Swisshelm Mountain • Range Highpoint: Swisshelm Mountains
• Central Cochise County

Date Climbed
December 15, 2007

Elevation
7,185 feet

Distance
4 miles round trip

Time
5 hours

Gain
1,425 feet

Conditions
Cool & gorgeous

Prominence
2,025 feet

Click on the thumbnail to see a full-size version


The Swisshelm Range as viewed from Rucker Canyon Road
 

The high peaks of the Swisshelsm Range (but not the actual summit) as seen from the ranch complex
 

Driving in on the road
 

Now on the ridge we get our first view of the top
 

A little closer now
 

The final push to the top
 

There's Scott Casterlin
 

Me at the summit cairn
 

Afternoon shadows on the descent
 

One last shot before we descend

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The Swisshelm Mountains are located in central Cochise County in southeast Arizona, southwest of the Chiricahua Mountains. Although the highest summit in the Swisshelms is over 2,500 feet lower than Chiricahua Peak, its dramatic profile makes it a much more visually appealing peak. The range lies on the eastern fringe of a broad valley, roughly half-way between Willcox and Douglas, about 40 miles from both cities. Itís best viewed, in my opinion, coming up from the south from Douglas, heading up highway US-191. The Swisshelms rise grandly above the desert valleys. From the west, it's nearly 3,000 unobstructed vertical feet between the desert and the summit.

I had not given the Swisshelms much thought to climb until last October when I was in the region hiking Silver Peak. After that hike, I drove south into Douglas then north toward the Swisshelms for a scouting mission, aware the range sits on private land. I drove north through Elfrida, then east on Rucker Canyon Road about a dozen miles to the start of Mountain Queen Road, coming to sign mentioning that access into the range is permitted "verbally", from the landowner. Who was the landowner?

I assumed the landowner in question was located at the Rafter X Ranch that sits along Rucker Canyon Road at the junction with Mountain Queen Road. No one was home, though, but I felt like I had a lead. Once home, I drafted a request letter to the Rafter X Ranch, but could not find an address, and my letter was returned undeliverable. However, quite by random luck, a climber from New Mexico, John Hamann, contacted me about doing a few peaks in Arizona, mentioning Swisshelm as one of them. He had a lead, too, and had actually talked to the landowners. This was further than I got, so I asked to tag along for Swisshelm, which we set for mid-December. Scott Casterlin, a long-time climbing buddy from Tucson, was also included.

I left home very early in the morning for the 120-mile drive to Tucson, planning to meet Scott and John at a Chevron off Interstate-10. From there we convoyed the hundred miles toward the Swisshelms. We drove Rucker Canyon Road to Mountain Queen Road, then south a couple miles into the canyons of the Swisshelm Mountains toward the Smith Ranch property. We rolled up and a Mrs. Smith came to greet us. She was very friendly and we had a 15-minute chat about the area and the history. We learned that their property includes almost all the Swisshelms and that it is one of the largest wholly owned and deeded contiguous private land tracts in the state. The land goes back seven generations in their family, too. It was fascinating.

She also filled us in on the sometimes troublesome encounters with border crossers who find their way onto their land. She sounded like a thoroughly fair woman, who understands the challenges some must go through to make a living for their families, yet harbors no patience for the unlawful scoundrels who rob (and worse) the crossers and landowners and anyone else. The border/illegal immigration topic has taken on such a poisonous, extreme bent in the media in recent years, it's actually so very refreshing to hear someone who lives it everyday tell about it. Like others I have talked to near the border, their views arenít extreme, just practical. I wish them the best of luck. After our talk, we got down to business of unlocking the gate and working out where to go. She bade us farewell, and we were on our way.

From the ranch house we went south four miles along a decent ranch road through some spectacular canyons. We bashed and bumped to the end of the road at a tank on top of a knoll, elevation 5,760 feet. The high peaks of the Swisshelms were right above us, but the actual highpoint was invisible on the ridge to the south. We finally got our stuff in order, beginning our hike at 11 a.m. The weather was perfect, with blue skies, clear, no clouds, dry, cool but not cold, and no wind.

There is no trail to the summit, so we opted to start hiking directly up the slope in front of our cars. We walked a flat section of juniper, cactus and grass before coming to the slope. The terrain steepened to meet the slope, and we trudged upward at our own paces. The slope wasnít too bad, just steep and relentless for about 600 vertical feet before it moderates to meet the upper ridges. There were few large trees or shrubs, mostly grass and agave, plus numerous rocks. The going wasn't bad at all.

Once we were all above the steepest parts, we all started to bend left (south) and sidehill toward a low spot on the ridge. John was a few hundred paces ahead, while Scott and I stayed somewhat close together, although we followed mostly our own routes. The summit was now visible, a lovely rounded peak still about a mile south. Between us and it were about 3 or 4 small false summits, which we walked up and over or sidehilled as needed.

In time, we were at the base of the final hill, about 250 vertical feet of grass, rock and shrub still to go. John had bounded out way ahead and made the top about 15 minutes ahead of us. I got ahead of Scott a bit, and we achieved the top roughly at the same time, only to discover there was still more walking to do. Fortunately, it was just a few hundred mostly horizontal feet along the main summit ridge, the highest point (and the benchmarks and cairn) being at the south end of this ridge. John was already there.

Soon, Scott and I showed, and we all sat down around the cairn, looking over the register which held names going back over 20 years and worked out to about a half-dozen hiking teams per year. The three of us spent about 30 minutes up top, eating lunch and identifying all the surrounding peaks. Given the clear skies, we could make out ranges well over a hundred miles away with no trouble. To the northeast were the snow-bound Chiricahuas, while due east was Animas Peak in New Mexico. Across the valley to the west we could see the Whetstone, Mule, Huachuca and Dragoon Ranges. Mount Wrightson stood tall way off on the westernmost horizon. North we could see the Dos Cabezas, and farther off, the gigantic snowy hulk of Mount Graham. To the south we had unobstructed views of the multitude of peaks in Mexico. I could have stayed up there all day.

We finally got moving, starting the hike down. Because there were so many rocks on the whole route, we had to go roughly as fast (or slow, however you see it) going down as we did coming up. As usual John was off to the races while Scott and I strung out, me a bit ahead, Scott hobbled a bit by a bad foot. We retraced our steps, walking down the steep initial slope carefully. It took us about 90 minutes to egress. I had some time to change into dry clothes while Scott managed the last few feet back to the vehicles. It was about 3 p.m. when we finished, but the sun was now behind the peaks, so we had lots of shade and rather cold temperatures. We convoyed out to the ranch house to say thanks and goodbye to the Smiths, and then back out to Rucker Canyon Road. John and Scott were driving back to Tucson while I was heading up to Willcox, where I was going to stay at a hotel since we were all planning to meet again the next day to tackle another peak, the Mae West Peaks in the Little Dragoons.

The day had been a perfect Arizona winter (technically, late fall) day. While the rest of the country was dealing with snow and ice storms and lake effect whatever, we had picture-perfect conditions. You couldnít ask for anything better. Alas, I did have one very frustrating experience: I am almost certain I dropped and lost my GPS unit somewhere on the mountain. I know I had it driving in. It was only afterwards when I got home that I couldnít find it. I called the hotel and they didnít have it. Damn. The only damper to a great day. My thanks to the Smiths for their kindness and to John and Scott for being good hiking mates for the afternoon.

(c) 2007 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.