I'm a sucker for mountains. The way they tower over everything for miles, the way they catch the light at the end of the day. They don't comprimise, they are pemanent.
Colorado has no shortage of monster peaks and I was happy to spend some time exploring them earlier this fall. My brother is lucky enough to live in a town named Basalt in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, just west of Aspen and just south of the White River National Forest. It's a relatively quiet area and has no shortage of beautiful terrain, only 40 minutes away from the most photographed mountains in America, the Maroon Bells. They're popular for a reason, and they are certainly stunning. Maroon Peak rises up over 14,000 feet where the air is thin and you certainly feel the lack of oxygen if you're a sea-level dweller like myself. It took me about a week just to be able to function at a walking pace once we got there.
The Bells aren't the only thing worth seeing in the area, however. A bit closer to Basalt is another monster named Mt. Sopris. Although slightly lower in elevation at 12,965 feet, it is much more prominent--meaning from base to summit, it is much taller. In fact, it is one of the most prominent peaks in the United States altogether, rising nearly 6000 feet from base to summit (Maroon Bells have about 4000 feet of prominence). It also has two separate peaks, each with the same elevation and only a half-mile apart. Mt. Sorpis dominates the view in the valley where Basalt and another town named Carbondale call home and is insanely photogenic at just about any time of day.
I was lucky enough to land in Colorado at just about the peak of the fall season there, so my brother, Dad and myself spent a few days driving around taking pictures of the beautiful Aspen trees changing color and shedding their leaves. At one point, we headed up over a mountain road called Independence Pass--one of the highest roads in the country at over 12,000 feet. It was snowing pretty hard when we made it to the top, and I was so gassed from trying to climb a rock at the high elevation that I almost passed out in the back seat of the car. Needless to say, we didn't stick around very long. On the way back down, we snapped a few photos, grabbed some beers in Aspen, and headed home. My brother's Jeep handled the snow and elevation without any problems and came in handy a few days later when we went off-pavement to a trailhead deep in the mountains to catch sunset near Capital Peak. Capital is another 14,000-foot behemoth and is also known as one of the most dangerous mountains to climb in Colorado because of a nasty knife-edge ridge that one must traverse to reach the summit. From where we stood, the reputation was understandable. It looked like a miniaturized-K2. The alpenglow was perfect for pictures and we had a great time watching the show.
A few days later, I headed off on my own to find a town a few hours south named Telluride. Like Aspen, it is an uber-expensive mountain town that many celebrities and wealthy mountain die-hards call home. It sits in the middle of the San Juan mountain range in the south-west corner of the state (Colorado is a giant rectangle) and is known as the Switzerland of the United States because it is literally surrounded by giant peaks. I was there to photograph a stretch of road (seen at the beginning of this entry) called Highway 145 at sunset. Along the way, I stopped to take lots of pictures but it was only when I arrived in town that I realized that my battery was almost dead. No worries! I'll just reach into my bag and get my backup......shit. I left it plugged in at my brother's house, four hours away. Damn. The battery has like 5% left, and I have a few hours until golden hour. WTF am I going to do? I only have one shot left on my RZ67 (medium format film camera) and my iPhone in case I lose the camera! Ugh!!
I headed back into town, about ten minutes up the road from where I was going to take the shot hoping to find an electronics store. No luck. When you're out in these small mountain towns, you're really out there. There is no Best Buy, there is no Walmart (probably for the best). You really need to make sure you have everything you need, because otherwise, you're on your own. I managed to find what amounted to a cell-phone store that didn't have the proper charger for a 5D III battery, but did have a sketchy all-in-one charger that the guy convinced me to buy for $20. I got back to the Renegade, plugged it in, and hoped for the best. Success! It read the battery type and began charging immediately. I felt relieved, and drove up the road a bit to let it charge. After a few minutes, however, my relief turned to fury as the screen on the charger went dead and the battery itself completely died. I just drove an entire morning to get here, and this piece of garbage charger sucked whatever life was left out of my battery! Fuck!! I wanted to go back to the store and murder that salesman's face, but knew it wouldn't have done me any good. After swallowing a lifetime's worth of rage, I headed back up the road and parked on the top of the hill where I planned on shooting the scene. I still had one shot left on my film camera (120 film is great for landscapes) and I had my half-shattered iPhone 6 as well. Not a total loss. I got lucky and the Gods stopped shitting on me long enough to snap a few shots of the incredible evening light before it disappeared behind the mountains. The shot from my iPhone can be seen at the top of this entry, and was at the height of probably the most amazing atmospheric haze I've ever witnessed. I took a shot with my film camera just after the sun dropped below the horizon, hoping to get alpenglow but with no luck.
What a scene. I'm a big fan of roads, and so far this is my favorite one. We'll see what the future holds, but I doubt any will be able to top this. It's a shame that my Mark III/70-200mm weren't around to see it.
On one of the last days out there, my brother and I took his other Jeep (a badass, built-up Cherokee 4x4) out to a place called Chrystal Mill. It was only about 3-4 miles off road, but the trail was so gnarly that it took us a few hours to get there. The Mill itself has been standing for over a century and has withstood the harsh mountain weather for longer than any of our grandparents have been alive. Despite being insanely isolated and on a weekday, there were still many other people there hanging out and taking photos. We ran into a few groups on the trail, and it was hard not to smile at every stranger we saw. I just love being out in the wilderness. The city makes me miserable and I suspect that most people feel the same way whether they realize it or not. We spent a few hours hanging around the mill waiting for the light to improve, but we ran out of time as our dad was waiting for us back at the cabin so we took one last picture and headed back out. We also stopped at a spot on the trail called Lizard Lake, which I refuse to believe that I'll never return to and camp at in my lifetime. What a gorgeous pallet of colors and scenery!
Colorado was one of my favorite states to visit out of all the places I've been. Like I said, I'm a sucker for mountains. It was just the right amount of remote but also not too quiet that it got boring. For a person like myself, there was plenty to do and I suspect that I could have spent a few more weeks out there exploring before I ran out of things that were on my list. For my next visit, I definitely plan on hiking more in the San Juans, especially to the Blue Lakes and Ice Lakes basins as well as to some of the peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park and around the Maroon Wilderness too. It would take a lifetime to cover all of the ground out there, and we just barely scratched the surface. You've got to respect the pioneers who went out there and forged trails in that rugged terrain on their own, because it can get really ugly really fast and they went all-in with every step they took. Hopefully, in 2018, I can squeeze some more Colorado into my schedule. I have already booked airfare to Iceland (February) and California (April) and plan on heading up to the Canadian Rockies in Alberta for a few weeks in September. We will see. Stay tuned.