The best snow is rarely in your backyard. Especially when spring comes. The high ground melts out, aspens bud, and people forget about skiing for a while. We usually drove to Moab, Utah, with a thousand others to pass the beginning of mud season. We'd ride mountain bikes all day and sit around a campfire drinking beer, planning summer jobs, and deciding whether or not to buy an early-bird season pass. It was a nice break, but I was always happy to get home to the mountains.
One spring we came up with a different plan. I had read about a mountain in Baja, Mexico, a big one that that held snow on its north face. Picacho del Diablo in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir was the tallest mountain on the Baja Peninsula at 10,157 feet. From the summit you could see the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez at the same time. Storms rolling off of both coated the mountain with snow all winter long, especially in an El Nino year.
We had just experienced the largest El Nino event in recorded history (ninety-six—ninety-heaven) in Jackson Hole and figured that Picacho del Diablo got hammered as well. Our plan was not particularly well mapped out. The general idea that snowboarder Craig Webb and I came up with was to fly to Los Angeles, rendezvous with another snowboarder pal of mine, Jamie Ziobro, drive his girlfriend's brand new Range Rover six hours into Baja, and four-wheel it to Diablo's trailhead.
I hadn't found documentation of anyone skiing Picacho del Diablo, though with the surfing and sporting history of Baja, someone certainly had. They didn't write about it, nor did anyone else, so we were on our own.
The first few hours went incredibly well. We caught our flight; the plane didn't crash. When Jamie's girlfriend realized where we were going, the plan hit a hitch. I was partly to blame. I have a pre-touring ritual of clipping my toenails, some of which landed on her $5,000 couch. She let me have it, then let Jamie have it. For a few hours the trip was off, then Jamie came up with the perfect combination of apologies and explanations and we were clear to head out, just in time for LA rush hour.
By 7 p.m. that night we had made it through San Diego, crossed the border, passed through the insanity of Tijuana and Ensenada, bought a case of beer, drank half of it, and were close to the turnoff for Diablo. This was in the not-so-distant era of no GPS or cellphones. (Imagine!) So we navigated at night with a map and the odometer. I hadn't found documentation of anyone skiing Picacho del Diablo, though with the surfing and sporting history of Baja, someone certainly had. They didn't write about it, nor did anyone else, so we were on our own.
We made a dozen wrong turns and survived a bizarre drive-by of a 1970s hippie commune that may or may not have been full of raving lunatics before we made it to the road to Diablo. The road lurched straight out of the valley into an old-growth ponderosa forest. I had never seen a tree taller than three feet in Baja. Squirrels and rodents scrambled through the trees. The forest floor was layered in auburn pine needles. After a few miles, we spotted the first patch of snow. Twelve hours into the trip it seemed like a miracle. White snow in the middle of the desert, in the spring. We jumped out of the car to check it out and realized why snow held on Diablo for so long. The desert gets cold at night. Really cold.
We put on down jackets that we had grabbed from storage and ski hats that we thought we wouldn't use until next season. We drove with the windows down, drinking beers and singing and laughing as the snow drifts grew taller. Exactly one hour later, we almost drove into a D9 Caterpillar tractor that had been dispatched to clear the road. It was stopped dead, blocking the way.
We spent the next two hours figuring out how to get around the thing. There was just enough shoulder for the Range Rover to pass, but the dirt on the edge was loosely packed and the drop-off was over 100 feet. We thought about off-roading through the woods or trying to drag the massive bulldozer out of the way. We even considered tying a guideline from a tree to the frame and slingshotting the car around the tractor, though thankfully, Jamie pulled the plug on that one. If the tractor was even 12 more inches off the road we could have passed. But it wasn't.
We called it a night and camped out in the ponderosa. One of Mexico's largest observatories is set on Diablo and looking up we could see why. The night sky was like a shard of obsidian, perfectly black and clear with millions of stars sparkling through it. There was no moon but the starlight made the snowy forest glow blue.
In the morning we looked at the map and realized we were too far from the peak to reach it in a day. (My friend didn't want to leave the Range Rover in the wilds of Baja overnight.) There was two feet of snow on the ground though, so we put on our skins and headed up a steep ridge to find some turns. We spent all day skiing short shots along a ridge line. The crescent tracks looked beautiful in between the thick trunks. Sometime that afternoon we had enough and headed back to the car for the drive home.
The journey back was slow, and our arrival in LA was less-than-ideal. We had scratched the hell out of the car and Jamie was in deep trouble again. Craig and I slinked away to the airport, gear in hand. Craig flew to Jackson Hole. I flew to Las Vegas, where I walked through the Ski Industries America trade show for the first time—with a mud-caked pack and an ice axe. I had developed slides from the trip at a one-hour processing kiosk and Craig Dostie, editor of Couloir Magazine, said he'd be willing to take a look at them. He liked them, and generously accepted the disjunctive and highly metaphoric story I wrote. (Fire & Ice!) A few months later it became the first piece I ever published in a magazine.
Back at home a few weeks later, we got into the swing of summer. Raft-guiding, girl-chasing, mountain climbing. We forgot about skiing for a while and lived like normal people. I caught up on my bills and put a few hundred dollars away for the winter. I cleaned my room and got my car fixed. It was an idyllic mountain scene right up to the first day of September, when a cold front moved through and left a light frost on the yard. The next day, parkas, beanies, and rock skis came out. Half my friends quit their jobs and filed for unemployment. We started looking at the weather forecast every day and waited, impatiently, for all hell to break loose.