Before we even set out on our road trip, I had mentioned to Neemor that one of my most sought after locations to shoot was a place called Maroon Bells. The Bells, as they are referred to by locals, are a pair of 14’ers near Aspen, Colorado, that are legitimately the most photographed mountains in all of the lower 48. With the snow pack being a deterrent for most of the day hikers that would normally flock to the location during less inclement months, we added it to our list of hopeful places we would visit along the way.
As we snaked through Colorado on our way out West to get to Utah, I wasn’t sure if our path was going to lead us back towards my most desired destination, but I was excited for what was to come regardless. Eventually as we exhausted our time in Provo, Yosemite, Zion, and eventually Arches, we found ourselves returning to Colorado, a place where we all had friends and our coveted destination lay. Well, I guess I should say my coveted destination. I’m the only one that had even heard of the location prior to the road trip, so I suppose that needs to be clarified. Nonetheless, we were in Colorado, one of my favorite places I’ve ever been, and as a group I think we all were stoked to hang out for a day or two and get some much needed rest in. Scooter’s good buddy Alex that he’s known for quite some time now has a pretty rad apartment in Avon, CO, so we headed there for a few days before proceeding with any more adventures. Alex offered us not only a place to stay, but showers, food, more weed than I could smoke, and just some of the most genuine hospitality I’ve ever received. I was more than grateful for such an unsuspecting opportunity that has now led to a friendship. If you’re reading this Alex, thanks for everything.
After we enjoyed a few days off from the road and our relentless schedule of driving, hiking, and climbing, we gathered our belongings and headed for an outfitter in Aspen where we had plans to rent snowshoes. The day prior during some of our down time, we had the chance to check some of the maps about the Maroon Bells hike, and we decided that we would give it a go the following day. It was labeled as a 7 mile snowshoe to the lake where we would be presented with massive, sweeping, overwhelming views of the Bells, and then a 7 mile snowshoe back to the car.
Prior to arriving at the Bells, we had been in contact with another thru hiker who I’ve had previous conversations with, Whisper. She thru hiked the AT SOBO in 2016, then last year completed a hell of a NOBO hike on the PCT. She’s a bad ass woman, hiker, and person in general, and when I told her we were coming to the Bells, she immediately offered us a place to stay, as well as an invitation to join her at the Banff Mountain Film Festival that her Outfitter was hosting. Although she couldn’t join us on our snowshoe, when we hopped out of our car to begin our hike, a fella revved up his snowmobile and shouted to us, “Are y’all Maya’s friends? She said you guys were coming! My name’s Zach and I’ll be coming to the film showing with y’all tonight!” We were initially very confused considering we’ve never met Whisper (Maya), or Zach, but we rolled with it and said what’s up. After our initial short interaction, we began our snowshoe towards the bells as he drove off into the group of people up ahead.
The first few miles of our 7 mile snowshoe were relatively relaxed, walking at a general pace through packed down snow that followed the road towards the wilderness area. With camera gear at the hip, snow shoes on the pack, and extra layers ready to be put on, the fun was just beginning. As the road snakes through beautiful aspen rows, the Bells peak out behind the trees intermintently giving me a rush of adrenaline each time they appeared. I could hardly believe that I was finally about to see one of my most sought after locations in the dead of Winter.
With the last few miles of our snowshoe exposing the Bells in all of their glory constantly, I couldn’t resist pulling out my camera to begin snapping photos. With each step my heart raced quicker.
We arrived at the parking lot that visitors normally have access to, and with the Bells towering over everything on the horizon, we climbed up a little rock face to get a better view of the area and to relax a little bit. We wandered around, took photos, enjoyed a few snacks and just kind of watched in awe as the wind whipped across the frozen landscape. We took our shoes off and let our soaking wet feet breathe a little bit outside of the snowshoes and our trail runners while the shrouded sun attempted to peak through the clouds. All three of us kind of just stared in awe as the clouds swirled above our heads, and before we knew it, our snowshoes were back on and we were looking for other places to go explore around the area.
We looked towards getting closer to the Bells, but as we moved forward, we realized that not only was there no broken trail, but we couldn't really discern where the lake was. We continued on anyways, alternating between the three of us to break trail, and eventually we got to the frozen, snowed over lake. Within minutes of us arriving, the clouds had moved out a bit and the sun was beginning to set behind the massive peaks. We each went out on our own to get the shots we wanted, but really, after snapping a few, I just stood and watched. I still couldn't fathom the fact that I was there. Unbelievable, really.
With the sun now behind the peaks, the temperatures began to drop as the last bit of light faded away. We still had a 7 mile snow shoe back to the car, but that didn't change the fact that I wish we could have stayed longer. My feet were beginning to go numb with the constant exposure to the cold and snow, so we packed up and decided to head out. I'm positive it wasn't just my feet, both Neemor and I were wearing just normal trail runners with no waterproof protection. Scooter may be the only one that thought ahead and brought a gor-tex shoe. Nonetheless, with our sights set on the car, the snow shoe back was quite enjoyable despite my frozen feet. Although the sun had set behind the peaks, we had plenty of light left which allowed us to hike the 7 miles back to the car during the dusk hours. Not quite bright, not quite dark. Just enough to prevent headlights from being busted out of the pack.
The miles flew by as Neemor pressed on and Scooter and I took our time meandering through the last few miles of our road trip. We arrived at the car not long after Neemor, and before we knew it we were at the Film Festival with Whisper. She managed to get us all in for free somehow, and we entered the theatre while the last film before intermission was playing. After intermission, we watched the few films that remained, then proceeded to get some grub with her and Zach. We ended our night by cramming our sleeping pads into Whisper's room where she was letting us crash. I still am in shock at how welcoming and genuine the trail community is, even when not on trail. I'm grateful for all of the friends I've made over the last few years through hiking, and even more thankful for how they've continuously helped me out.
We woke up the next morning with a fresh shower courtesy of Whisper. After an hour or so of enjoying good conversation, the road beckoned and we were on our way; the snowshoes needed returned and we had one last stop on our way back east towards Columbus.
Post Road Trip Thoughts:
This particular adventure was one of my favorites I've ever been a part of. Having the entire maroon bells-snowmass wilderness essentially to ourselves was almost overwhelming. We had so much room to explore while the wild landscape changed before our eyes with the snow, clouds, and wind. Being able to check off Maroon Bells from my bucket list feels great, but for some reason, I don't feel accomplished there. I want to explore that area so much more. I want to spend a few nights below some of the most awe inducing peaks I've ever seen. I want to climb said peaks, and feel what it's like to stand atop such prominent features. I've climbed a 14'er before, but those twin peaks of the Bells are different. They're memorable in the sense that I can't stop thinking about them. I need more time there.
Although we only got to spend a short period of time there, it made a lasting impression on me. I left the wilderness area driven to create more. To create things that will continue to inspire others, just as the Peaks have inspired me. My own personal work will never amount to what natural beauty is held within that area, but I can only hope. I'll be back to the Bells. Maybe not this year, or next even, but soon. I will climb those peaks and capture the raw beauty of them. I will feel that same overwhelming sense of minuteness yet again.
I think a lot of what drives me to explore these vast, grand places is my earnestness to find places that make me feel small to hopefully inspire me to create more important work. As a photographer, I strive to present these places to my viewers in a format that induces emotion. I can only hope that I succeed in that as my work grows.
I have a few more blog posts in the works about my trip out West, so stay tuned!