Thursday, October 28, 2010
Maroon Bells and Maroon Lake, just outside of Aspen, is the quintessential beauty spot in Colorado. It's a scene that's viewed and photographed many thousands of times over the course of a summer and fall. So many people visit the place that on summer days and fall weekends, access is limited to riding a shuttle bus up the eight or nine miles of the Maroon Lake Road. (FYI: Head up before there's anyone manning the entrance gate and you can drive your own car up, and not pay the fee.)
As far as photographic subject matter goes, it really doesn't get any better than seeing these classic peaks reflected in the lake at sunrise. It's a gross understatement to call the place iconic. And therein lies the dilemma. Maroon Bells reflected in Maroon Lake has achieved iconic status because it's been seen and photographed so many times. It's been seen and photographed so many times because it's so incredibly, classically beautiful. (Ease of access doesn't hurt, either.) As a photographer, there's very little chance of going there and coming away with anything that hasn't been seen a million times. Show up on any given weekend morning in late-September or early-October, when the aspen forests flanking the mountains are at their peak fall color, and you're likely to share the scene with more than 100 tripod-toting strangers. Chances are, if you didn't bundle up and make your way to the shoreline an hour before sunrise, you're not going to find a decent spot from which to shoot. So why bother?
And yet, I still find myself drawn to photograph this very familiar scene. Case in point — on Tuesday of this week, with a fairly substantial snow storm gripping Colorado's mountains, I drove for seven hours, capped off with a trip over a very snowy and slick McClure Pass in the dark, to spend the night at the Frontier Hotel (that would be my Nissan Frontier pick-up parked in the Maroon Lake parking lot), hoping to fulfill a decade-long dream of photographing a winter view of Maroon Bells. Though technically not winter, if I could get up there before the road closed for the season, it would save me from alternative methods of access, which would be either skiing the last several miles of the road, or renting a snowmobile at the T Lazy 7 Ranch to make the trip up to the lake. Through many phone calls to different agencies in Aspen and Pitkin County, I was able to determine that, despite a foot of snow falling on the Aspen area, the road to Maroon Lake remained open. After checking out several online webcams that showed very wintry roads in Leadville, and hearing on the radio how much of a mess I-70 was due to the weather, I decided to drive the long, more southerly route over snowy Monarch Pass, along the north rim of the deep canyons of Curecanti National Recreation Area, and then over the aforementioned McClure Pass, before dropping into Carbondale and on to Aspen. From there, I headed up the Maroon Lake road, blazing a trail through untouched powder the whole way. Once in the parking lot at the lake, I wrapped my zero-degree North Face sleeping bag around me and drifted off to sleep to the unbelievable artistry of Porcupine Tree's "Signify" blasting through my truck's speakers. I woke up a few times to see the moon and some stars, leading me to believe that maybe the storm would loosen its grip enough by morning to allow me some shots of the Bells. Unfortunately, when the light of day arrived, the mountains were completely socked in. I still found plenty to shoot, but the coveted Maroon Bells winter shot was a bust.
After a few hours of hoping for clearing clouds, hunger pangs took over, so I headed down into Aspen for breakfast. I wasn't ready to throw in the towel just yet, so I headed back up for a second chance. Ah, second chances. Not long after I got back to the lake, the clouds began to part, revealing a glorious scene of the Bells decked out in all their winter glory. I began to photograph the scene when both peaks were still barely visible through the flowing streamers of clouds, and kept shooting until the only clouds left were some tame powder puffs drifting harmlessly above the peaks. The landscape was a crisp, cool pastiche of blue and white. Despite the peaks now fully in view, clouds down valley were still producing snow. If you click the photo to see it at full size, you'll notice some white streaks in the blue sky at the top of the image. Those streaks are snowflakes caught during the exposure.
My only disappointment was in discovering the lake had already frozen over. No matter. There was still plenty to photograph without the classic Maroon Lake reflection.