Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir
Amended from Discover Baja online newsletter, June 2011
What used to be sixty miles of sometimes rough, dusty, washboardy dirt road to reach the Parque Nacional de San Pedro Mártir and Mexico’s National Observatory at the end of the road is now a pleasant drive… or at least it was until the new paved road was severely damaged by torrential rains that hit the area in January 2010.
It is still passable with care if you keep your speed down, especially on blind curves, watch out for diversions, boulders and rock falls, and stay away from the edge of the tarmac.
And as you begin your final ascent up the steep face of the mountains keep an eye open for California condors. This is probably the best place in the world to see North America’s largest flying birds. Last June, my wife and I spotted five of them perched on a little ridge forty or fifty yards away!
The stats for North America’s largest flying bird are well known and impressive—wingspan over 9 feet, weighing up to 25 pounds, capable of soaring at over 50 mph and roaming over 150 miles a day. But knowing all that hardly prepares you for the spectacle of seeing and hearing these giant carrion feeders close up. On my latest trip I saw another six condors. My normally bold little corgi companion was certainly impressed as they sounded like gliders whoosing overhead. She hid under the pickup while I did my best to capture the show with my camera.
About fifty miles from Highway 1, you come to the gate at the park entrance. A series of signs invite you to stop, sign in and pay your entrance fee, which is currently 50 pesos a day—about $4.25US. Children under 6, seniors over 60, and disabled persons are exempt. An annual “passport” is available for all the parks in Mexico, including the islands of the Sea of Cortez for less than $30 US, but may not be available there at the park.
The camping zone is close to the entrance—there are turnoffs both north and south of the road. Most campsites are within a mile of the road, and are well equipped with bench seats and tables, trash bins, barbecues, and pit toilets.
Fires are allowed in the camping areas and are very welcome as nights can be below freezing, even in the summer. Bringing firewood into the park is not permitted or necessary. With so few visitors, there is generally an abundance of wood for burning.
I enjoyed a terrific week camped there at 8500 feet. The park ranger, Alfredo, informed me that three or four inches of snow had fallen two days before I arrived… and much of it was still on the ground.
The first night was brutally cold. As soon as the sun dipped below the horizon a bowl of water turned to ice. Although I had a roaring evening campfire, I felt like I was sleeping in a freezer that night.
It warmed up after that - clear blue skies, day temperatures in the 60s and 70s... and temps not dropping below the mid-30s at night.
Every peak and ridge offered wonderful views of Picacho Diablo, Baja's high point at over 10,000 feet. Pili the corgi loved it... after a long hot hike up and down ridges through the pine forest and chasing coyotes she liked to spread herself out on the snow to chill while master enjoyed a cold one.
The Sierra de San Pedro Mártir is a great place to bring a well-behaved dog. The open, park-like, old growth pine forest is relatively easy to traverse on foot. But be aware that coyote encounters are common, and mountain lions are seen occasionally. A few years ago, on a wild and windy day, my dog at the time suddenly came nose to nose with a very surprised bobcat. Fortunately, the bobcat recovered its senses first and disappeared behind a granite outcrop before the dog had a chance to react.
Several well-marked and well-maintained trails radiate around the camping areas and from the park roads, but the San Pedro Mártir invites exploration in every direction with many ridges and hills and viewpoints to enjoy. A GPS is recommended if you are planning long hikes. And I always carry tweezers and small scissors to remove pine sap from paws.
A few miles inside the park there is a rustic little roadside chapel on a rocky elevation dedicated to Saint Peter (Capilla de San Pedro). The venerated image within is adorned with the symbol of the key and the crowing cock. Unfortunately, and perhaps understandably, the shrine “on this rock” celebrates the wrong San Pedro.
The park and the mountain range are named after Peter of Verona, a 13th-century Italian Dominican monk, murdered by persecuted Cathar heretics. The Dominican mission established in these mountains in 1794 was the highest in all of the Californias and was named in his honor. Saint Peter Martyr, the first Dominican martyr, had the dubious distinction of being the patron saint of the Inquisition.
Trip to the Sierra de San Pedro Martir - August 2012
Baja California’s New Museum
Inaugurated August 9, 2012
At the beginning of August 2012 I returned to the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir National Park with Pili my corgi, worthy successor to Penny and Pedro who accompanied me on my summer 2001 stay in the park, and whose photos, of course, adorn the cover of Nearer My Dog to Thee.
Pili had lots of fun being teased by the squirrels and growling at coyotes while she followed me and occasionally led me as I hiked through pine forest and meadow and up and down granite boulders.
Normally I like to visit a little earlier in the year when it’s not too hot and there’s maybe a few patches of snow still on the ground, but we gave it a try for early August hoping to avoid any dramatic rain and hail from the monsoonal storms that affect the area in high summer.
It rained on us most days, but mostly lightly and predictably between 2 to 5 PM. Otherwise the gathering thunderheads just provided welcome midday shade, cooling breezes and a fantastic energy in the forest. Certainly my brave little corgi didn’t seem too bothered by all the booms and rumblings as other areas of the mountains were getting hammered by lightning strikes and torrential rain.
The rangers and staff of the “Parque Nacional de San Pedro Mártir” were as friendly and helpful as ever. They informed me that the "Visitor’s Center" which has been sitting empty and in need of a little TLC for ten years was finally going to open on August 9, 2012. Nearly all the park staff would be in attendance, and many dignitaries would be there along with reporters from Baja newspapers and television crews - possibly even the governor of BC himself!
Even though the governor never showed, it turned out to be quite an event and the museum was finished and ready for its inauguration. A helicopter came and went, there were academic and political dignitaries from Mexicali, Ensenada, La Paz and Mexico City, and plenty of speeches about the importance of conservation and educating visitors from Benito Bermudez, regional director of CONANP, Juan Rafael Elvira Quezada, Secretary of SEMARNAT, and Efraín Nieblas Ortiz, the Secretary for the Protection of the Environment of Baja California which has direct responsibility for the park.
The blue ribbon was cut, the doors were open and sixty people poured inside to appreciate the work and investment that has been put into making this Museum well worth a visit. Galleries and rooms told of the region’s geological and natural history, its peoples, the early explorations by missionaries, soldiers, scientific expeditions, and the work being conducted at the Observatory and the California condor project.
