Although Cooke’s Peak may be insignificant as mountains go, it is nevertheless imposing. It is, as the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources claims, “a prominent landmark” in southwestern New Mexico.
The surrounding desert is slightly more than a mile above sea level (1,480 metres) feet, so Cooke’s Peak has a prominence rating of 2586, meaning that any climber is going to have to ascend 2,586 feet, or .8 kilometre, to reach the summit. Surrounded by seemingly endless vistas, Cook’s Peak dominates its surroundings, challenging those who would climb it.
Except for occasional precipitation, Cooke’s Peak is dry. Parched, actually. The Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources notes that Cook’s Spring on the southeast side of the range is one of just a few perennial springs in this part of New Mexico; during the 19th Century, Native American, Spanish, and American travellers through the region used the peak as a marker for fresh water.
Because it is a desert mountain, Cooke’s Peak nourishes no lush forests and trout streams. Instead, live oaks and a few junipers, yuccas, century plants and prickly pears dot its lower slopes and valleys. Its upper slopes, which evolve to sheer cliffs in places, are rocky and largely barren. Dry arroyos fan out from it in all directions; these must roar with torrents of water after a heavy rain, although I have never had the good fortune to be there during a storm, or the misfortune to be there during a good old New Mexico thunderstorm! In winter, a powdering of snow sometimes dusts the highest elevations.
Grandma Ingraham’s favourite mountain
Cooke's Peak was my Grandmother Ingraham’s favourite mountain. She owned a small oil painting of it, by her friend, Caroline T. Cann, and she could see the mountain from her front porch in Hurley.
Grandma Ingraham often expressed a wish that she could climb it, but overweight as she was, and having almost died from tuberculosis, climbing it was out of the question for her. But not for me. I dreamed, schemed and planned, and at last got to the age when parents must give in and let their children do crazy things and drive cars over roads represented — if they are represented at all! — by faint, dotted lines on maps.
On a spring day in 1961, three friends and I — Gary Overturf (who was to become my brother-in-law five years later), Bruce Paterson, and Travis Waters — gathered our supplies (food, water, first aid kits, cameras, pocket knives, signal mirrors, etc.), packed our knapsacks, and set our alarm clocks for 4:00 a.m.
We left Silver City about 5:00 a.m., driving first through darkness and then growing morning light, and arrived on the southeast flank of Cooke's Peak at about 6:00 a.m. We parked near the adobe remains of an old U.S. Cavalry fort, Fort Cummings. The mountain loomed before us, looking nothing like it did from home. The peak itself was not even visible from our location: the northeastern shoulder of the mountain hid it from us. Had it been visible, we might have changed our plans.