass had been available had long since been eaten. Dusty, bald patches in the meadows where the cattle had wallowed and numerous eroded gullies showed that the park had been overgrazed for some time. Dirt roads seemed to go in all directions; off-road vehicles, in fact, are allowed everywhere they can gain access. Large garbage dumps, some of them still burning, had packs of coyotes and flocks of vultures picking through the edible debris.
The Mexican policy seemed to be more like that of our national forests, which is to use the resources of the land within the restraints of politics and public opinion. Perhaps a nation in poverty should not be criticized for being unable to set aside large tracts of pristine scenery, and if their ecological awareness seems to be a few years behind our own, it should also be noted that the park had an unmanaged wildness American parks haven’t known for fifty years.
Carmen and I turned off the main road at Vallecitos, a narrow meadow several miles long with a trickle of water running down its middle. Soon we came to a large camp, which we found was inhabited by a group of geology students from San Diego State. They seemed happy to have visitors. “We’ve only seen three people the whole time we’ve been here, and you’re two of them,” one of the students said. The other visitor had been a Mexican vaquero who, after inspecting their camp and its accessories, including a propane stove, refrigerator, and deep freeze, declared it better than his own home and didn’t want to leave.
After looking at the students’ maps and listening to their advice on how to find our way around in this strange place, we had a quick supper and set off down the trail on foot. It was already after five o’clock — a good time to be hiking — but we had to make at least six miles before dark to get to a camp with water. As we traveled along, we were amazed to see how similar this country was to the middle-elevation Sierra Nevada, with its thick forests of lodgepole pine and aspens, its purple patches of lupine, its granite domes and sedge-covered meadows. The only striking difference here was the dryness. The more southerly latitude and the lack of a high altitude watershed made for long dry summers, compounded now by last winter’s unusually sparse rainfall.
We could see this would be an easy country to get lost in. The forested plateau lacked conspicuous landmarks, and the Mexican topographic maps, though accurate in detail, had many place names mismarked, so unless you were already familiar with the area, the maps were mostly useless. The jeep trail we were following faded into a cattle trail, which faded into nothing at all.
Just before dark we came to the creek we were looking for. It was a nameless drainage that flowed down the west side of a 9500-foot peak called Botella Azul (Blue Bottle). The creek was barely trickling — and only intermittently, in parts — but it seemed like a major river in this country. We moved into an old vaquero camp in a grove of aspens, started a small fire, and had a cup of tea while the local bats performed their erratic aerial circus over our heads. “It’s so quiet here,” Carmen said softly. “I’d forgotten how much noise you never even notice in the city.”
In the morning we had a light breakfast, then started working our way up the creek. In some places we could follow the drainage, but in other places it was easier to cut across the wooded ridges. Our plan was to climb Botella Azul, 2000 feet above us, get our first look at El Picacho del Diablo, then decide what to do from there.
Like a coward, I had said nothing to Carmen about my intention of climbing the mountain alone, assuming she would opt against it anyway. But what if she were determined to go? She was so excited to be in the wilds again that she started collecting wildflowers, curious rocks, deer antlers — almost anything of interest. But as we got higher on Botella Azul, I could see she really wasn’t in condition to climb El Picacho. Would she be offended if I told her that?
After two more hours we came to a point where we could see the top of Botella Azul, just thirty minutes away. It was a crumbled, red-rock peak: attractive, but not terribly impressive as a mountain. We stopped for water, and I offered Carmen one of the bottles I’d filled before leaving camp. She refused it, and I realized she hadn't drunk all morning. “Carmen, you’ll get dehydrated if you don’t drink,” I said.
After trying to avoid my look, she finally confessed, “I don’t trust that water.”
“I know, but it’s still brown. I’m afraid it’ll make me sick.”
“If you don’t drink it, I’ll guarantee you’ll get sick,” I scolded. “You can't last in this heat and altitude without water.” To my relief she broke down and drank nearly half a quart.
Just before noon we broke through the stunted aspens and emerged on the top of Botella Azul. The view of El Picacho del Diablo was stunning. What a magnificent mountain it was! Nearly a thousand feet higher than everything else around it, and made of a pearly white granite, it was set away from the rest of the range as though it were in a class by itself. It looked steep from the west, but I knew this was because we were looking straight into it, making it seem worse than it was. Still, there was something intimidating about the mountain, something mysterious, compelling, and threatening all at the same time. Carmen took one look at it and said, “I don’t think I want to climb that mountain.”