For such an out of the way location, the quality of the Museum testifies to the vision that strives to conserve the San Pedro Mártir for future generations… and bring as many as 10,000 more visitors to the park each year!
I have mixed feelings about that of course… but after twenty years of being enthralled and delighted by this very special piece of protected Baja real estate, I’ll be content if there’s a quiet spot for me and my dog to camp and explore next year.
To get to the museum follow the road through the park towards the Observatory and you’ll find it on your left past the Tasajera turn, just before you reach Vallecitos. It’s described as the Centro de Cultura para la Conservacion on the park map given to visitors. However, the sign outside declares Museo de Cultura e Historia Natural.
Picacho Diablo Attempt
May 2013: The goal - to hike and climb to the top of Picacho Diablo, Baja's highest mountain at 10,124 feet.
My companions: Roger Jacobs (age 72) and Ronnie Christian (age 70)
As expected, it didn’t go quite according to plan... but what a fantastic Baja adventure it turned out to be, and what a pair of tough old Baja adventurers they were.
Roger was good enough to let us leave our vehicles at his house in Ensenada and he then drove us to the Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park. Ronnie had driven to Ensenada from his home in Laredo, Texas.
We arrived at the park May 23, and set out mid-morning on Friday, May 24 to begin the long heavy haul from the Padre Kino campsite with five days supply of food and a few pints of water each. We intended to camp at the Botella Azul trailhead, and then next evening down in the bottom of Canyon Diablo, at Campo Noche, where there is plenty of water.
The temperature was probably in the upper 70s as we made our way through the pine and aspen forest. It was predictably tough going with rugged, steep slopes and many fallen trees to deal with. As agreed, we settled on an easy pace to minimize risk of injury, and we all knew the odds were long that we would make it all the way to the summit, and we might not even make it to Campo Noche.
Five hours or so into the attempt, at a spring before we reached Blue Bottle, we caught up with a party of Mexican hikers who were en route to Picacho. While they pushed on, we filtered water and assessed our situation.
Thinking about what we had passed through and the long steep drop to the canyon bottom ahead, Roger reluctantly but very wisely decided to abandon his quest, camp for the night by the spring and return to the vehicle next morning.
Ronnie at 70 knew if he didn’t get to the summit now, it would probably never happen. So we agreed that he would continue and try to hook up with the Mexican party ahead, and I would return with Roger the next morning.
A couple of hours later Ronnie made it all the way up to the Blue Bottle trailhead, met the group there who kindly agreed to let him join them… but having second thoughts and worried that he might slow them down, he decided to race the night all the way back to where we were camped.
Darkness fell before he found us and Ronnie made camp alone just a few hundred yards from where we were. Luckily, Roger and I were in no hurry to leave next morning, and Ronnie wandered up just as we were finishing breakfast and packing up.
Ironically, at midnight that night, by the light of a full moon, a couple of young Mexicans set out from Padre Kino attempting to set a record for the fastest climb of Picacho Diablo from the Kino campground. They had support crew at Blue Bottle, at Campo Noche and up on Picacho. We heard the two record chasers rushing by around 1 AM. What took us five hours took them a little over an hour!
In spite of our disappointment, it was a good feeling to be all back together... and then four or five hours later safely back in camp. We had arrived in time to applaud the record-setting duo’s triumphant return. They had made it to the peak and back in 15 hours and 25 minutes. They were greeted by their friends and family and “observers.” There was quite a party with beer and wonderful food. We were graciously invited to partake. The quesadillas and ceviche were great after a day subsisting on trail mix and cereal bars.
While Roger recovered and enjoyed a couple of less arduous hikes, Ronnie and I explored the edge of Canyon Diablo and peered wistfully over at the peak, examining the route we hoped to one day take.
And just for a few moments we caught sight of a figure standing triumphantly on the summit. We guessed correctly it was one of the party that Ronnie nearly joined.
Last day, Ronnie and I hiked to the top of Blue Bottle to further contemplate the route to Picacho and dream and scheme about another attempt.
Roger felt terrible about not going further but at least he tried and did what he did, a fantastic achievement at 72, and he was sensible enough to know his limits and take heed of what his legs were telling him.
And I felt privileged to camp in the peace of the San Pedro Martir with two amazing seniors… listening to tales of Roger’s life as an agricultural inspector and Ronnie’s teaching stories and tales of army service with a heavy mortar battalion and the 82nd Airborne.
As they say, the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. It was a peak experience even if we didn’t make it to the top of Baja.
On Saturday, May 25, 2013 two tall, young Mexicans set out at midnight from the Padre Kino camping area in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir hoping to hike from the plateau down to the bottom of Canyon Diablo and immediately up to the top of Picacho del Diablo and back again to Padre Kino... all in under 24 hours.
Their goal was to establish an officially verified and sanctioned record, and possibly make it into the Guinness Book of Records.
Victor Manuel Lopez Meza, (Rayo de Ensenada) age 31, had been to Picacho peak 7 times, and had been traveling and guiding on and around the mountain for over ten years.
His companion Luis Felipe Vea Ávalos 23 (Skywalker) had met Victor just a month before. But in that time he totally committed himself to the project, training hard every day. It was his first climb of Picacho.
An unexpected and worrying problem they had early on was with their headlights. Night travel in such rugged conditions was hazardous enough but when their lights started to fail they lost 45 minutes finding a fix and were fearful they would not be able to set the record.
After they had reached the top of Picacho Diablo, and were heading back down tired and thirsty, there was another anxious time as Felipe started to have cramps. Victor said he was motivated both by establishing the record and ensuring that Felipe made it safely back as his mother and father were waiting for him in camp.
At the successful completion of their journey, both Victor and Felipe humbly expressed their gratitude to each other, and to all the people who helped them reach their goal. They acknowledged that they could not have done it without their six man support team out there awaiting them in the dark at Botella Azul, Campo Noche and on Picacho itself with food, water, and medicine.
They were grateful for the support and backing of the park authorities who made available access to the Padre Kino area and all park facilities. And they were sending Spot location signals via satellite to the park authorities and also wilderness and mountain rescue groups in the area who were ready to assist if needed.
