In Pursuit of “El Picacho”

Baja Living

In an annual Vitamin D pilgrimage to Todos Santos, Mexico, I finally make it to the majestic mountains of Sierra de la Laguna for 24 miles, 6000ft+ of vertical and an extreme underestimation of water.

May 8th, 2011

The desire to explore is within us all. As curious creatures we celebrate this wondrous ball of rock, water and gas with some inherent longing to survey our surroundings. Perhaps as modern humans we inherit this ancestral inclination from constantly searching for sustenance and safety. Whatever its ancient origins, to explore a mountain range, musical instrument, art project, relationship, etc. is as much an introspective quest to depths deeper as it is of external phenomena.

Along this lineage of thought, I return often to Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and his incredible explanation of the pan-cultural “Hero’s Journey” myth. Found in nearly all major religious traditions and indigenous cultures in the world, this monomyth illustrates a hero figure as he/she departs from the village to explore a mysterious void beyond some guarded threshold. Crossing over, the journeyer wades through tests of demons and darkness to eventually reach some pinnacle of discovery, an expansion of consciousness, a boon. The journeyer then returns to the village with this gift, only to restore the village and share the insight with others to enjoy and benefit from.

In May 2011, I decided to quench a seven-year longing to explore the highest peaks in Southern Baja, Mexico. Each year, my family and I make a retreat to Todos Santos, a small artist hideout two hours of north from Cabo San Lucas, on the dry, sun-soaked Baja Peninsula. No one appreciates this time in Todos more than I do, as the winter rain-drain in Portland often leaves me with traces of mildew on the mind. Sunshine is welcomed whenever accessible and, in Baja, there is no shortage.

The Approach

It’s 5 a.m. on Sunday in Baja, Mexico, and nothing stirs.

I scrape the remaining grounds from my cache of Stumptown coffee smuggled across the border. Last night was typical for my family in Todos: grilled fish caught hours earlier, oversized bowl of greens and hot “boleo” rolls from our favorite panaderia in town. All accompanied by a healthy contingency of ice-cold Modelos and reposado tequila. Then comes the ukulele, guitar and singing until the late hours. Nothing compares.

My brother and I stumble out into the early morning and get the rusty van started. From our house, we can spot our eventual destination to the east. It’s the place where dark blue sky meets jagged walls of black. La Sierra de La Laguna. This stunning range of mountains comprises some of Baja’s highest and most ecologically diverse terrain. Stories told about these mountains include pine-oak forests, lakes and snow flurries in the winter. UNESCO even designated the Sierra de la Laguna a “biosphere reserve” in 1994 due to its unique, contrasting ecosystems. Looking up from sea level, surrounded by an endless expanse of Sonoran scrub desert, it was hard to believe.

The Proposed Route:

  • 12 miles to the summit (or Picacho de la Laguna.) 7,100ft. Return.
  • 6,500ft+ of vertical.
  • Zero water sources this time of year.
  • Running.

The Gear:

  • Mountain Hardware running pack
  • 2 Liters of water (1 liter Platypus, 2 Ultimate Direction bottles (1/2 liter each)
  • 5 gels, 1 Shotblok
  • Corn tortilla with PB+J
  • Safety equipment (emergency blanket, headlamp)
  • Camera

Ryan’s plan is to hike into the mountain range for a few hours and then turn around, timing his return so that we both meet back at the car at similar times. It’s reassuring that I will be sharing the trail with at least one person.

Baja has a serious sign problem. Your chances of coming to an accurately marked road is about as likely as coming across a Mexican politician without a mustache. Seriously, they all have mustaches.

Directions Provided:

  1. Head south, towards Cabo.
  2. Take a left at a small white memorial shrine.
  3. Head towards the mountains.
  4. At a fork, take the road that points towards a dilapidated lookout tower.
  5. Pass a rancho on your right. Keep going.
  6. Ranger station on your right.

A graded, sandy road takes us towards the mountains. Our van rallies. Stop anywhere along the way and you dig your way out. With the exception of an emaciated bull taking interest in our van, there was little activity out here.

Plumes of dust infiltrate nostrils as we hop out of the van and into the surrounding silence. No ranger. Nobody for miles. We find ourselves at the foot of this impressive mountain range, an uninhibited massif of rock and earth waking up from its cool evening respite. A breeze dances through dry arroyos and thirsty cactus. I imagine the dripping rainforests of the Pacific Northwest at home and couldn’t feel farther away.

