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Never Turn Your Back To The Ocean

How (Not) to Run Up Baja Sur’s Highest Peak


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This article is featured in the Summer 2022 print issue of Trail Runner

 

It began years earlier at sea level, in the quaint pueblo of Todos Santos, Baja Sur, Mexico, after I broke the cardinal rule of beachcombing: Never turn your back to the ocean

Instead of watching the Pacific at sundown, I’d find myself looking east into Baja’s interior, transfixed. There was a perfectly good explanation, though, for east was where the mountains were, and mountains were where I wanted to be most. 

For the past two decades, my family would travel to Todos Santos, set near the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Not all the way south, which places you in Cabo San Lucas, home to Señor Frogs and whistling bartenders and watered-down shots of tequila, eighteen overwatered golf courses in a parched desert. Todos Santos is an hour north but a world away from Cabo San Lucas, an art-inflected enclave smelling more of tacos and Sex Wax than Cabo Wabo and Chanel. Most come here for the surf, but I’d always end up studying the peninsula’s jagged mountainous skyline instead, wondering what was up there. I learned from locals that these mountains are called the Sierra de Laguna, a spinal column of peaks running north-to-south from La Paz to San Jose del Cabo, the uplifted granitic interior of the southern quarter of this, one of Earth’s longest peninsulas. I learned that the name “Sierra Laguna” references a series of dried, primordial lake beds in its high country, and that the Sierra is a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. I learned about their fragrant pine-oak forests, their pygmy owls and pumas. I even learned about occasional snow flurries in winter months. It was difficult to fathom snow when surrounded by Sonoran coastal flats. 

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I longed to run up there some day, to see these peaks myself, to smell Baja pine. Specifically, I had sights set on running to the highest peak in the range: El Picacho at 7,090 feet. 

Years passed. After patching together maps and mistranslated trip reports, I asked everyone for information, learning what I could of the few maintained trail systems that crisscrossed the Sierra. Their grades were steep, designed more with burros in mind. But there remained an edge in the lore of this Sierra Laguna that I couldn’t shake, and I grew increasingly obsessed with that edge. Finally, one year, I went.

Driving before sunup, my brother Ryan and I locate the unmarked turn from the highway and barrel east to the Sierra. He’ll enjoy a hike while I run the twenty-four miles to the summit and back. Our van, “Chuy,” rattles into submission as rust flakes fall from the roof. By the time we part ways at the trailhead, temperatures are on the rise. May is the last sensible month to explore Baja backcountry before summer heat sets in, and every arroyo is bone-dry. 

After a flat, cattle-grazing section, the path shoots unrelentingly up, and I am slugging more water than anticipated. Passing madrones and oaks confirms the severity of this climb, whereas an hour earlier I’d been running through stands of Cardone cactus and ocotillo. After two hours, the trail tops out at the ancient dry lake beds, watched over by a boulder painted with a ten-foot Virgin de Guadalupe. She stares at me, at my salt-encrusted templates and red skin, curious why I’m here, why I’m alone, why I have so little water. 

The final push requires climbing a scree mound—prime rattlesnake territory—but the three-hour ascent is worth it, for the peak offers panoramic views in every direction, a rare glimpse of both the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sea of Cortez to the east. I can’t believe how far I can see, how light I feel.

All that remains is a twelve-mile descent, retracing the way I’d come, several thousand vertical-feet down. I stomach a single dry corn tortilla picked up the night before at a local tienda, fuel that demands more lubrication than I can afford.

 

I’d been to the peak and back, but not without a newfound respect for this wilderness, and, most importantly, for water. Water is life.

 

By midday, temperatures reach triple digits. With more than an hour from Chuy, I have nearly run out of water, leaving one token sip in the handheld to keep myself in a positive frame of mind. Quickly, I start losing clear vision. Pee downgrades to the color of Tang. Pace slows to a crawl. Every fractal of shade is refuge. Every attempt to harness the romance of this place, these mountains I’d daydreamed of for so many years, is thwarted by survival mode: 

Get back to the van alive

And so begins the downward dramatic spiral of despair, visualizing the rescue mission ordered to pull me out of here. Woozy and nauseous, I stagger through the last remaining miles, returning finally to the cactus flats where signs of life meet me—three bony cows huddled under a tree, watching as I pass, unimpressed. When I am close enough for my brother to hear me, I begin to yell “WATER! WATER!” as loud as I can until my voice grows hoarse. Dry heave. Walk a minute. Collapse in the shade. No brother. No Coke. No Gatorade. Just the radiant blaze of Baja at midday. Eventually, I see Chuy in the distance and yell again for water. This time, my brother hears the call and meets me with a hot plastic bottle of water he’d found roasting in the van. He too ran out of water. The bottle looks twenty years old and bits of its own plastic float in the water. I drink it anyway. 

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The return home is a blur, nearly blacked out in a state of severe dehydration. We stop at the first tienda for fluids and I buy a Coca-Cola but immediately reject all of it into a nearby bush. At one point I look back at El Picacho and notice a new jagged edge to the summit I hadn’t previously noticed. I’d done it. I’d been to the peak and back, but not without a newfound respect for this wilderness, and, most importantly, for water. Water is life

I understood why most came here to worship the ocean, to stay near the coast, for to venture into unfrequented and unmarked Baja mountains requires more than simply boardshorts and wanderlust. It requires planning, overcautious fueling, and emergency plans. 

At sunset, I hobble down to the ocean and jump in the surf. Bobbing there with only my head above water to cool sun-chafed limbs, I watch the sun disappear behind the horizon. Everything turns silver. And then I do it again, the cardinal sin. I turn my back to incoming surf and look east toward the mountains, toward the hard things, toward possibility.