But above all, both men thanked their families and friends there to cheer them off into the night and anxiously await their return. That moral support clearly meant everything and it was wonderful to be there for the emotional cheers, hugs, and tears as the record setters (and later their support crews) wandered back from their exertions and adventures.
Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir personnel issued them an official certificate verifying that they had returned in less than 24 hours. Indeed, they made the journey in an amazing 15 hours and 25 minutes, much of it in the dark, a mind-blowing achievement to all those who know the terrain. It is a record that may and should last for many, many years.
The joy and celebrations were infectious… and these wonderful people kindly and graciously invited Roger and Ronnie and me – we had just returned from our own hike along that trail - to join them for a delicious forest banquet of quesadillas, ceviche, beans and salsa.
It was a day to remember, and we wish “Rayo de Ensenada” and “Skywalker” good luck and happy trails for all their future adventures and record setting events.
Hello Diablo...It´s Me Again
By Ron Christian When I was a kid, my dad took me and my brother on several hiking trips in the mountains of Tennessee and I grew
to enjoy the great outdoors. Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone were two of my heroes.
As I grew into adulthood, I retained the love for roaming and exploring the woods and mountains. After joining the army and a spell in the Airborne, I settled into a teaching career.
When I retired in 1991, I read a book entitled "Into a Desert Place" by Graham Mackintosh. His long solo hike around the coast of Baja inspired me to the point that I went to Baja and hiked the first 100 miles of his trip. I was hooked. I vowed to return to Baja someday to continue exploring.
My brother and I hiked the Appalachian Trail in its entirety in 1994. A year later we hiked and hitch-hiked our way from Mexicali all the way to Cabo San Lucas. Following further backpacking trips in the USA and Mexico, I decided to make an attempt to climb the highest peak in Baja, the dramatic 10,000 foot Picacho del Diablo.
Such is the pull of that mountain and such are the challenges of the climb, I was soon looking back on four failed attempts to make it to the peak.
There are two well established routes. One from the high San Pedro Martir National Park, which involves dropping down thousands of feet into the bottom of Canyon Diablo, and overnighting in the canyon at Campo Noche, the usual “basecamp” for the attempt on the mountain. The other route involves starting down in the desert and hiking 14-15 miles up Canyon Diablo to Campo Noche and picking up the trail there. The arduous slog up the canyon was a familiar route for me, and it takes so much out of you I had never got beyond Campo Noche.
On my fourth attempt, from the park, in May 2013, I had the privilege of hiking with Graham Mackintosh and Roger Jacobs. Unfortunately, we never made it, but Graham and I did hike to the top of Blue Bottle Peak (Botella Azul), the highest point in the San Pedro Martir National Park. We stared longingly across the canyon to Picacho. It seemed so close, I could almost reach out and touch it.
For my fifth and last try, in May of 2014, I chose the desert route again, and decided to make it a solo attempt.
Attempting it alone at age 71 would be asking a lot, but I was determined.
And so my troubles began...
I had driven over from my home in Laredo, Texas. First problem was where to leave my car.
Prior to my trip, I had gotten permission from a Baja friend to park my car at his winter home at Campo Ocotillo, a few miles north of San Felipe. He wouldn’t be there but I was assured the owner of the Campo would keep an eye on it. I planned to hitch-hike the 25 miles back north from his house to the starting point for my hike.
Day 1 Sunday...May 11, 2014
On the way down to San Felipe, I noticed a restaurant located a half mile from my starting point. I suddenly got the idea to pull over and ask the owner if I could leave my car at his place for ten days or so.
I introduced myself to Reuben, who ran the Michoacán restaurant, explained my need and offered to pay him. He accepted the deal.
I thought about driving to my friend’s place to leave a message with the owner of Campo Ocotillo that I wouldn’t be parking my car there after all.
Mindful that it was late in the day I decided not to… thinking that I could drive to the Campo after I got back and explain why I did what I did.
Reuben asked me what he should do if I didn't return after the 10 days. I asked him to drive to Campo Ocotillo and contact April, the owner of the Camp, and let her know that I hadn't returned at the scheduled time. She would then relay the message to my friend and he could notify others of the situation.
I left Reuben a notebook with the names and phone numbers of my family and friends. I entered the coordinates for the trailhead in my Garmin e-Trex 10 GPS, adjusted the length of my hiking pole, checked my watch for the time (4:00 P.M.) and finally hoisted my pack on my back.
We shook hands, and off I went to begin the hike. I had two or three hours of daylight left.
A twenty mile hot dusty road stared me in the face as I looked southward anticipating the hike to the man-made desert oasis known as "Jose's store."
I felt confident that the four quarts of water in my pack was sufficient to get me to the store where I could replenish my water supply.
The pack was heavy. I brought a seven-day supply of food assuming that I would be off the mountain and out of the canyon by the end of the seventh day. Once I reached the canyon creek, I would no longer need to carry so much water. Water would be available all the way up Diablo Canyon to Campo Noche.
The road was well graded with a firm road-bed. There was no deep sand to suck the life out of my legs as I trudged along.
To my right and up ahead awesome and majestic mountains rose into the fading blue sky. Down in the desert, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but sand, scrub bushes, cactus, rocks, and a few short scrawny trees.
By seven o'clock, the sun had dropped behind the mountains and the coolness of the evening air began to spread across the desert. I set up camp about fifty feet from the road.
I spread out my ground cloth and my self-inflating mat on a patch of sand. I didn't bring my tent but instead brought a nylon tarp for sun and rain protection. I’d only set it up when needed.
When I pulled my sleeping bag from its compression sack, I was shocked to see that it was not my 20 degree rated bag. It was my 45 degree bag! A 45 degree bag might be fine for the desert but it would not do for the cold nights high in the mountains.
How in the heck did I bring the wrong bag? I thought about it for a while and then I remembered that after my last backpack trip, I had stuffed my 45 degree bag into my 20 degree stuff sack because it fit better.
Oh well, nothing to do but deal with it the best I could.
I opened my food bag and selected a can of sardines and peanut-butter and crackers for my supper. I found a nice flat-topped rock to sit on as I ate my simple but tasty meal.