The official name for the mountain is La Providencia, given it by the Spanish explorers who first viewed it from the decks of their ships in the Gulf of California, fifty miles away. From that distance it must have looked sparkling and grand. But later, as the missionaries and settlers got closer to the mountain, they began to know more about its true character — its harshness, its cruelty, its total indifference to anything human. They soon stopped calling it by that benevolent name, “the Providence,” and began calling it La Encantada, “the enchanted one,” and later, El Picacho del Diablo.
At least as intimidating as El Picacho, I thought, was the 3000-foot chasm of Cañón Diablo, which separated us from the mountain. The steep-sided and semicircular canyon surrounded and guarded the peak like a moat around a castle. In cooler months some climbers chose to approach the mountain from the east by trekking fourteen miles up the canyon from the desert floor — a long and treacherous journey, by all accounts. But during the hotter months, the only reasonable approach was from our side, the west, meaning Cañón Diablo had to be descended first. Somehow, though, seeing a canyon like that on a map and seeing it in the real world are two different things. It was demoralizing in its enormity. The steep and rugged chutes disappeared below us so sharply that if any reasonable route to the bottom existed, it was not visible. I didn't say anything to Carmen, but suddenly the whole plan seemed foolish and unrealistic.
We were nearly out of water, so the only thing to do now was to backtrack off Botella Azul to the first running creek. We started down, and within an hour we came to a lovely aspen-covered bench above a creek; there was a pleasant breeze and a fine, open view to the west. We took off our packs, drank our fill of the clear water, and lay down in the shade. After our startling appraisal of El Picacho, this place seemed so gentle, so peaceful.
“You’re right. Carmen,” I said. “I don’t want to climb that mountain, either. Let’s just stay here and enjoy this place.”
She gave me an odd look, a look of surprise, but didn’t say anything.
We made camp in the shade, took off our boots and stretched our toes. As we relaxed there in the heat of the day, Carmen told me about her grandfather’s farm in the mountains of Peru, and how she used to go there as a little girl and eat papayas until she got sick. She talked about how her father worked at menial jobs in the U.S., always hoping he could take his family back to their own country some day. When he died, the dream was passed on to her. I listened quietly to her stories, soothed and relaxed. I finally fell asleep to the sound of the breeze in the aspen trees.
When I awoke, I sat up with a surge of energy, restless and disturbed. Something was wrong. I jumped to my feet and hobbled around barefoot, trying to understand what had come over me.
“What is it?” Carmen asked sleepily.
“I’ve made a mistake, Carmen. I’ve got to go climb it.”
“It’s almost five o’clock,” she said, looking at her watch.
“I know. With any luck I can get to the bottom of the canyon before dark,” I said, throwing the things I would need into my pack. There was no way I could explain to her the urgent feeling I had that time passes, opportunities are lost, people die, and I would never be in this place again. I had to do it now.
Carmen just smiled. “I'm glad you want to climb it. Just go do it, get it over with. I’ll stay here.”
“Will you be okay alone? What if . . .?”
“I can take care of myself. Don't worry. I just want to stay here and enjoy this place. It’ll be a good time to think.”
We talked about what she should do if I didn't come back within forty-eight hours, and decided the only sensible thing was to stay near the water. She had plenty of food and we knew the geology students would be in the area for several weeks. As I hugged her good-bye, I said, “Think good thoughts about me.”
“Of course,” she said, and for a moment I envied her tranquility.
From the west there is only one safe route into Cañón Diablo. It was named Gorin's Gully by a party of climbers who descended it in 1950. There are, of course, countless other routes that require ropes and equipment, but since I had decided to forgo all that, I had to count on being able to find and successfully descend Gorin’s Gully.
I climbed most of the way back up Botella Azul to a saddle on its north ridge, where I could once again look down into Cañón Diablo. There were three distinct chutes descending from this saddle, and I had no way of knowing which was the correct one. The first chute looked too steep, even from the top, so I moved on. At the second chute there was an old battered straw hat hanging in a tree. Was it there to mark the proper route? The chute looked broad and less steep than the first. I decided I would try it for some distance, and if it didn't seem right I could back out or traverse over to the third chute.
I descended 500 or 600 feet, and the chute gradually narrowed and became more rocky. Just below me I could see there were vertical walls on both sides, which could be a warning of a steep drop. But I had begun noticing large tracks in the loose duff, and I figured if some large animal had come this way, then I could too. The chute continued to narrow until I was picking my way down nearly vertical sections, then crawling under patches of live oak. I was becoming very suspicious of this route when I heard the clattering of rocks below me and looked down to see four tawny-colored shapes bounding toward me, one after another, then veering sharply up the ridge. Pretty rough country for deer, I thought. But as I looked more closely, the four shapes became the strangest deer I had ever seen. Their legs were half as long as deer, their bodies twice as stout, and instead of the familiar forked antlers, two of the animals had thick racks that swept back and curled under.
