Photograph: Storm Over Cochise Head

27 September 2022  |  Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona

Although I hike a great many miles and climb a number of new mountains every year in the pursuit of my photographs and in the best life possible, I rarely talk about my exploits (certainly not online) and typically refrain from location specificity. You've undoubtedly heard something along these lines in the last few years: "Location X used to be dead quiet ten years ago. I can't believe how crazy it has gotten". Many of us are realizing the same: It seems no longer possible to have the experiences we once did in favorite places. And for many of us the human presence is anathema to our mode of interacting with wild places. Peaceful and quiet were the desired features. I'm not the guy who finds it energizing to see full parking lots at trail heads and you will never ever catch me waiting in line to take a hike (as has become commonplace in Zion National Park). They may not be popular with the mass of social media (good) but the western U.S. enjoys many, many millions of acres of incredible and quiet wild lands. You will never find me in a queue to watch wildlife or take a walk. Not doing it. As a professional, I've chosen to not participate in public lands congestion and damage by vowing to never release a location guidebook and by limiting my own use of location information. If the reader should be a photographer, I hope you will please consider doing the same in your own practices.

The reason why I prefaced this story as such is because I will now be location specific: I was mesmerized by the mountain Cochise Head (8113' / 2473m, Arizona) when I first saw it nine years ago. From this website: "The appeal of Cochise Head resides with its appearance - great globs of volcanic stone fashioned by erosion and weathering into the form of a human face gazing skyward. Achieving the airy summit is difficult." Count me in.

Cochise was leader of the Chihuicahui local group of the Chokonen, a band of the Chiricahua Apache, and a key war leader during the Apache Wars. The Chiricahua Mountains was one of their homes. From the right angle in the right light, the facial profile of Cochise Head is remarkable. The tip of Cochise's nose is the high point. As beautiful as the light is in my photograph, it complicates the viewing of the facial profile; flat light from a slightly different position is best to see Cochise in all his greatness.

As with my photography, I rarely plan hikes or summits. I see. I conceive. I get excited. I go. I've been mountaineering my entire adult life. Navigation is not an issue for me and I don't need route descriptions or beta or assurance of rescue - I just need access and quiet. That's the extent of my planning process. I wasn't sure I would be ascending Cochise Head on this trip until I saw it and then felt driven. Maybe it's a sickness.

I love desert peaks because not many people climb them. In general, they are difficult; there are never any trails (sometimes bighorn sheep or deer); and the way is often very steep and prickly. Cochise Head's physicality, remoteness, and obscure nature appealed to me. It is the 83rd most prominent peak in Arizona. In topographical parlance, that's the measure of the independence of a summit - how much it stands alone from others. With 1913' feet of prominence, this mountain stands boldy. The drop from summit to base would likely assure wonderful airiness. And those who have left trip reports suggest that "...the condition of this hike is just awful". The landscape planners knew exactly how to entice me.

Thunderstorms and rain had been hitting me every day and sometimes at night. The evening light shows were indeed incredible. I wasn't sure I could make the summit safely with this summer's monsoon conditions (2022) so an early start was ordered. I awoke with the first crack of light and was walking by 615am. I wanted to be back at my truck no later than 2pm. That doesn't mean I couldn't have been hit by an earlier arriving storm. Reaching the summit massif entails climbing up and going over a ridge, dropping into a canyon, and climbing out of that canyon toward the summit. It's the reverse to get back to the vehicle - steep ascent on both legs of the journey. Even better, the entire area was burned over in 2011 by the Horseshoe 2 Fire, and is now covered by tall grasses, thick brush, and hundreds of down trees, usually without an obvious path to follow. The deer were helpful. I enjoy a good thrashing to obtain a quiet summit.

Extract blood, did Cochise. A fair amount of it. And a lot of sweat to go with it. But the summit was indeed beautiful, as I watched cumulus clouds racing to gather my way. The summit log indicated that only a couple of parties per year climb this mountain - shocking. I certainly like the obscure ones. I couldn't stay long, said the clouds. I signed the log, packed up, and started to move down. I really wanted to stay longer. Cochise Head aspirants: If you happen to find my 77mm Nikon lens cap or a white USB cord (I thought I was solar charging my cell phone), please enjoy them. I'm sorry that I littered on you, Cochise.

Within two miles of reaching my truck the clouds began their non-stop growl. The heavy gray masses became electrified as great energy pulsed through their rising bulk. The crackling swept back and forth through the clouds and I was glad to be down in the trees and no longer on the naked ridge tops, where I had first heard the thunder and felt the first drops of rain. This would not have been my first rodeo; I've been too close to lightning on multiple occasions. It's part of playing in the mountains, but they’ve been very good to me

I was dehydrated when I reached the truck. I had consumed a gallon of water but needed a lot more. I downed a quart of Gatorade and drove up to Massai Point (Chiricahua National Monument) to survey the sky. And boy, was it looking good in every direction. I turned to look back at Cochise Head and was thrilled with what I saw: Wild mammatus, bulky cumulus, and a cool looking volcanic peak. First a summit, now a photograph.

Another day not wasted (Thank you, Guy).

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