After the meal, I sat on the rock and contemplated the hike. According to my GPS, I had walked about five miles of the dirt road, which meant another fifteen miles before reaching Jose's store. Unless I could get a ride tomorrow, that would be another whole day of hiking just to get to the store.
Then I had a further eleven mile hike to the Diablo Canyon trailhead. That could cost me another day of the seven that I had allotted myself for the trip.
The sudden sound of coyotes yipping in the night broke my train of thought and reminded me that it was time to hit the sack.
A near full moon shone above me as I eased into my sleeping bag. After the sounds of the coyotes faded, I was soon enveloped in the peace and solitude of the Baja desert.
Day 2 Monday...May 12
I woke around 6 o'clock to the sound of cows passing nearby. The night had been cool but my sleeping bag was plenty warm enough.
After a quick breakfast, I packed and continued to walk south to Jose's store.
An hour later, I heard a faint rumbling behind me. I turned and saw a plume of dust trailing an old pick-up truck.
The truck rolled up. The driver leaned out the window and asked if I wanted a ride. Before he could say another word, I threw my pack in the back of the truck, hopped in beside him and shook his hand.
We introduced ourselves as he shifted gears and slowly got underway. Gordo said that he was going to the store to buy soda, beer and snacks for a construction crew that was building an addition to his ranch house.
I told him about my planned hike. Amazed that I was attempting it alone and with no weapons, he warned me about cougars, bears, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. I thanked him for his concern and asked if he had any more comforting thoughts.
It wasn't long before we pulled up to the store and parked out front. We went inside the dimly lit interior and stood at the counter waiting for Jose to appear. Two or three minutes passed and still no Jose.
Gordo banged on the counter and called out. Suddenly, an ancient-looking figure slowly emerged from behind the counter. It was Jose and he had a light blanket wrapped over his shoulders. He said that he had been fast asleep in the back and wasn't expecting anyone, especially as it had been a week since anyone stopped by.
Jose was glad to see us and enjoyed chatting as we drank cold cokes and ate snacks.
I thanked Gordo for the ride and offered him ten dollars for gas money. He refused to take the money but I insisted… he had saved me from a whole day's hike in the oppressive desert heat.
Once again, I strapped on my pack and hit the dusty road. The temperature rose steadily. My clothes were soon drenched with sweat.
Those eleven miles to the canyon crawled by. I had to take several ten-minute breaks due to the weighty pack and the energy sapping effect of the relentless sun.
What a relief it was to finally be able to stop and set up camp. I was so tired that I didn't want to do anything but lay down and take a nap but I knew I had to eat to replace the calories my body had used during the day.
I built a fire and boiled a pot of water for my dehydrated package of rice and chicken. By the time I finished the meal and arranged my sleeping gear, the sun had disappeared and darkness had arrived.
Day 3 Tuesday...May 13
I woke early, packed up and ate two granola bars for a quick breakfast; then I followed one of the several paths that led northwest to the dry riverbed that precedes the canyon proper.
After a mile or so of rock-hopping and several arroyo crossings, I arrived at the entrance falls, the place where the canyon truly begins.
There a forceful rush of water surges over a polished granite chute plunging six feet down into a large crystal-clear eight-foot deep pool. The waterfall is situated between two smooth, steep rock walls that offer no foot or hand holds. It cannot be climbed without the aid of the steel cable that dangles from the left side of the thirty-foot long wall.
I would have to grab the cable and crab-walk along the wall to the low point of the chute where I could get my leg up and haul myself above the falls.
I tied a fifty-foot length of rope to my pack and left it on the bank next to the pool. I grasped the other end in my teeth, and gloved hands grasping the steel cable started working my way along the wall. All went well and I hauled myself up to the lip of the falls. Next, I needed to position myself higher up on the left sidewall of the falls so that I could start pulling up the backpack.
I managed to ease my way up along the steeply, slanted smooth rock face to the point where I stood directly above my pack. I was about fifteen feet up the wall and could barely keep my boots from losing their grip. I started hauling on the rope, hand over hand, and as the pack swung out over the pool it pulled me off-balance and my feet slipped out from under me.
I fell flat on my back and twisted upside down. I tried to stop my slide toward the chute and the lip of the falls but to no avail. Picking up speed, I slammed into the opposite stone wall and bounced into the chute. The force of the water shot me backwards over the falls and into the pool.
It was a shock to feel the cold water wash over me. Down I went, all the way to the bottom. Weighted down with wet clothes and boots, I was having trouble rising to the top of the pool. Eventually, I managed to break the surface and grab hold of the half-submerged backpack. I was able to reach the pull rope that was attached to the cable and this allowed me to keep my head above water. I worked my way along the wall until my feet touched bottom and I could stand up and slosh my way out of the pool.
Breathing heavily, heart racing, it took me a few minutes to calm down and assess the situation.
First I had to get out of my wet clothes and boots. With my clothes off, I noticed several abrasions on my left hip and leg. I also had abrasions on both arms but no serious damage had been done.
I needed to dump everything out of my soaked pack. It had all gotten wet: sleeping bag, GPS, camera, batteries, flashlight, extra clothing, first-aid kit, etc. I even had to set my wet pesos out to dry.
I spread it all out in the warm sun then sat butt-naked on a rock in the shade to wait for everything to dry.
Two hours passed before it was dried to my satisfaction. When I was dressed and putting everything back into the backpack, a gust of wind swept across the sand and blew half my pesos into the pool.
"Son of a biscuit-eater!" Nothing to do but take off my clothes and boots again and swim around the pool to round-up my wayward pesos. I then decided to just relax and spend a half-hour enjoying a swim and a wash in the cooling water.
Refreshed, I dressed again, finished re-loading my pack and sat down to consider my next move. I decided to attempt the cable crossing maneuver with my pack on my back instead of trying to haul it up by the rope.
Crossing the rock wall with a heavy pack would be more difficult. There was a good chance that I couldn't get enough momentum to propel myself up to the lip of the falls.
I grabbed the cable with my gloved-hands, steadied myself, counted to three and away I went. Four feet from the edge of the falls, my forward progress came to a stop. I leaned over to the right and pushed hard with my feet and slowly inched my way up and over the falls.
Yeehaw! I made it without taking another unscheduled dunk into the pool below me. I was elated as I patted myself on the back for my success.