They were gone in seconds, and I stood there wondering how an animal as large as a bighorn sheep could move that fast in country this steep. It seemed impossible. Then I began wondering why they had tied uphill, when the easiest move would have been to continue on downhill. In a few more minutes, I had my answer. The route terminated in a drop-off of 150 feet or more. It was a dead end, and the sheep knew it. I turned around and followed the route they had shown me across the ridge and into Gorin’s Gully. Perhaps the sheep had a different name for it, but they knew it well, just the same.
I continued to follow the sheep tracks for an hour or so. The sun had gone behind Botella Azul, casting a cool shadow over the gully. Now and then I caught a glimpse of El Picacho to the east, and its features gradually became sharper, more vivid. An alpenglow slowly lit it up in colors of orange and pink, and I started to feel as if I were entering the mountain’s sphere of influence. Toward the bottom, Gorin’s Gully became steeper. At one point I came to a sandy flat above a hundred-foot drop-off where a mountain lion had spent the night. It seemed he had become frustrated in his attempt to descend the gully, and in the morning he had defecated on his bed in disgust. I was able to pick my way around the steep section and continue on.
One thing that disturbed me about this route was that there was no evidence of anybody else having come this way: no gum wrappers, no Vibram-soled footprints, no shreds of clothing, nothing. I began to worry, too, that there might not be any water in Cañón Diablo. I had started with a gallon but was now down to two quarts. If it was dry at the bottom, would I have enough water to spend the night, and still make it out the next day? Not likely.
After a while I came to a rock cairn — “ducks,” they are called — obviously left by another climber. It was not reassuring. The trouble with following somebody else’s ducks is that they may lead you to where you want to go, or they may just as likely lead you to a pile of bleached bones wearing a backpack. All they really tell you is that some soul passed this way. They don't tell you if he made it any farther, or if he came back.
Just before dusk, and about 200 feet above the canyon floor, I heard the sound of running water. I could smell it too, cool and fresh. As much as I needed to find a camp before dark, I had to have some of that water first. I picked my way over jumbles of red boulders and old jackstrawed cedar trees to the creek, which was flowing through thick foliage higher than my head. At the edge of a deep pool I let my pack slip to the ground, pulled off my shirt, and knelt down to drink. I was immediately stung over my face and arms by stinging nettle. I recoiled in pain. Cursing my stupidity, I picked up a stick and beat back the nettle until I could get my face near the water. But there was no pleasure in drinking now, and as I filled my belly out of need, I thought, God, this is hard country.
In the darkness, I found the camp that climbers call Cedaroak. It was on a small beach beside the creek, directly across from the route up El Picacho, which was no longer visible. I started a small fire, made a bowl of soup, rinsed my filthy socks in the creek, and lay down to try to sleep. But with my arms and face still stinging from the nettle, sleep was out of the question. Mostly I just lay there in a daze, trying to figure out what it was that was so strange about this place. Was it just because I was alone?
Fourteen years I worked for the National Park Service, and if I came to understand anything about wilderness in that time, it was that there are certain places where people don’t belong. Freaks of geography, enchanted or bedeviled, or the earth’s way of keeping its own counsel — however they are explained, these places are always irresistible. But if you go there, you’d better be goddamn careful.
Nature is rarely the idyllic place many people want it to be. That’s why so many of them die in our parks and forests every year. Seduced by the beauty and grandeur, they never realize how horribly cruel nature can be, until it's too late. Maybe I 'll be one of them. But if I ever die in the wilderness, I hope they never find me. I would rather end up in a coyote's turd than a silk-lined coffin. It's been a long time since humans were part of the food chain, but that's the real meaning of getting back to nature. And the real meaning of wilderness is that our own lives and deaths are not that important.
Around midnight a high wind started raging down the canyon . It wasn't a storm coming, just the difference in pressure between the mountains and desert. But there was something eerie about the way it stayed a hundred feet off the canyon floor. I could hear it snapping the tops out of cedar trees above me, yet it was so calm down below that the fire didn’t even flicker.
I thought of Donald McLain, the topographer, miner, and mountaineer who first climbed El Picacho in 1911. He climbed alone, up the north ridge, without any gear other than a revolver, some dried food, a poncho, and a heavy coat. No proof of his ascent was ever found, other than his word; but the people who knew him said that was enough. What thoughts did he have wandering about in this country by himself? Did the mountain and this canyon seem as strange and forbidding to him as it does to me?