The Ascent

Double-check gear. Sling on the pack and we set sail. My brother and I hike down a dirt road for the first mile together, and our chatting startles grumpy cattle grazing nearby.

I eventually bid farewell to Ryan and start running down this invitingly flat surface, there’s no hiding what is to be quickly ascended. The 6000ft+ of vertical directly ahead of me patiently awaits.

Road becomes trail as it T-bones with a dry arroyo and starts immediately up, steeply. Soft and sandy, ruts and rocks. Droves of donkeys and horses over the years have carved severe cleavages into this route. With cool temperatures, ample fluids and fresh legs, I welcome this difficult preliminary climb and tip-tap up through its every feature.

After the sharp, two-mile ascent, I reach Camp One. Dust-laced trees. An outhouse with a buzzing halo of flies. Fire rings flickering with old bits of foil and ash. The remnants of a neglected basecamp, used as staging for steeper slopes ahead. I sip from my Platypus and continue on. Along with temperatures reaching the mid-80’s, the grade starts to get serious.

Two hours of climbing elapse. Relax, breathe and focus entirely on the immediate section in front of you. Thinking about the remaining 4,000ft of vertical will only destroy any mental fortitude.

I reach “La Ventana,” and am rewarded with a magical vista. Senses sharpen as I take in a feast for the eyes. Vision soars beyond warming air and drifting crows, over dry veins of arroyo and Sonoran flats. My eyes eventually splash into the ocean, where a divine convergence of two worlds collide with grace. From this high mountain balcony, the flat desert 3,000ft below looks uninviting. Refuge into higher country.

The steep grade ahead shows no sign of giving up and, at various points, it requires me to hike. Sweat-soaked, I am taking in considerably more fluids than normal. 100% complete exposure on this ridge, with low bushes and harsh cacti providing additional company but little shade.

I eventually enter a new biozone marked with large oak trees. At various points, the trail turns into trenches over 6 feet deep. The beating sun above creates an oven of these cleavages, with heat emanating from all directions—above, the side of the walls and sandy bottom. I navigate through this treachery and push through fatigue towards the Picacho.

After about 10 miles into the run, the trail finally begins to level out as I reach a sign proclaiming “Zona Nucleo.” Deteriorating Spanish skills coupled with mild dehydration translate this to read “Nuclear Zone,” causing hairs to raise on my forearm. I wonder how this detail of running through a Mexican nuclear test site could have been omitted in my research! Later I realize that “nucleo” actually means “nucleus” or “center,” and was in reference to my entrance into the protected central lakebed area. Needless to say, this minor error makes me pick up the pace.

Over two hours of relentless mountain running gives way to a gentle downhill. Low on calories and intentionally stingy on water, I find myself irritable and anxious. A slight downhill stretch proves difficult to enjoy. After passing a large painting of St. Mary on a large rock slab, I reach a major trail intersection. What surrounds me is the first of a few dry lake beds that this mountain range is named after. Void of almost all remaining water source, I find a small watering hole which contains black, brackish water full of tadpoles and horse droppings. I decide against a delirious temptation to dunk my overheated head into it.

Two miles and another 1000 feet of climbing separate me from the Picacho, so I continue on towards the summit. Not one living soul is up here enjoying the glorious Mexican high country, and I relish in such isolation. I also take caution, as one snapped ankle or snakebite could prove disastrous. Reaching three hours of running up this mountain ascent, the last push to the 7,100ft summit is a challenge.

This rollercoaster section hugs the side of a wooded ridge, and I scramble up sections of loose rock and scrub. I imagine rattlesnakes everywhere watching me, shaking their diamond heads at my graceless summit approach. I lose the moment as I take inventory of my dwindling water reserves. The Platypus bladder is dry and I start taking pulls from my handhelds, something I strongly resisted earlier so that I would have enough fluids to return.

After 3 hours, 11 minutes of climbing, I finally reach the Picacho. The highest point in Southern Baja, this 7,100ft promontory provides sweeping views of both the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. This vantage point is incredible and I settle into a moment of bliss while resting in the shade of a gnarled oak.

Rewarding myself, I dig into my pack for a mashed mess of a PB&J on corn tortilla. I find this snack to be awful and barely palatable. The dry tortilla soaked up all the jam resulting in a crumbly, dry mess. With little fluids to force it down, after three bites I donate it to the local lizard community. Though haggard, I am wholly inspired by this challenging ascent up to a place I had imagined for several years. The boon.

