Thanksgiving 2006 Trip Report

Baboquivari Peak (7,734 ft), Mount Ajo (4,808 ft), Cerro Pinacate (1,200+ m)

Dates: November 23-26, 2006
Participants: Adam Helman, Edward Earl


Prominence is the motive: Baboquivari is the most prominent Arizona summit that Edward Earl and I had not climbed. Ranked tenth on the Arizona prominence list, Baboquivari Peak (henceforth, "Babo") was on Edward's radar for a few years already. Babo is technical, and is one of very few Arizona range highpoints to be considered such, along with the Eagletail Mountains highpoint.

Bill Jacobs notes that Babo is the crux of all 120 sites on the Arizona Fire Lookout List. The list includes former and current Lookout stations.

Mount Ajo is the Organ Pipe National Monument highpoint, and is also on the Arizona Fifty Finest list of prominent summits.

Cerro Pinacate is the highpoint of the eponymous National Park in Sonora state, Mexico. As a volcano, the terrain is barren, remote, and negotiable in winter only since summer temperatures can exceed 120° F.

These three venues, plus the drive from/to San Diego, would fill-in the four day Thanksgiving weekend. We drove my Tacoma truck since the approach to Pinacate is known to have sand - and its four wheel drive capability would be handy (and, it turns out, essential).

Baboquivari Peak

The drive from San Diego was uneventful. We arrived at Baboquivari Campground just before sundown. Babo loomed over all else; and, as sunset drew near, a beautiful orange glow adorned the nearby rock faces.

We hiked at 6:21 a.m. Mountain Time, while still dark, negotiating the trail with hints of daylight. Progress was rapid even though Edward carried the rock pro and I the rope - some 1,200 vertical feet per hour. The trail is in good shape.

After scrambling up the obvious ramp we stood at base of the single, crux pitch - one that is rated Class 4 but with a more difficult section just 15 feet above the base which some call Class 5.3. The problem is not steepness. Rather, hand and foot placements are difficult to come by.

Noting the minimal exposure in case of a fall we decided to chance it and free-climb the pitch. After the first 20 feet things "eased up" and we negotiated the remaining rock with confidence. Scrambling the remaining 400 or so vertical feet (?) to the summit was simple except for a Class 3 move around one boulder noted in Gerry Roach's good report.

The summit benchmark is stamped with an elevation of 7,780 feet - contrasting with the commonly seen 7,734 foot value.

Downclimbing the crux pitch was straightforward until the short section Gerry calls Class 5.3. There, both Edward and I downclimbed with extreme care and deliberateness. It was a bit frustrating to be a mere 20 feet above my pack (left behind for improved balance) and yet unable to proceed apace. We were pleased at our break; I enjoyed the brownie saved from my summit lunch; and we descended without incident.

Total time car-to-car was about 8 hours 20 minutes, including a roughly 30 minute summit siesta.

Desert Meeting

We drove to the main campground for Organ Pipe National Monument, meeting Bob Packard at his camper in space "48". We had planned this meeting to exchange information on Mount Ajo and Pinacate; and to enjoy a holiday-style meal even though Thanksgiving was the previous day.

Chicken thighs were pan-fried; mashed potatoes were served with gravy; there was celery, mushroom, and onion stuffing; plus cranberry sauce.

Bob displayed photographs from his recent journey to Africa for Mount Cameroon and Rash Dashan; and I described my latest project dealing with pressure altitude at the world's higher mountains. We then enjoyed both apple and pineapple pie for dessert.

Ajo Peak

The next morning I drove the Ajo Loop Road to the trailhead for Ajo Peak. The hike entails 2,400 feet of net elevation gain and leads to a multiple-humped summit none of which is the obvious highpoint.

The trail is at times annoyingly steep with loose rock. Further, it is easy to lose the trail after Bull Pasture - a rest stop for park visitors some 1.5 miles and 800 vertical feet from the car.

I left a large garlic clove inside the round of rocks on the southernmost bump of the summit: Ajo is Spanish for "garlic".

Into Old Mexico

I had obtained Mexican auto insurance prior to departing San Diego. We drove into Sonora at Lukeville, Arizona, passing through Sonoyta enroute to the Pinacate Park entrance some 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest along Route 8.

Before entering Sonoyta, and on the road's other side, the line of vehicles awaiting (re)entry into the USA was terribly long and slow. We estimated its length at two miles - and that it might require two HOURS the next day when we too would be re-entering the states.

The approach drive to Pinacate after entering the Park is described below.

Cerro Pinacate Approach

A few hundred yards north of Highway 8 is the Park Headquarters. We paid one dollar per person to enter the Park, plus two dollars for camping overnight at Red Cone - the most convenient location for a climb of Pinacate. The DPS (Desert Peaks Section) Guidebook is outdated as it states that no overnight camping is allowed: as of Fall 2006 camping is allowed at Red Cone.

From the highway it is 2.5 miles of good dirt, heading north, to an obvious side road left (west). Disregard the road directions of the DPS Guidebook: it contains misleading and confusing descriptions of barely visible side roads that are of no use to the road navigation.