Ten minutes later I was again faced with a water hazard. In front of me was a four- to five-foot deep pool that blocked the path up the canyon. It was situated between two steep rock walls and the only way to bypass the pool was to edge myself along one of the walls.
I eased myself along the smooth wall taking baby-steps as I moved forward. Less than halfway over, my left foot slipped. My torso hit the wall. My outstretched hands could not stop my rapid slide into the pool. "Splat"... I plunged into the water. When my boots hit bottom, I tried to stand up but I kept slipping and sliding on the slick algae-covered stones. My pack and I slipped underwater twice before I was able to crawl out of the pool.
My fall into the pool wasn't as precarious as the incident at the waterfall. It was nothing more than an exasperating annoyance. Once more, I had to go through the slow process of drying out the contents of the pack plus my soggy clothes. Filled with frustration, I sat in the canyon another two hours waiting for the baking sun to do its work.
These two mishaps re-emphasized the need to be extra cautious as a solo hiker in this devil of a canyon.
This was my fourth trip in the Diablo Canyon, so I was well aware of the risk that I was taking. I feared two things, mainly. One, suffering a broken leg. Two, suffering a rattlesnake bite. I had managed to dodge those two bullets during my prior three trips. I hoped that the knowledge I had gained on those previous hikes would lessen the chance of a serious mishap during this hike.
I stuffed the sun-dried equipment back into my pack and headed up the canyon. To get to Campo Noche I simply had to follow the ever-flowing creek southward.
However, following the creek wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I had to laboriously work my way along the bank through thick brush, over slippery rocks, around numerous boulders, and up across several high ledges.
It was late in the afternoon when I came upon a great place to camp. I was exhausted and dehydrated. I immediately went to the creek and filtered two quarts of cold, clear water. I drank one quart right away to quench my thirst and saved the other to cook my meal.
For some unknown reason, I had no appetite. I had to force myself to swallow each spoonful of the chicken and rice soup I prepared. I had eaten half the meal when all of a sudden my gag reflex kicked in causing me to almost "throw up." I dumped out the other half and put out the fire.
I was slightly irritated that I had made very little progress up the canyon after enduring such a long and difficult day. I hoped a better day lay ahead.
And as darkness made its way into the canyon I was more than ready for "snoozeville."
Day 4 Wednesday...May 14th
I woke up to a cool, refreshing morning, built a small fire and fixed a quick pot of oatmeal for breakfast. Again, I wasn't hungry but I needed to eat. I mixed in a small box of raisins to sweeten the oatmeal, hoping it would make it easier to get it down. I managed to eat all but the last few spoonfuls.
A lack of appetite was very unusual for me. When hiking, I usually ate three meals a day, plus snacks in-between. I was worried that I might be coming down with some illness.
I repacked my gear, filtered two quarts of water, put on my leather gloves, grabbed my hiking pole and hit the “trail.”
It was slow going. Very slow. The further I progressed up the canyon, the rougher the terrain became. The canyon walls increased their height and became steeper. The creek-bed followed more twists and turns. More barriers blocked my way forcing me to climb up and around them.
I encountered many places where I had to use my rope to lower the pack down or haul the pack up.
Luckily, one “impossible” barrier had a cable-ladder bolted to the steep granite wall enabling me to jump up and grab the first rung and haul myself up.
I had to watch for slippery stones as I crossed the creek over and over. Protruding shrub roots created tripping hazards, as did low lying vines. Many times branches snagged my pack jerking me backwards, throwing me off balance. Loose rocks were a danger as I hopped from rock to rock. The ever-present cacti and their painful, prickly spines punished any ill-considered movement.
There were places where I had to get down on my hands and knees, and sometimes my belly, in order to crawl under fallen trees that blocked my path.
If the fallen tree was too low to crawl under then I had to toss my pack over and then hoist myself up and over.
Because I had to be so cautious my pace had slowed considerably. Nine years earlier, a companion and I had reached Campo Noche at the end of the second day in the canyon. I was now on my second day, and still had twelve miles to go. Things weren't looking good as far as my time schedule for the hike and climb.
Taking rest breaks and stopping to filter water were time consuming, but necessary.
My body was getting quite a workout. By the time I found an open, sandy spot near the creek to camp, I was more than ready to stop.
It felt great to be able to get the weight off my back and give my shoulders a much needed rest.
I built another fire and selected dehydrated mashed potatoes for supper. I liked the buttery-garlic flavor and was able to eat all of it without gagging. I hoped it was a sign my appetite was returning.
A big, bright moon lit up the night as I prepared my bedding for the evening. Sleep came easily after I stuffed myself in the sack.
Day 5 Thursday...May 15th
I awoke just as the morning sun rose above the high eastern cliffs. For breakfast, I ate a granola bar and some raisins. I tried to eat a second bar but I couldn’t finish it. It wasn't much of a meal, but I would try to eat some snacks later as I continued up the canyon.
I filtered another two quarts of water for the day's hike. Once the sun started to beat down on me, I had to have water. I might be able to go days without sufficient food, but I wouldn't last long without water.
The creek was crystal clear and very cold...a hiker's delight. I just had to ignore the mass of small, black tadpoles that swam about, and the little green frogs that leaped into the water as I pumped the filter.
I didn't know for certain how effective the filter would be, but I convinced myself that all the bacteria and other “beasties” were removed. If not, then I would find out before my trip was over.
This day was practically a repeat of yesterday, but the climb up the canyon was steeper. I was saying "goodbye" to the lower reaches of the canyon and saying "hello" to the middle section. It was good to know that I was gaining altitude, but at the same time I knew that the nights were going to get colder. So far my 45 degree sleeping bag was keeping me warm.
Several blisters developed on a couple of toes and I had to stop and cover them with "moleskin" to prevent them from enlarging.
Tree branches continued to snag my clothes and scrape my arms, legs, and face. My knees and shins were almost skinned from the constant crawling over large rocks and boulders. I had several bruises on my legs and hips caused by banging against tree trunks, boulders and granite walls.
The soles of my feet took a beating each time I jumped from a boulder and landed with a bone-jarring thud on the rocks below. Eventually, I lost nerve sensation in both my big toes and the ball of my right foot.