The Descent

12 miles and 6,000ft down to the desert floor weighs heavy on my conscience. As I begin this steep, downhill section, I assess my food, water and morale. Less than one liter of water and only a few gels left, accompanied by temperatures flirting into the 90’s. It’s going to get interesting. Not wasting any time, I quickly make it back to the dry lakebed meadow. My body is running hot, and this time around, I don’t hesitate to dunk my head and hat in the dirty water hole. The pond-skimmers and tadpoles advise against this, but a dose of cool water feels perfect as it runs through my hair and down my neck.

1 p.m. The sun beats its drum steadily now with vigor, and I quickly realize my underestimation of the return leg of this journey. Morale takes a blow when I faintly recognize the white dry arroyo intersecting the dirt road below, yet so far away. It’s as if I’m an airplane passenger enjoying the view from cruising altitude. The downhill proves relentless and technical and I attempt to work with its sandy sections, sliding and digging my heels in for assistance. Quads are smashed. Swollen feet rub every nook of my sand-filled shoes and toes smash the front with every downward surge.

At “La Ventana” I seek a tiny corner of shade and put my head between my legs, rewarding myself by taking a slug of warm water. Hardly satisfying. I look around into the scrub and desert plants and they seem to look at me curiously and say:

“Well, what the hell did you expect running up mountains in Mexico? Cool weather, plenty of water sources and an overall comfortable experience? Mira! The animals and plants living here are hardened and strong. We are resilient and conserve every drop provided from above! We accept this condition and live harmoniously…then you, a fumbling human from the North comes and expects a relatively painless journey? No tienes razon.”

Humbled by the strength that surrounds me, I take one more pitiful sip and revert to a strategy of “bomb-to-calm:” Commit fully to the downhill, bombing as hard as possible, then stop in any substantial shade for a few minutes of recollection. Rinse and repeat.

I’m losing my battle with water. Conservation efforts prove insufficient for the amount of water I’m perspiring. Dehydration and heat exposure make me extremely dizzy and parched. Half a bottle of water left, and it’s going fast. After already dropping nearly 4,000ft, the air only gets heavier and hotter.

Cue in visions of chugging bottles of glacial runoff, performing the backstroke in a lake of Coca-Cola. A full sprint into the crashing waves of the Pacific, with a cold Modelo half-burrowed into the dunes waiting for me. I stranglehold these thoughts unable to let go.

I finally reach the Camp 1, which gives me a significant mental boost, as I know that I am getting close. If I can commit to the next 6 miles, I will be back to the car in about an hour. Roughly three sips of water remaining, I stop to regain composure and hear running water nearby. I run towards the sound only to hear that the hot winds traveling up the canyons are playing an evil audible trick.

5 hours into the journey, I exit the camp and enter a steep, uphill mile of hot, dusty horse trenches. This exposed section takes every bit of strength and I find myself at my lowest point. Now entirely out of water, I surrender and fly down the remaining few miles to the arroyo below. After what seems like forever, I make it back to the road, and find much comfort in this human landmark. Only a few miles remain to the car, on a flat dirt road with complete exposure to early afternoon sun. Part of me feels foolish for picking such a season and time to run this route.

My pathetic running attempts revert to a standard death-march. Nearly 6 hours into my journey, my eye catches the glimmer of sun on metal. The van. Desperate for water, I yell: “WATER!” Nothing. Eventually I reach the final hill and I yell again: “RYAN!” He responds, and I again request some water. He comes around the corner with a big bottle of fresh water and I know that the journey is over.

The Return

Wasting no time, we both hop in the van and drive away. I learn that Ryan too had a tough experience in the mountains. He carried only one liter on his 5-hour hike and hurt madly for water at the end. Dreaming of fluids, I hardly remember the drive out. I do recall nearly vomiting after getting to a small tienda and chugging an entire bottle of Gatorade.

Our day spent with the Sierra de La Laguna was absolutely incredible. We both suffered. I wondered why the hell I was doing this. But then I also dug deep within, fought through some dark moments. Embedded in this struggle were some lessons about perseverance, patience and mental fortitude.

I’m really beginning to understand the power of running up mountains. Such a venue provides an opportunity to push through, to find comfort in discomfort and negotiate temporary tides of turbulence for priceless momentary bliss. Bliss delivered because you handled the struggle well, but fleeting quickly.

As we drove away from the Picacho, I was convinced that the mountain smiled back at me. Could have just been dehydrated delirium.