Cerro del Pinacate Attempt & Mount Ajo

  • Updated: December 01, 2012
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

December 1st, 2012
Cerro del Pinacate (3,937') (Attempt)
Mount Ajo  (4,808')

So while Baboquivari and Little Picacho were both repeats (the first redone because it qualified for an E provisional and the second because it's just a fun little climb) Cerro Pinacate was a peak in the area I still hadn't done.

Granted there was the small complication that it was 30 some miles into Mexico.

This was actually why only the first of the three days was being led as an official Sierra Club trip as the club doesn't really like people leading trips down there on account of all the relatively recent border violence.  So instead we were going across for a minimal amount of time with a large group as part of a private outing.

After climbing Baboquivari the day before we'd stayed at the Organ Pipe Family Campground which is a rather large and well equipped campground along the 85 about 5 miles north of the border.  It even has hot showers though we were all disappointing to find small barbecues instead of fire pits.

We woke up before dawn and after leaving two vehicles at the Organ Pipe Visitors Center near the entrance to the campground we consolidated into the three vehicles and drove south.

The north side of the crossing is called Lukeville (previously Gringo Pass) but doesn't consist of much.  We arrived a few minutes after the crossing opened at 6 am and after filling up at the gas station there went through.

I was the first vehicle and in addition to checking our passports the guy asked a surprising number of abrupt questions about where we'd been, where we'd camped, and what we'd been climbing before looking in the back and all the windows and only then waving us through.

The Mexico side was a bit more relaxed with no one stopping me though the other two cars did trigger some sort of random alarm and were very perfunctorily checked.

And with that we were across.  The southern side is a fair sized town called Sonoyta with many signs catering to tourists and apparently a reputation for being the last stop before people try to run the border illegally out in the desert.  We already had our Mexican vehicle insurance and drove slowly through town taking the 8 towards Puerto Penasca.

We did have one small oddity where we passed some minor incident involving some broken glass and a police cruiser that caused Mat Kelliher's jeep to fall behind.  I puled over to the side of the road along with Greg's truck to let him catch up only to have two vehicles pull up behind us.  When we started up again for a time had a little caravan of 4 vehicles instead of 3.

Sadly we didn't really hit anything more interesting than a few people speeding past us on the 8 so never got to use our safety plan.

We had good directions and soon came to the turnoff for the Reserva de la Biosfera El Pinacate.  Turning in here we ran into a closed gate.

Note I say closed gate and not a locked gate.  We could have actually opened it ourselves and driven through and not long after we arrived a group of several vehicles packed with barbecues and lawn chairs did just that.  They seemed to know what they were doing and waved at us as they went by.

The signs said the gate would open at 8 am so we waited patiently and entertained ourselves with the signs and exhibits they have scattered around at the entrance.  Before too long someone came out and opened the office while another guy in an official looking uniform ran out, jumped in one of the waiting trucks, and took off down the road.

The guy in the office was quite friendly and spoke pretty good English.  When he heard that we were there to climb Cerro Pinacate he told us that sadly the volcano was closed since a few weeks ago.

We had more than one person there interjecting questions so the explanation was a bit scrambled but initially we were told the closure was due to restoration projects and that we might be able to climb anyway if his chief would give us permission.  The chief was the guy who had chased after the gate runners.

We waited patiently and when the chief came back our guy had a talk with him.  I could tell pretty quick that the news wasn't going to be good.

Calling us back into the office we were told that the restoration projects were no big issue and that we could just hike around those.  However, we weren't going to be allowed on the volcano for our own safety on account of some security issue that they weren't allowed to talk about.

We'd joked outside that maybe we'd need to pay a bribe and I tried pretty much every alternate proposal I could think of from having someone official come along and escort us to asking about access to the volcano from outside the Reserve so they wouldn't be liable

(Interestingly enough they didn't have any real maps of the area beyond some small fliers vaguely showing the shape of the road.)

While he was very sympathetic with how far we'd come and encouraged us to enjoy the rest of the reserve (whatever the issue was must have really been centered around the volcano because he didn't seem to have a problem with hiking around the back country elsewhere in the reserve) the answer was a firm no.

We debated trying a dirt road approach of the volcano from outside the reserve but in the end decided doing the peak might not be worth risking death via machine gun fire today.  So we decided to cross back over the border and do the nearby Mount Ajo which about half of us had already done.

Prepare to be hassled
The cross back into the US was actually easier than leaving had been.  I told the guy we'd gone down to climb the volcano and been turned away for safety reasons and he just checked our passports.  The hardest part was restraining myself from making a joke about how we'd come across to buy Mexican Coke.

Sadly unentertained we retrieved our cars and drove to the Ajo trailhead located at the Estes Canyon / Bull Pasture Spring trail.  Getting there from the 85 involves an 11 mile drive down a one way dirt road that's passable to  any passenger car.

You can see the towers on top of Ajo from the trailhead and the route is 100% ducked and on trail.

After a few hours of occasionally somewhat loose trail we arrived up top.

Rather than come back down the same way again I convinced everyone it would be a great idea to descend the chute to the west of Mount Ajo which we'd looked at on approach.  It went directly down in to Estes Canyon and looked ideal with maybe a little brush.

So I may have slightly underestimated the bushwhacking difficulty but at least we had fun.

A good chunk of the brush was actually cat's claw which has a nasty habit of snagging you as you go by.

The high point of the descent was undoubtedly when I was trying to bypass a large patch of that damnable bush by climbing over some rocks and slid down to where I was basically suspended in hellaciously pointy vegetation   I could see the clear section several feet ahead of me but there was no prayer of moving forward no matter how much skin and clothing I was willing to leave behind.  Instead I did a fun little chimney move slowly ripping out the hooks as I went.

3 hours later we finally reached the wash at the bottom of Estes Canyon just slightly worse for the wear and arrived back at the  cars (sadly) just before we would have needed headlamps.

We had a good 200 miles to go to get to the next trailhead in outside of Yuma, AZ so we decided to stop in town and eat.  Being somewhat late and Ajo we had rather limited options (asking for advice at the visitors center revealed the only place the ranger had eaten was Pizza Hut) and ended up at a small Mexican restaurant called Marcela's Cafe & Bakery.

No full on Sierra Eats writeup for this one since no pictures but staff was very friendly and the food was surprisingly decent though some of the decorations were a bit offbeat.  The salsa was really good though the chips were a bit stale and they had an odd practice of giving you small plates instead of salsa bowls.  Be warned that a few of us did have a bit of after action trouble the following day but until then my carne asada burrito was quite yummy.

We drove for what seemed like a very long time arriving at the trailhead for Stud Mountain around midnight.  At this point all the sane people went to bed while Neal, Jen, and myself proceeded to stay up until 3 am talking, drinking, and enjoying some surprisingly bright shooting stars.

Who needs sleep anyway?  We just had Stud Mountain, Little Picacho, then a 300 mile drive home...

You Might Also Like