I thought about old Norman Clyde, now dead and gone. I recalled seeing his ornate signature — a schoolteacher s hand — on top of so many peaks in the Sierra Nevada. He made more than 200 first ascents around the world in his lifetime and came back from all of them. He climbed Mt. Whitney more than fifty times. Once, he climbed from the Owens Valley at 4000 feet, to the top of Mt. Williamson, over 14,000 feet, and back down again in the same day. He and four other climbers made the first proven ascent of El Picacho del Diablo in June of 1932. Leaving from a meadow north of Botella Azul, they thought they could follow the southwest ridge to the top and be back in camp that evening. But it proved to be a poor route, and after encountering obstacle after obstacle, they ran out of water a thousand feet below the summit and had to turn back. They were able to find a pool of water by starlight, but had no food. On the following day they tried again. This time they reached the summit, but it required another full day without food for them to make it back to their base camp.
If Norman Clyde, one of the finest and most dedicated climbers of his era, could have such an ordeal on El Picacho, what would be the fate of a dabbler like me?
In the early morning I finally slept, but it wasn't a restful sleep. I was climbing the mountain the whole time, going out to wrestle with my fate. Funny how you can be asleep and afraid at the same time. At the slightest sound of the wind I would awaken, startled, tense, already exhausted before the day had begun.
At four o'clock the moon came over the mountain. It was in its last quarter, but still bright and clear. It occurred to me that this was the day of the summer solstice — the longest day of the year. I suspected I would need every minute of it. An hour later the canyon finally started to get light, and the wind stopped as abruptly as it had begun. I got up and filled my water bottles from the creek, ate a handful of granola (horse feed, full of power), stashed the rest of my gear in a rock crevice, pulled on my day pack, crossed the creek, and started up the mountain.
The entire character of the terrain changed as soon as I crossed the creek. Everything on the other side of the canyon had been metamorphic rock, old and tired, twisted, shattered, tortured — all the earth's past agonies worn down and compressed into layers of disillusionment. But everything on the El Picacho side was made of granite, pearly white and luminescent, new, clean, the energy of a hyperactive teenager. The route followed a boulder-strewn wash that was still dark and cool from the night. If followed, it led to the serrated ridge that had frustrated Norman Clyde and so many other climbers after him. The trick was to climb about 500 feet, then traverse north over a curious bald dome — called the Teapot — that juts out from the belly of the mountain. The climbing became gradually, almost imperceptibly more difficult, until I realized I was taking chances I had promised myself I wouldn't take.
Once on top of the Teapot, though I still couldn't see the summit of El Picacho, I gained a view of the Slot Wash route which would lead me to the top. The climbing looked less technical from here on, which was encouraging, yet the mountain somehow seemed even bigger. Yesterday, in the bright afternoon sun, it had looked so close, so sharp and vivid. But now that I was on the mountain, seeing it in the dim morning light, it seemed huge and unreasonably distant, and I realized that I had been tricked, that yesterday’s closeness had only been an illusion.
I thought about Carmen, still asleep. If something happened to me, would she be able to find her way out? I was unsure. All of a sudden it seemed foolish to be here. Irresponsible, even selfish. Turning around and going back seemed like the only sensible thing to do. But then I began to realize that being alone had distorted my perception. If a friend had been along, we would have laughed, goaded, and teased each other along. The danger of going alone is that you must be able to provide your own motivation. In solitude there is nobody left to fool, and goals seem like so much vanity. It simply did not matter whether I climbed this mountain or not. I changed my mind every ten steps. Go on. Go back. What did I want out of this? What did I expect? Is it indulgent to want something just for yourself?
Admitting that I didn't have to climb was the best motivation possible. I continued on for no other reason than that I was alive, not dead yet, and if I wanted to do something completely foolish, that was nobody’s business but my own. My seduction by wilderness was complete.
My eye caught a rock cairn, then another beyond it — the first I had seen on the mountain. With new energy I picked my way around the Teapot, and within thirty minutes I was in the Slot Wash.
The Slot Wash is something like climbing an elevator shaft. It’s a steep-walled chute that hides all view of the mountain's top and flanks. It provided many small obstacles, but overall, the climbing was not difficult. I no longer felt in danger, though I could see I was in for a long test of endurance. I felt joyful. This is what I had trained for. All the miles of running, leading to one true test. I climbed for two hours, only stopping to drink from my water bottles. I got a lucky break when I found a spring trickling into a pool of clear water. I was able to refill my bottles and knew that water wouldn't be a problem for the rest of the climb.