No matter how careful I was, I still managed to bump into cactus after cactus, forcing me to stop and remove the irksome, painful spines. Three spines were embedded so deeply that I couldn't remove them and they were a constant irritant… one in my finger, one in my ankle, and one in my thigh.
Thank goodness I carried leather gloves with me because without them my hands would have been shredded by the rough, sharp-edged rocks and boulders that I had to grab or brace myself against. By the end of the day my gloves looked like they had been attacked by an electric sanding machine.
But the crazy thing was, in spite of it all, I was enjoying the hike.
I enjoyed being alone. I only had to answer to myself for my actions and decisions... right or wrong. I liked the wildness and isolation of the canyon and the challenge it presented. I liked the adventure of it all and the uncertainty of what lay ahead. I liked having to rely on me, myself, and no one else. And I knew that after a week or more in the harsh environment of Diablo Canyon, returning home to comfort and safety would be all the sweeter.
As twilight approached in the canyon, I scrambled around among the rocks for a space big enough to fit me and my air-mat. Luckily, I found just what I was looking for and jammed my sleeping gear into the small area.
I selected Chicken Teriyaki for supper. Again I had to force myself to get the last few bites down my gullet before hitting the hay.
Day 6 Friday...May 16th
I got up at 6:00 AM. That seemed to be the norm now… up at six and ready to go by 6:30 or 7:00 AM.
I went through my usual morning routine of filtering water, packing up, eating a quick breakfast, and lastly, strapping the "monkey" on my back. Another long day testing my stamina and endurance lay ahead.
Last night as I lay awake in my sleeping bag, I thought about my situation concerning an attempt to summit Picacho. I was way behind schedule. I was expected back at the Michoacán Restaurant on the tenth day of the trip and it was already day 6. There was no way that I could reach Campo Noche, ascend and descend Picacho, hike back down the canyon, return to Joe's store and then on to the highway, all in four days. It was next to impossible!
I changed my goal for the trip. I decided to do something rarely done, and that is to hike the entire Diablo Canyon, from the desert trailhead all the way up to the near ten-thousand foot Blue Bottle mountain located in the San Pedro Martir National Park. From there, I would hike on to the ranger station where I could restock my food and water supply for the return trip to San Felipe by bus or hitch-hike.
If things went well, I could do it within two days, thus giving me two more days to get from the Park to my car in San Felipe. If I got to the Park by Sunday, I had a good chance of catching a ride with one of the few weekend visitors.
With my hiking pole in hand, I pushed on for Campo Noche and Blue Bottle mountain.
I needed to hustle and set a faster pace, but speeding up could increase the chance of an accident. I was a little beyond the halfway mark in the canyon and I certainly did not want a broken leg at this point. Most hikers would be out of the canyon (if there were any hikers) by Saturday evening. That would mean that the canyon would be void of people until the next week-end...a long time to wait for help.
I also had to take into consideration my physical condition. My energy level was extremely low. I was burning more calories than I was taking in. I was needing more breaks... longer lasting breaks. Sometimes, I would doze off during the breaks and wake up to discover that I had slept a half hour or more.
From time to time, hummingbirds would zoom up to my head and hover right in front of my eyes, checking me out. There wasn't a day that passed that I wasn't "buzz-bombed" by the tiny creatures. I think they were attracted to the red bandana that I had tied to my pack strap.
Once when I took a break, a hummingbird flew within 3 inches of my nose and hovered there for a full minute staring in my eyes. I always looked forward to their visits.
Early in the morning, I was boxed in by three giant boulders and the only way out was to push through a tangle of vines and then climb thirty feet up to a ledge. From the ledge, I still had to climb up and over a high hill consisting of jumbled rocks and dense brush and trees.
There was a small cave under the hill that had an opening to the other side of the canyon. It made for a good shortcut
The hole at the end of the cave was just big enough for me to wriggle and squirm my way through as I dragged my pack behind me.
After eleven hours of strenuous sparring and grappling with the feisty canyon, the "Tun-Tun" campsite came into view. I had no idea what "Tun-Tun" meant, but it was a nice campsite.
I had to climb a fifty foot sloping slab of granite that rose above the creek before reaching the camp's level, sandy area. I dropped my pack onto the sand and set up camp.
Before darkness arrived, I wanted to check out the route I would follow in the morning. I discovered that a large boulder jutted out in front of the sloping trail. Fifty feet below were two large pools of water. To maneuver around the boulder, I was forced to step out onto the steep slope and creep forward about ten feet to reach the other side of the boulder.
In a flash, my hiking pole skidded off the smooth granite and I was thrown off balance. I didn't fall, but I couldn't stop myself from rushing headlong down the slope and into the waiting pool. I knew the second I lost my balance what was going to happen, so I just went with it. I splashed in trying not to land on a submerged boulder, and immediately swam across the pool and on over to the second pool. Once I crossed the two pools, all I had to do was climb back up the granite slope that led to the campsite.
Luckily, I had left the pack and equipment at the campsite before my route exploration. Only me and my hiking stick managed to get soaked.
I gathered up firewood and started a fire to warm myself after taking off my wet clothes. I hung the clothes up to dry for the third time during the hike. I hoped there wouldn't be a fourth splashdown in the future.
I prepared a bowl of mashed potatoes for my supper and was able to eat it all, but with some reluctance. I still lacked the normal desire for food.
I was now about four-thousand feet above sea-level and there was an increased chill in the air. I gladly retired to my 45 degree bag hoping it would continue to keep the cold nights at bay.
Day 7 Saturday....May 17th
I woke in the middle of the night and had to put on my fleece jacket to keep warm. I was slow getting up in the chilly morning, but it didn't take long for the sun to turn up the heat and erase the chill.
I didn't want to take the time to build a fire to boil water for oatmeal, so I was content to eat a small can of peaches with a packet of peanut-butter and crackers. My food supply was getting dangerously low. I was down to one packet of Cajun Rice and Beans, one packet of dehydrated mash potatoes, two small packets of granola bars, four small boxes of raisins and a zip-lock bag of "gorp."
I would have to restrict myself to half rations at each mealtime to conserve what was left until I reached the ranger station. I hoped it was indeed no more than two days away.