Zero your odometer at the cited junction 2.5 miles from Highway 8. Turn left (west) onto the side road and proceed 4.6 miles. A sandy section immediately after starting this road demands four wheel drive. Do NOT take a two wheel drive, high clearance vehicle here and expect "making it" to the Red Cone campground. There is a junction after 0.6 mile that should be noted for the return drive.

After the 4.6 miles continue straight (west) for about 0.3 mile. The road veers north here; passes a wash; and recrosses the wash after another 1.2 miles while heading west again. This second wash recrossing is thus 6.1 miles after leaving the main, north-trending dirt road.

Zero your odometer at this second wash passage and drive 5.2 miles, largely west, to Red Cone campground. Red Cone is the obvious hill immediately north. Red Cone has an enclosed toilet but no running water. Minimal facilities for a National Park - but, hey, this is Mexico.

Edward and I arrived at 6 p.m. some 30 minutes after sunset. Edward enjoyed chili con carne, and I turkey pastrami sandwiches on challah (traditional Jewish egg bread). We talked about music theory and turned-in around 9:40 p.m.

Cerro Pinacate Climb

Cerro Pinacate is one of five peaks that form a "+" pattern. It is the westernmost peak, and easily the highest. The second highest is Carnegie Peak - the eastern peak and also the obvious mountain to the west of camp. Pinacate hides behind it.

We had underestimated the hike's difficulty with a lava field blocking the obvious hiking approaches to the slopes of Carnegie Peak. On the ascent we had walked west on the obvious road, one that is restricted to foot traffic; and then headed south/southwest to Carnegie. This entails much passage over the type of lava-borne rock known as "A'a", from the Hawaiian, and is definitely not the most savory experience.

On the descent we got a bird's eye view of the lava field from Carnegie Peak's slopes, and so planned and used an entirely different route that avoids nearly all of the lava rock apart from a narrow section. I recommend that Pinacate be climbed using the reverse of our descent route. The following GPS-derived coordinates (NAD27 datum) will assist in this regard.

Our campsite was at zone 12R (268245 Easting, 3517763 Northing), elevation 1,305 feet. From the campground, hike west-southwest to the narrowest portion of the lava field at zone 12R (267750 Easting, 3517521 Northing), elevation 1,355 feet. This pinpointing saves time because hiking over lava rock is thereby rendered as short as possible.

After crossing the short lava rock section, walk south over flat terrain to the base of an obvious set of ridges which fan out from Carnegie Peak. Hike your favored ridge, and, upon gaining 1,000 feet from camp, strike out for the saddle on the south side of Carnegie Peak. You might be lucky and locate a path in the black pebbles and scree. The going is arduous owing to the loose footing.

Skirt the south side of Carnegie Peak, heading west to the rigde trending south from the middle peak of the group. Gain the ridge and spy Pinacate for the first time. At this point you may descend perhaps 100 feet and climb the south slope, or traverse without losing elevation to the saddle connecting Pinacate to its neighbor immediately east.

Regardless, you are left with climbing some 500 feet to the summit. We recommend scrambling up the rock bands for about 200 feet to avoid the nasty, loose stuff for as long as possible. The summit slog is annoyingly slow owing to the terribly loose footing. The slope does not diminish until you are nearly at the summit itself.

The Gulf of California is visible to the west, as well as numerous cones jutting from the plains. Elegante Crater is the perfectly round depression to the north (or northeast).

The summit DPS register is bolted to the rock!

The descent was uneventful, and consumed 2 or 2 1/2 hours in contrast with the 3 1/2 hours on ascent. The elapsed time from car to car was 6 1/2 hours, and should have been an hour less had we not erred in the navigation on ascent.


You must present a set of ticket stubs at the Park headquarters on exiting. I drove to Sonoyta and then headed west on Mexico Route 2 the 194 kilometers (some 120 miles) to San Luis Rio Colorado - the border community where reentry was made.

Ten miles prior to reentry we were stopped in a 40 minute line as a military checkpoint for illegal arms and drugs. However this was nothing compared to the 2 1/2 hour wait at the border crossing. We crept along at just under 1 mile per hour, with drivers honking furiously whenever somebody tried to cut-in. A host of snacks in the passenger cab made the experience just one cut above extremely unsatisfying.

This was the first time I had driven in a foreign country, and, owing to the consequences of a traffic accident, was damned careful the entire time. Coffee grounds and coffee-infused candy ensured that I remained alert despite this being a very long day.

Edward took over driving duties upon reaching the Yuma area. I enjoyed a pint of butter pecan ice cream, with various mix-ins such as dried cranberries, coffee candy, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Resuming the driving in Jacumba, I deposit Edward at his apartment; and return home around 1 a.m. Pacific Time. The trip odometer read 996.4 miles. As it reads about one-sixtieth part too low, the actual mileage is likely closer to 1,010.

I had arisen the previous morning at 6:30 a.m. Mountain Time for hiking Pinacate, and go to bed just after 2 a.m. at home. Thus my waking day was over twenty hours long - apart from a nap as Edward drove us through Imperial County.

A satisfying and successful journey - especially with Babo now to our credit.