At about 9000 feet I began to feel mildly lightheaded. The chute forked, and I veered left into what the climbers call Wall Street. I stopped to catch my breath, and looking back to the west I could see the other side of Cañón Diablo, now lit up by the morning sun. Already it looked hot. As I got higher, I thought less about what I was doing. The body knew what to do, and thinking about it only got in the way. I watched my feet plodding upward, almost amused by their stubbornness. My hands were raw from grasping the rough granite, and my fingers ached, but it was like an ache that belonged to somebody else.
And then the sun shone in my face. It was so bright I had to shield my eyes, and as I stumbled around looking for my next move, I realized there were no more moves. How odd it seemed: being on top of a mountain means you can’t go any higher.
I looked at my watch. It was nine o’clock. I was standing on the highest point in Baja — the highest point for hundreds of miles in every direction. To the west I could see the Pacific Ocean, misty and green. To the east I could see the Gulf of California, blue and clear. How did I ever get here?
I found the register under a rock, and read a few of the entries, most of them by young climbers in large parties. I got the feeling their experience had been different from my own. “The ultimate in gnarliness!” they said. “Totally unreal!” I signed my name, then promptly fell asleep in the shade of a boulder, and slept for more than an hour.
A lot of climbers don’t take descending a mountain seriously enough. Without ropes, descents can be more tricky than ascents because you can't always see your footholds — you have to trust your toes to find them. It requires patience and care, but without the obvious reward of reaching a mountaintop. About a third of the way down the mountain, I allowed my attention to wander for a moment, and suddenly I was lying on my back ten feet below where I had just been. I lost a patch of skin from my palm, but other than that I was unhurt. I wrapped my hand in a handkerchief and continued on, grateful for the gentle reminder to be more alert.
Before long the sun came over the top of El Picacho and changed the character of the mountain from alpine to desert. The descent was hot and tedious. I reached my camp at Cedar-oak at one. The canyon was perhaps ninety-five degrees. I took off my clothes, which were now in shreds, and collapsed in the creek, where I drank and drank until I was bloated and nauseated. Then I tiptoed over the hot sand, found my sleeping bag, and dragged it into the shade of a live oak, where I slept as well as I could with hungry gnats buzzing in and out of every naked orifice.
I should have slept the rest of the afternoon, and night, but somehow I couldn’t. When the body is close to exhaustion, there seems to be a compulsion to push it along the rest of the way, like a late-night party that makes its own decision to go on to dawn. My fun was over. I had done what I came here to do, and now I felt a responsibility to get back to Carmen. Trying to rest was hopeless. I waited until the sun was close to dipping below the ridge to the west, loaded my pack with fresh water, and started the 3000-foot climb out of Cañón Diablo.
I soon began to realize just how close I was to the limits of my endurance. The muscles in my legs refused to fire simultaneously, giving me that peculiar and wobbly gait called sewing-machine knee. I would stop for a moment to rest, and suddenly I would catch myself staring blankly at a crack in the rocks or the cuts on my hands, dreaming while awake. I began getting lost in thoughts which seemed to demand the most profound attention at the time, but later only seemed incoherent at best: “Do the bighorns ever get lost?” “Look how the handholds and footholds are all spaced within my reach, as though the earth were made to my proportions." "Funny how these trees don't look Mexican."
In my more lucid moments it occurred to me that I was now in my greatest danger: exhausted, fuzzy-headed, with less than two quarts of water left, and a great deal of difficult terrain between me and the nearest human being. There was nothing I could do except keep moving.
A thousand feet. The mountain lion’s bed. Sheep tracks. Two thousand feet. I remember that juniper tree. One quart of water left. Twenty-five hundred feet. Aspen trees. Cool breezes.
The sun was setting just as I got to the saddle with the tattered straw hat hanging in the tree. I knew I would be okay, now. If my legs gave out, I could drag myself down the other side. I entered a state of elation that lasted for days and days.
Camp was less than a mile away, but after going uphill all afternoon, my legs refused to reverse the order of their work. I lurched along, supported more by the thick manzanita than by my own strength.
A half-mile away I could see the blue smoke of our campfire. I could smell food, and it made me realize I hadn't eaten anything since dawn.
Two hundred yards away, and I could see Carmen’s silhouette against the skyline. She was standing over the fire holding a cooking pot. I called out, "Carmen!" She was so startled she dropped the pot.