I filtered the necessary two quarts of water. Every day, the unrelenting heat forced me to drain the two quarts again and again. Stopping to filter the water usually burned up twenty to thirty minutes and I had to refill at least four times a day--first thing in the morning, twice while hiking and once in the evening for cooking, etc.
I hoped to reach Campo Noche before nightfall and to do so I needed to pick up the pace, but the canyon always found ways to inhibit my progress.
To get around the boulder that protruded across the pathway that I had checked out yesterday evening, I relied on my long rope once more. I tied one end to the pack and the other to my wrist, then got down on my hands and knees and carefully crawled around the boulder. When I was safely situated on the other side, I dragged the backpack to me. I was now back on the unobstructed pathway.
Even though I wasn't eating as much as I should be, I felt pretty good as I made my way up the canyon. I still took a lot of breaks and with each break, off came the pack, off came my shirt, off came my boots and socks… and out came the bag of "gorp." Then I would sit on the ground with my back leaning against my pack, which was leaning against a rock.
After I quenched my thirst and chewed some gorp, I would sometimes close my eyes and take a short siesta. It helped renew my energy but it also ate into my hiking time.
Two or three miles into the hike, I encountered another waterfall. It had to be by-passed by climbing up the side of a high, steep bluff. There was no way that I could climb up with my heavy pack, so I tied my trusty rope once more to the pack and tied the other end to my belt. With the pack on the ground, I started up, hand over hand, latching on to exposed roots and rocks.
It was a risky climb because it topped out at forty feet or more and a fall could be devastating. After a slow and painstaking struggle, I reached the top of the waterfall and breathed a sigh of relief. I then strained to pull the pack up. It was getting caught in a tangle of roots as it rose upward. I had to manipulate the rope left and right, up and down several times to extract it from the grip of the roots.
When I finally hauled the pack to the edge of the bluff, I immediately untied the rope from the pack and my belt. I leaned the pack against a small bush and began to coil the rope to stuff it back into the pack. As I coiled the rope, the thin branches that supported my pack gave way and... POOF, the pack toppled over the edge and crashed on the rocks below.
Unbelievable! I stood at the bluff's edge looking down in disbelief and complete dismay. How could I have so carelessly set the pack so close to the edge? I dreaded the thought of having to work my way back down to the pack and then repeat the tedious, risky climb, but it had to be done.
A much needed long rest was in order when I arrived at the top of the waterfall again. I couldn't believe how much the frustrating episode sapped my energy.
Hiking with the weighty pack continued to be a vexation. The shoulder straps constantly irritated my shoulders and I had to keep adjusting the straps for a more comfortable position. My shirt was always soaked with sweat because there was no air circulation between the pack and my back. Maintaining my balance was made more difficult due to the constant swaying of the pack as I plodded, hopped, climbed, and scrambled along the canyon floor.
Finally, after another eleven-hour day of traveling, I reached Campo Noche. Wearily, I dropped my pack on the ground and plopped myself down against a huge log. I felt a great satisfaction for having successfully arrived at the camp without incurring any serious injury. Fourteen miles of the demanding and physically challenging, diabolical canyon were now behind me.
Climbing Picacho del Diablo was definitely out of the picture.
I now had to concentrate all my effort and energy towards exiting the canyon and climbing Blue Bottle mountain. The site of Campo Noche was the farthest I had been up the canyon up to now. I knew that I needed to continue up the canyon for another mile or two in order to reach the trail to Blue Bottle... I just didn't know precisely where the turn-off was.
I wanted to enter the coordinates to the summit of Blue Bottle, which I had written down, so I took my GPS from the pack and turned it on. Nothing happened.
I put new batteries in and still nothing. I never could get it to function. It might have been damaged from the two water soakings or possibly damaged when my pack fell from the bluff onto the rocks. I couldn't enter the coordinates into the GPS.
This became one of my "uh oh" moments. I would just have to wait until morning to see if I could find the correct route.
I built a fire and cooked half of the Cajun Rice & Beans for supper. I was able to eat most of it before my stomach said, "no more". I tossed the leftover R & B's into the fire and prepared my bedding for the night.
When I blew up my air-mattress, it slowly deflated. I blew it up once more, with the same result. The mat had a hole in it. But I put it on top of my ground-cloth. It was better than nothing, I thought.
I was now six-thousand feet above sea-level and the night was cold. I put on every piece of clothing I had, including a pair of clean socks, in hopes of keeping warm. I crawled into the bag and zipped it all the way up until just my nose poked out. I was comfortable even with the flat air-mat because my bedding was on top of a layer of soft sand. Wrapped in my little cocoon, I quickly fell asleep. However, the cold night air got my attention. I woke up several times during the night shivering and shaking.
Day 8 Sunday...May 18th
I awoke at the usual morning hour. I wasn't hungry so I decided to skip breakfast and eat a snack later during the hike. I would be climbing to an even higher altitude today which meant I would have to deal with an even colder night.
Campo Noche is the front door to the route up Picacho. Those who planned to summit use it as a basecamp. I had hoped to meet some climbers at the site to obtain information concerning the turn-off point to Blue Bottle, but nobody showed up.
It was now the eighth day of the hike. In two days the owner of the " Michoacán Restaurant" would be advising my friends that I might be in trouble. I felt reasonably sure that I would be able to find the route up Blue Bottle and easily hike on to the ranger station within the time-limit and so prevent unnecessary worry for my friends and family.
Before leaving the camp, I used my hiking pole to write a short message in the sand to establish the fact that I had been there. I wrote... "Ron Christian >----> Blue Bottle...May 18." I would have written a note on paper but in my haste I had inadvertently left my small waist-pouch in my car. It contained all my miscellaneous small articles that I normally need when hiking (pen, small notebook, toothbrush & paste, dental floss, pocket knife, whistle, disposable towelettes, chap-stick, etc.)
I knew that the turn-off point was somewhere between Campo Noche and the Pinnacle Ridge. All I had to do was keep my eyes peeled for any sign indicating the turn. I also knew that the thirst-quenching creek changed its course and left the canyon floor at a place called "Gorin's Gulch." That would be my last chance to obtain cool, crystal clear water before the next waterhole which was two miles beyond the summit of Blue Bottle Mountain.
