El Picacho: take 2

Joined: February 12th, 2014, 9:35 am

October 30th, 2017, 12:02 am #1

So this is becoming a MacGuffin for me. After the previous fiasco I went back to Baja to try El Picacho again. To keep it unreasonable/interesting, I want to do this as a day trip. As it turns out, this is very difficult.

So anyway, I went with a friend this time. When we made it to the park, the gate was open! I went to talk to the ranger, and had my single-longest ever conversation in Spanish (a language I'm barely functional in). It went something like this:

  me: I want to pay for 2 nights of camping

  ranger: OK, give me some number of pesos.

  me: Great. Is there water at Campo Noche?

  ranger: No, where are you going?

  me: El Picacho

  ranger: El Picacho???!?!!!???? Have you been there before?

  me: Not yet. Is there water at the camp?

  ranger: You can't make it there. It takes 3 days

  me: I know, but I want to try to do it in a day

  ranger: That's impossible. You can't do it

  me: Then we'll come back without summitting

  ranger: You can't do it

  me: We're strong. I just want to know about the water

  ranger: There is no water anywhere

  me: Isn't there a creek at the camp?

  ranger: You can't got to El Picacho if you don't know the route

  me: I know the route. I have a map and several GPS devices with tracks. Is there no water NOW or no water EVER?

  ranger: Well, there's snow sometimes

  me: OK... Is there snow now?

  ranger: No, not yet (obviously)

and so on. The language barrier certainly didn't help, but mostly it was just the dude being difficult. Before I got out of there, he made us sign disclaimer forms, made us promise to check in when we were done, and took our photos, presumably to make the bodies easier to identify. So anyway. We drove to the trailhead at 8000-9000ft (the unpaved road is in fine condition), had a quick dinner, and went to bed.

I really didn't believe him about the water, since all reports I've read talk about refilling at the camp, and this was the season to climb this peak. But he's the ranger, and I'm some dude who's here for only 2 days. So when we started out the next morning, we carried ridiculous amounts of water, just in case. I carried 9L. Speaking of starting out, the plan was to leave at 4AM, but for some reason we ended up leaving at 5AM. Too much morning coffee or something.

There are 3 main sections to this route:

- First, you stay more or less on high ground, gaining maybe 1000ft until you get to a prominent saddle that overlooks the Eastern half of the peninsula.

- Then you lose ~ 3000ft climbing down a steep gully to get to camp

- The you climb steeply up ~ 4000ft to the main peak

And then you do all of that backwards.

Everything I've read suggests that there's no real trail anywhere, so when we diverged a bit from the GPS track early on, we didn't make an attempt to stay on the track, since the route was obvious, and we were making progress. At some point we found a good use trail that took us all the way to the saddle. On the way back we made an effort to milk this trail as much as possible, and apparently it goes from almost the trailhead to the saddle. So for future travelers: if you're climbing over stuff during this first section, quit goofing off and go find the trail:

It took just under 3 hours to get to the saddle. Not the greatest time, but not terrible either. Did quite a bit of scrambling over stuff already at this point, and with the heavy pack felt a bit tired already. But the sun had come up now, and the views were nice!

The peak was now visible:

The high point is the leftmost bump. I THINK the ascent route is hidden behind one of the minor ridges.

We stopped a bit for food, and started descending. The reports advise strongly to avoid dropping down the gully directly in front of the saddle, but to contour to the right instead, and drop into the next gully. The first gully cliffs out, or something. There was a faint use trail dropping into the correct gully, so there were no navigation challenges here.

The gully has no real trail. It is STEEP and full of large boulders.

We passed by SOS camp

Pretty nice views for much of the descent:

Descending with a heavy pack is very taxing, and it didn't feel much easier than an ascent would have been. The large pack also kept catching on the rocks and brush, and it was really in the way in the numerous 3rd class sections. We slowed down a lot, and by the time we made it to camp (in 3 hours), we clearly didn't have enough energy left to go to the peak AND then return to the trailhead in any sort of reasonable time. Doing this in two days was entirely feasible, but one was too much. Michelle wanted to grab the peak and then just sleep out, and return the next day, but I was entirely unprepared for this. Besides, my goal was to day-hike this thing, and this wasn't that. The camp was really nice, and here's what the dry stream looks like:

That $%^%$# ranger! We lounged for a bit, and climbed up towards the peak until we hit our turnaround time. Took our sweet time, made one big wrong turn, and ended up completing only 1000ft of the final 4000ft climb. This final section is as advertised: very steep, very brushy, full of many wrong turns, and many right turns (many different options ducked out and/or flagged-out). We didn't even get to the technically-challenging stuff, but I'm sure that wouldn't be a problem. The saddle and gully we descended were clearly visible from the slope:

The return was brutal. We aimed to be out of the gully before dark, which turned out to be an excellent idea. While there were no navigation challenges descending the gully, this wasn't true on the climb, since it was now on us to make sure to stay in the correct branch. We picked the wrong channel a few times, and did a lot more 3rd-class climbing than we did on the way down. The whole upper section was done in the dark. This time, we followed the GPS track as faithfully as was humanly possible, and it led us around all the crap, directly to the car.

We were out for 19 hours. The main problem is that this required peak fitness, and we just didn't have it. Some smaller things didn't make it any better: I still had a cold, we were carrying WAY too much weight, and I didn't eat/drink enough while on the trail. Oh, and instead of leaving at 5, we probably should have left at 3. So yeah. This was miserable, but I think it's doable, and I now know what is required. Will come back probably next year to do it properly.

Resident Trailcam Guy
Resident Trailcam Guy
Joined: April 11th, 2013, 11:07 pm

November 3rd, 2017, 10:46 pm #2

The more I read about this hike, the harder it is to see how this could be done in one day. Super ambitious. Other than the very beginning, I wouldn't want to be in the dark for any of it. The route finding looks very hard during the day. The good news is you have a lot of information now so it will be easier next time. Thanks for the report.

Joined: October 11th, 2014, 5:02 pm

November 4th, 2017, 12:33 am #3

My hat is off to dima for his epic.  But I think Big Picacho is a three day trip.  In addition to the challenges he described, the summit climb is notorious for becoming 5th class quickly if you deviate from the 3rd class route.

Joined: October 11th, 2014, 5:02 pm

November 6th, 2017, 4:57 pm #4

In my post above, I said that I think Big Picacho is a three day trip.  Reading it again, that statement could be misinterpreted or taken as a challenge, so I would like to add a few comments below.

I suspect some people have done Big Picacho in one day, and I suspect dima would be able to do it in one day on his third try.  But look at the numbers on his second try.  They were out for 19 hours, and turned back 3,000 feet short of the summit.  Above them was the 3rd class rock route, surrounded by 4th and 5th class rock, and requiring good route finding.  I am sure the route finding is easier today, thanks to ducks, GPS, topographical maps, and route descriptions and trip reports on the web.  But dima still had some problems on the approach, and the route finding higher up is a more serious issue.

So my advice for first-timers is to plan for a three day trip, if you want it to be safe, successful and enjoyable.  It is a wild, beautiful and remote area, a bit different from either our Southern California mountains or the Sierras, take the time to enjoy it.  But not a place to be stumbling around in the dark.  With three days, you should be back to the car by noon on the third day, giving you plenty of time for the long drive home.  Don't worry about making it too easy, it will still be challenging.  It is a mountaineer's peak, not a hike.