|Sunset Peak & Swede Peak, AZ|
|Sunset Peak & Swede Peak, AZ|| |
Sunset Peak & Swede Peak, AZ
|Hiking||11.76 Miles|| 9 Hrs 33 Mns ||1.38 mph|
|3,406 ft AEG|| 1 Hour 3 Mns Break|
Not even 10 months had passed since my epic Chiricahua adventures from March of 2016, but it felt like I had lost so much in those 10 months. From an athletic standpoint alone there was the viral infection from this Summer that damaged my equilibrium, a fractured ankle in the Fall, and above all other insults: failing to maintain a health/fitness parameter that my peak-bagging success depends on. I thought for certain that my ‘glory days’ were gone. To my pleasant surprise, my first adventure back in the Chiricahuas begged to differ. From personal reward and sensational views to cliff-hanging fun and loads of variety, this adventure truly had it all and easily is among my top 10 to date.
Sunset Peak – Launching from the exceptionally beautiful starting point, [about 0.60 miles off Rucker Canyon Road by the 3-way junction of FR 719, 719a, & 4351], first up was Sunset Peak. While the topo contours make this look like an easy summit to reach, satellite imagery begs to differ… in fact, this was one of the few summits I’ve ever attempted where I thought there was a damn good chance I would not reach the top; [just look at the satellite imagery of this peak and no further explanation is needed].
My parking spot was almost due South of the peak, and the Southern part was shear cliff. While the topo contours and satellite imagery both favored a final approach from the NE or East, the South & Southwestern slopes of the base of the peak were slightly more gradual and extremely well routed from the resident cattle. Thus, I opted for a slightly longer approach, and then contoured around, heading clockwise. Next I worked my way up and through the massive crags to the area of the summit crags, [which was relatively level and had many routes in the area where the crags stemmed from on the East side].
Cliff-Out #1: After making it most of the way up a chute-like area toward what looked like it would be the highpoint, the views finally opened up and I realized I was barking up the wrong tree… or in this case wrong boulder. However, I’d gotten high enough up that I was definitely certain which crag I needed to summit. As per the usual with summits of this nature, it was not the one I was expecting.
Cliff-Out #2: This time I was aiming for the correct crag, but the route proved to be too technical [downright frightful would be more like it]. There were definitely some Class 4 climbs, possibly worst. The freakiest part was, after some tricky maneuvering up a few levels, [only to realize that continuing upward would turn into a near suicidal free-climb], it was a bit of a challenge getting back down. Since I am typically MUCH better at bouldering downward vs upward, I’m not accustomed to the feeling of being stuck. While a fall resulting in death would have been extremely unlikely from the level I had reached, broken bones would have been very likely in the event of a fall. Very fortunately, on the other side of the ledge growing between the boulders was a small Manzanita, the base of which was on the level I needed to reach. Let’s just say, the good old Manzanita that usually evokes a few of my favorite 4-letter words while bushwhacking, proved to be an absolute Godsend for once!
Summit: By now I had worked my way around almost all the way back toward the Southern part of the peak. I spotted one more potential option for reaching summit crag. With other crags immediately North and South, and shear cliff to the West, this would be my final shot at summiting Sunset Peak. Like my first two attempts, the task of reaching the top from this point looked daunting, almost impossible without ropes/gear, and was a bit of a uneducated tarzan swinger to say the least. Miraculously, my third attempt proved to be a charm; and surprisingly, the exposure factor was only at the high end of moderate / low end of high and the climbs were not too difficult… [then again, after Cliff Out #2, the definition of ‘difficult’ took on a whole new meaning]. After finally setting foot on what was definitively the summit crag, the fact that I actually summited Sunset Peak took a minute or two to sink in. I’ve never had to work so hard to reach a summit… other ‘craggy’ summits I’ve done were always with others and/or have well-know routes to the top like 5057 in the Supes. Sunset challenged me like no other, both mentally and physically, and it was such an awesome feeling to have conquered this peak.
Like most of the other Chiricahua summits I’ve done, the views were spectacular; and definitely among my favorite for best summit views in the Chiricahuas… [although little did I know, that would all change after Swede Peak]. The summit boulder crag had enough space to rest on without feeling exposed, but there were very limited places for a register. I searched in the few places that looked obvious but could not find one. Aside from the super accessible Monte Vista and Buena Vista Peaks, Sunset is the only other – of the 17 Chiricahua summits I’ve done to date – where I was unable to find a register. Thus, I created one, consisting of: a Juvo container gojuvo.com/product/ ... ab=0, a single fluorescent pink piece of paper, about 3’ wide by 3’ tall [enough space to last a few decades for a summit of this nature], and a red pen. As I was signing my name, I heard buzzing, [which may have just been a fly… but I did see a few bees on the way up and did NOT want to be caught on a summit like this with bees]. Focusing on securing the register, [and a bit nervous thinking about my descent], this was one of the very few times where I failed to snap a photo of it – or of the small summit cairn I constructed to secure it. Go figure, the moment I set foot on solid ground, I realized I forgot to take a photo or two of my register/cairn; and this was one of the few summits where I wasn’t about to head the short distance back up to do so!