The canyon continued to vex me with its various aggravating, time-consuming, stumbling-blocks. The sweltering heat showed no mercy. I emptied one water bottle earlier than I had planned. I needed to get used to rationing my water and drink only at break-times.
After a half-mile or more into the hike, I came upon the waterfall at Gorin's Gulch.
I stopped to take a break and refill my water bottles with the last of the good water. Dense patches of stinging nettle surrounded the pool of water and I couldn't avoid brushing against the pesky nettles as I pushed forward toward the water. My gloves protected my hands, but my exposed wrist area between the gloves and shirt-sleeves got hit. My wrist felt like they were on fire the instant they were hit. I quickly thrust my arms into the cold water in hopes of putting out the fire. Within five to ten minutes, to my relief, the burning sensation faded away.
After I filled the water bottles, I took my hiking pole and beat a path back through the stinging nettles so as not to get stung again
Away I went up the canyon in search of the turn-off point. I had been told that it was approximately one or two miles south of Campo Noche. When I reached what I estimated to be two miles from the campsite, I hadn't seen anything that suggested the turn-off. No "ducks" (two or more rocks placed on top of each other), no wooden sign, no placard, no painted blaze, no notched tree..... no nothing!
I sensed yet another "uh oh" moment as I stood and surveyed the area and still saw no sign. Maybe I needed to hike a little bit farther. Estimating distances in the canyon was made difficult because of the chaotic, topsy-turvy terrain.
I struggled up the canyon for another hour searching in vain for the turn. At that point, I was almost certain that I had missed it.
I sat down on a rock and mulled over my options. One, I could turn around and retrace my steps in hopes of finding it, or two, I could bypass Blue Bottle and head for the Pinnacle Ridge which lay about two miles farther south. Once I reached the ridge-line, I could then follow it in a westerly direction until it led me toward the general area of Blue Bottle and the trail to the ranger station.
I chose the Pinnacle Ridge option. I was running short on time, food, and water. If I hiked back down toward Campo Noche and still missed the turn-off, I would lose even more time that I could have used to reach Pinnacle Ridge. Re-tracing my steps didn't sit well with me. I simply did not want to face the hardship of backtracking down the canyon and end up empty handed.
The stream disappeared. Nevertheless, with high hopes, I continued up the canyon which got steeper and steeper as both walls rose thousands of feet above me. It was an impressive and intimidating sight.
I was so thirsty that my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth. Some people refer to this as cotton-mouth. I had to take a couple of swigs of water to help make saliva to keep my mouth moist.
During a break, I tried to eat a granola bar but it was too dry to swallow. Again, I had to take a swig of water with each bite in order to eat the snack. I decided to eat only raisins at breaks from then on because they were better tasting and easier to swallow.
Along the way, I discovered a stagnant, bedrock pool of water. It was full of strange-looking bugs, mosquito larvae, water spiders, algae, and plant debris. No matter... I needed water and I wasn't about to pass this up in hopes of finding something better. With the creek no longer running through the canyon, any water found would be small pools or pockets of rain water trapped in the canyon's rock-bed. They are a "hit or miss" source of life-sustaining water for men… and animals.
I filtered two quarts of the questionable liquid and hoped I would have no ill effects after drinking some of it.
It was late afternoon by the time I reached the base of the wildly dramatic Pinnacle Ridge. I was finally out of Diablo Canyon. I now had to climb to the top of the ridge so I could follow it to the west.
I had hoped to summit the ridge and find a suitable campsite before dusk but I didn't make it in time. I had to stop about halfway up and search for a level, sandy spot among the rocks. I was lucky to find a passable place to make camp.
I quickly prepared my bedding and then started a small fire to fix the last half of my Rice & Beans. I was able to get all the meal down with no problem. My appetite seemed to be improving now that my food supply was down to practically nothing. Rather ironic, I thought.
I looked forward to getting a good night’s sleep after enduring such a tough day in the canyon. Knowing that the night would be colder, I covered my sleeping bag with my ground-cloth for whatever minimal insulation it offered.
The bright moon once again raised its shining head above the ridgeline as I slowly entered "dreamland."
The night was as cold as I feared. Cold enough to shiver me awake several times before morning. I took my folded nylon tarp I had been using for a pillow and spread it over my sleeping bag. With that plus the ground-cloth covering me, I was able to get some shut-eye before the sun rose.
Day 9 Monday...May 19th
I was so cold when I woke up, I shuddered and shivered and chose to stay in my bag until the temperature rose to a tolerable degree. And I was thirsty, but when I reached out to get my water bottle for a quick drink I was shocked to find the water frozen solid.
My thirst reminded me that I needed to find a water source that day. I was now resigned to the fact that my hike would take longer than I had hoped. At the rate I was progressing, there were at least two more difficult days ahead and that was a worrisome thought. Today was the day I had planned to reach the top of the ridge, follow it to the west and reach the spring that was located on the trail that led from Blue Bottle back to the Park road.
I didn't have enough food for two more days. The nights were too cold for my lightweight sleeping bag. My body's stamina and energy level were being tested to the point of exhaustion. The "monkey" on my back had now evolved into a hulking "gorilla." It was a daunting situation and the only way out was to keep on keeping on.
I packed my gear and started climbing for the ridge top. There was no trail. I was no longer hiking; I was bushwhacking, taking the path of least resistance whenever I could.
I entered a large craggy wooded area on the flank of the mountain. It was full of boulders and dense thickets. Entanglements of underbrush enveloped much of the area. The presence of the sprawling vegetation limited my range of vision to just a few yards as I forged ahead.
In time, I was confronted with another difficulty. I had bushwacked my way to the bottom of a towering, dead-end cliff. I had to reverse my direction and descend a few hundred feet so that I could search for another way to reach the top. While I was looking, I dropped my cumbersome pack and leaned it against a small boulder.
Twenty minutes or so of searching, I succeeded in finding a way to continue the climb, but after having weaved in and out among the trees, boulders and underbrush, I became disoriented as to where I left the pack. Was it above me, below me, left or right? I was baffled.
“Okay”, I thought. "I'll simply tramp around the area a bit and spot it soon enough." Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty minutes elapsed and still no pack. Another "uh-oh" moment had now become a "Houston, we have a problem."
[To be continued]