Picacho Peak 1930′
Total Time: 4:00
Roundtrip Mileage: 6.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 1700′
Crux: Class 4 with aid climbing on the return
Trailhead: Little Picacho Wash
Years ago when I first learned about the Sierra Club’s Desert Peak Section list, I started browsing through trip reports, and stumbled on a write up on Picacho Peak in Southeast California. Despite being the lowest summit on the entire list, it was the most difficult from a technical standpoint with a YDS rating of 6 for aid climbing. The rating is a bit of a stretch, as the crux is a 15′ ascent of a fixed rope rappelled during the ascent, but it none-the-less needed some basic technical knowledge to safely reach the summit. When I first read it, I always thought of it as probably something I would never be good enough or have the knowledge to climb. But after a year in Arizona with a new technical skill set through the Arizona Mountaineering Club, I wanted to take a crack at the most technically difficult DPS peak. I slept just off the road near Little Picacho Wash, and woke up before dawn to start, wanting as much time as possible with some unsettled weather in the area. The correct wash (Little Picacho) is a little tricky to find without a GPS, but it appears to be the third major wash once you get past the fencing from Picacho Mine/historic marker off to the right. I parked my car at the mouth of the wash, but in reality, I could have easily driven another half mile in. The tire tracks suggested driving in the wash was common, although probably less likely for climbers and more for OHV enthusiasts. Progress was easy in the broad wash with the first minor dry fall about 0.5 miles in. I stuck to the wash as it wove between small but impressive subpeaks as I headed towards Picacho. The sun began to rise just as I had my first look at the impressive and impossible looking summit, but I felt more excited than nervous as I traveled along in the wash.
The trail seemed to hook west, so I cut out of the wash and on to the small plateau below the base of Picacho. Unfortunately, this had a number of minor sub-drainages that I found myself weaving in and out of, and I would have been better served staying in the wash until finding the well cairned turn off. Nearing the southwest corner of Picacho, I picked up the use trail as it started ascending loose ribs of rock towards a large detached pinnacle off the west face and the start of the complex route. The rock here was quite loose, making me a bit nervous for the challenging climbing to come.
While I had focused my anxiety on the technical portion of the route, I began to worry if the intervening class 3 would be sketchy as well. Once at the notch, I took a very short break, rehydrating before devoting my full concentration to the route ahead. Described by some as “the obstacle course,” with the rappel and reascent of the rope being the last in a series of unique challenges and sub-cruxes along the route. The first was a short ladder, followed almost immediately by a 3′ step across a 100′ gap with awkward sloping on both sides. The second is a larger, and more precariously balanced ladder, anchored by some very weathered webbing. Once on the summit ridge, there’s a small false summit requiring some short class 4 to climb, followed by a rap off the backside to the true summit. Leaving the notch up a series of narrow steps and ledges, I found the first wooden ladder and wasted little time second guessing, pulling myself up to the top.
It seemed like a dead end at the top of the ladder until I recognized the awkward step across. Many parties belay here, but I did not have that luxury working solo. I carefully inched down the slope on my butt before jump stepping to the other side. There were plenty of good holds to utilize and if the drop wasn’t so significant you probably wouldn’t think twice about it, but the exposure is more than enough to give anyone pause.
From there was a series of class 2-3 ramps and slabs, marked by some unnecessary (but helpful, I guess?) arrows spray painted on the rock face. As I neared the summit ridge, I reached the final ladder. This was aluminum and about 3 times as tall. Although it was uncomfortably near the cliff edge, it felt fairly stable and the webbing anchor above looked like it was replaced recently, although in the desert heat it probably wears quickly regardless. I moved cautiously up the first few rungs, my pace increasing the higher I went. The exit off the ladder was a bit awkward with a steep downslope and my full pack scraping some overhanging rock.
Once on the summit ridge I had gained essentially all elevation and could see the true high point at the southern end, a pesky false summit blocking further progress. The shorter northern summit had a small summit cairn that I quickly knocked over (sorry, almost the summit doesn’t count) and reached the notch below the short class 4 pitch. A piece of webbing hung down from above but it looked tattered and useless. I put on my harness and clipped in with no intention of testing or weighting it, but it was there, so why the hell not. The lower part of the pitch was easy, but the final move onto the false summit had a slight overhang requiring a mantle, and was probably the climbing crux of the day.
The webbing I had clipped was nearly 75% cut in one spot, so I pocketed it to make sure no one relied on the useless pro in the future. On the south side of the false summit were two parallel bolts and hangers. There weren’t set like a perfect rappel station and the hangers looked a little iffy, but since they had been used by literally every climber before me, I built a quick redundant anchor with 20′ of cordalette and tossed my climbing rope down to the other side. With a quick test of my anchor, I rapped down the notch and it was a simple walk up to the high point and summit register. The views from this summit were other worldly. This section of the Sonoran Desert sees far less rain than in Arizona and there was almost no greenery, just stark, chocolate brown crags and mountains jutting from the landscape, the Colorado River visible to the north.
The summit register was cemented directly into the summit rock, similar to Castle Dome Peak the day prior. It looked like the summit saw a handful of parties per year, and not surprisingly, I was the first of 2017. With the climbing difficulties for the day only half behind me, I walked back towards the rappel line to reascend. While most trip reports I had read used etriers to reascend, the one time I had used them in the past I found them cumbersome. For such a short distance to ascend, I decided to use some simple prusiks instead, requiring just a few pieces of cord. I had only ever prusiked on a complete free hang, and kept trying to stand into the rock instead of in line with the rope, making life more difficult. Once I realized my poor technique was making life harder, I made the minor correction and got to the top in a couple strenuous minutes. I meant to take a video of the ascent, but it would have just been me frantically grunting for a couple minutes. Back on the false summit, I quickly disassembled my anchor and brought my rope to the other side to rappel down the short class 4 pitch. There was another set of bolts and hangers, one with some old tattered webbing, the other with some more solid looking static rope. They were equalized to a quick-link and while I sincerely doubted the integrity of the webbing (it was the same color and probable age of the tattered piece hanging down the class 4 pitch that I pocketed) the rope looked like it would have no trouble handling the minimal forces of a 10′ rappel. Weighting the anchor, I rappelled back to the notch and coiled my rope, leaving my harness on in case I wanted to anchor on the ladders. Hiking down the ridge back to the top of the larger ladder, I gingerly re-weighted the slightly off balance ladder and quickly dropped down to the base. I hiked down the ramp utilizing the various cairns and arrows and reached the gap to jump across. Going back was a little more challenging due to the slope on the opposite side, a bit more vertical than the jump across on the ascent. But there was plenty of volcanic pockets to grab on to and I was quickly back to the final obstacle, the short wooden ladder. As I descended, I was surprised to see a long crack running through the left side nearly the entire ladder length. A piece of webbing was wrapped around the piece holding it together. Needless to say, this ladder needs to be replaced, and I was happy to not have noticed the break on the way up.
Scrambling back down to the notch, I wasn’t ready to relax until I cleared the loose class 2 chute back to the broad wash below. I knocked a couple rocks down on the descent, but made my way to the flats without incident. I was feeling pretty good about soloing the jungle gym above, and started blasting my victory playlist (a combination of Odesza, BORNS, and a very special Bee Gees/ Nelly Mashup) when I scared the shit (literally) out of two burros grazing in the wash. The ran up the slopes above me and stopped to watch as I continued past. It was the first time seeing wild burros, and I was a little embarrassed that I had scared them with my music.
I continued down the wash back to the car and hauled out and west to try and continue my DPS weekend with a climb of Jacumba Mountain to the west…