Swede Peak – Next up was Swede Peak. After Sunset Peak, I headed NE along Sunset’s SW – NE running ridgeline, hitting up UN 6829, 6799, & 6992. I headed off UN 6992 to the SE and within 1/2 mile picked up the Pine Gulch Trail #235, which would lead me within about 1/2 mile of the summit of Swede Peak. Having taken MUCH longer than anticipated to reach the Pine Gulch Trail, I opted to forgo UN 7375 but I hit up UN 7413 & 7502 on the way to Swede, both of which were extremely well-routed and much shorter side trips from the trail.
I can’t remember the exact moment that Swede Peak came into view, but it was pretty incredible: red rock hoodoos, which reminded me a little of those in Red Rock Canyon in Flagstaff and a lot of the red rocks in Sedona. Although a bit craggy-looking from a distance, navigating through the hoodoos proved to be one incredibly fun, easy, and beautiful boulder hop. I was starting to tire at this point, and it was nice to be able to just launch myself into the air, extend my legs, and land on the next boulder without much thought. As I neared the highpoint, the sensational views had me thinking, ‘wow, this ‘Swede Peak’ that no one ever talks about has the hands down best views of any Chiricahua summit I’ve ever stood on’]…
…then just before reaching the highpoint, views to the NE opened up and Swede literally went from best summit views in the Chiricahuas to among my top four favorite summit views in AZ, [along with Munds Mountain in Sedona, Mount Ajo in Organ Pipe, and Signal Peak in the KOFAs]. The backdrop to the North is dominated by many of the 9,000+’ Chiricahua big-gun peaks, and in all directions are peaks in a variety of shapes and sizes as well as canyons, gulches, and drainages. It was truly spectacular to say the least; but the views to the NE, [which are very similar to the red cliffs of Sedona that can be seen from Munds Mountain], were what instantly made this peak among my favorite for best summit views in AZ. If I had known just how awesome this summit is, I would have definitely allotted more time for it, not only to soak in the amazing views but also to explore a bit more among the hoodoos and take in the views from other points on the summit.
I actually found two registers on Swede. One was nestled under the summit cairn atop the highpoint boulder, and it consisted of a Snapple-shaped bottle and an envelope but lacked a writing implement. The lid was missing and the writing was barely discernable but I think one of the names was Mark Nichols, which would be consistent with the fact that I’ve seen his name on many a remote register in Southern Arizona, [often the only name until mine] AND in registers consisting of Snapple-shaped bottles + an envelope or single sheet of paper. Next I found what looked to be the official register [several signings & planted by the Southern Arizona Hiking Club]. It was lying on the ground at the base of the summit boulder. Aside from a small hole in the metal lid, it was in decent condition. The log was a little wet, but most of the signings were readable. I let it dry, signed, and then relocated it to the rightful place within the cairn atop the summit boulder. I also attempted to add a layer of security to both registers by further weather-proofing the lids with a loose piece of bubble wrap I had in my pack; but without anything to tie it, I’m not sure how long it’s going to last.
After the incredible satisfaction of having bagged Sunset Peak and the sensational views atop Swede, I could’ve returned to my vehicle via a boring dirt road and still considered this an epic adventure… but the return trip took things to another level. Originally planning an easy return via the Pine Gulch Trail, I spotted a sweet looking gulch [Shake Gulch] from the summit of Swede, and I starting toying with the idea of how to descend Swede such that I could incorporate part of Shake Gulch into my return… AND still get back before dark…
…but first order of business for the return trip was hitting up what’s labeled as UN 7316 on FS Topo. This location is on the SW flank of Swede and I was curious to see if there were any markers/registers/etc. in this location; [I wasn’t able to find anything].
Next, I decided to attempt to descend off the SW ridge [toward UN 6742]. It looked extremely craggy… but “felt” totally doable… [like the kind of crags that have you going ‘HOLY SHIT!’ from a distance but somehow prove to be almost easy in terms of negotiating the terrain]. There were a few steep spots with loose footing, but nothing was overly difficult, [which was amazing after looking back up at the huge crags I emerged from].
In looking at the topo and the surrounding terrain, I decided to drop into a drainage to the West of the ridge. The drainage does not even have a name on the topo, but it was exceptionally beautiful. I stayed in the drainage for about 2/3rds of a mile, and in about another 1/2 mile it would have emptied me into Shake Gulch; however, I encountered a section with tall, vertical waterfalls and cliff on each side; thus, followed some animal routes out of the drainage, around the NE flank of UN 6995.
At this point, I could have easily taken a shorter path back to my vehicle but really wanted to experience Shake Gulch, so I headed to the SE toward UN 6386 to see if dropping down the East side of that peak and into the gulch would be doable. Once again, it looked very craggy; but once again, [aside from a handful of spots that were slightly tricky], nothing was overly difficult.
Shake Gulch was beautiful, but a much slower go than anticipated thanks to mostly being comprised of larger rocks [versus more of a gravel / finely crushed bottom that’s much easier to walk along without twisting an ankle]. After banking out of the Gulch, I had a short bushwhack of about 1/2 mile over easy terrain before picking up jeep roads that lead me back to my vehicle. I got back with about 60 to spare before I would have needed my headlamp. Absolutely epic!