Bagging, The Question

Wilson Peak, San Juan Mountains, Colorado

“Hey Mom, what’s up?”

“Ryan, what is Peak Bagging?”

“Huh? Mom, what are you talking about?”

“Peak Bagging. Are you a Peak Bagger?”

Ah. It’s one of these calls. My mom has found a new gay sex term. She’s not judging me, I know that much, but who knows what the hell she’s been reading to come across a term that I don’t even know.

“Mom you know how much I’d love to explain in gory detail to you some arcane gay sex fetish, but I don’t know this one. You’ve stumped me.”

“No honey, you’re way off. Peak Bagging— I think it might be what Janelle is, a Peak Bagger. It has something to do with 14ers.”

“Oh, okay. " I’m relieved, but still stumped. "You tell me what a Peak Bagger is then. It sounds dirty.”

It wasn’t. Combining what my mom had learned from the article she’d been reading with a bit of extra Googling, we were able to connect the dots relatively quickly. But it is hard to explain, without first establishing a few definitions.

For starters, you need to know that 14ers are mountains with peaks above 14,000 feet. When I first got out of rehab, my two friends, a married couple named Frank and Janelle, started campaigning pretty heavily for me to join them in hiking their next 14er. They said it would be great preparation for Everest Base Camp, and I couldn’t have agreed more. Seriously though, how fortuitous that I had two friends who just happened to be wholeheartedly into hiking high elevation mountains, right at this exact point in my life! I was both newly sober, and training for a trek in Nepal. All it took was them telling me that the next 14er they were planning was the famous mountain you see on every can of Coors Light.

“It’s called Wilson Peak,” they told me. “It’s pretty badass, can you picture it?”

“Are you kidding me? Of course! I’m in!”

That was all it took. I loved the irony of me just getting clean and sober, and then getting a different kind of high with the mountain from a beer can. It seemed like a poetic fit. Our friend ASHLEY thought so too, and agreed to join us as well.

Also, not gonna lie, I was mostly excited about bringing my camera up there. We were all in agreement that the rugged environs of a 14er would make the perfect backdrop for Janelle’s new jewelry line. It's called Catalyst J, and you can check out all her beautiful stuff HERE, on her website. So far we had done a lot of great wintry shoots, but the right summer setting had yet to present itself. This was the right summer setting, I just knew it! And it was presenting itself.

I had met Janelle years earlier at a photoshop class, and at that time her and her husband Frank were smack in the middle of their grand plan to bag each of the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. They had just finished Mt Elbrus in Russia and were about to head to Africa to bag Kilimanjaro.

Notice I’m using the word “bag” now, in reference to mountain peaks. Although they didn’t call themselves by this term, they were definitely Peak Baggers. Covid ended up shutting down their international ambitions shortly after they finished Kilimanjaro, but it didn’t stop them from continuing to bag peaks all over Colorado and the U.S. There is a certain competitiveness that most people who hike 14ers seem to share, and they certainly fit the bill.

I can acknowledge that I too have a highly competitive (and somewhat addictive) personality, so it would have been no surprise to anyone if I had caught the 14er bug too. My mom might have had a Peak Bagger for a son after all! However, there was one major thing that I didn’t yet know, but was soon about to find out, and it would shut down any potential 14er addiction dead in its tracks:

14ers just aren’t all that pretty.

From a distance? Sure! Paint them in paintings, put them on beer cans, you name it. Beautiful!

But actually being on them? Hiking up them? Not so much.

Above a certain altitude, all plant life stops growing, and most animal life pretty much disappears as well. There’s nothing left to look at (or photograph) except for rocks, dirt, and scree. This is the first major barrier that prevented me from ever totally falling in love with 14ers. Their brand of natural beauty is not exactly my cup of tea.

You hike for hours and hours through desolate rockscapes and scramble across barren cliffs. I can’t help it, but sorry, I find the scenery to be very bleak, almost depressing. It often reminds me of being in an ugly, abandoned, mining quarry. A place that has been stripped and robbed of all its aesthetic appeal. Plus, before it gets better or even just different, frequently you might have the same sad view locked in your eyeballs for several hours on end.

Which brings me to my second beef with 14ers, hiking them takes so very, very, long. You have to get up in the middle of the night and start the hike in the dark. You hike with only the light of your headlamps for several hours, until the sun comes up. So obviously for that whole portion of the hike—regardless of how pretty or not pretty it might be—you won’t be getting any photographs. You’re hiking in the pitch black darkness. Then, even when the sun does finally come up, there’s not really much time to set up elaborate or even moderately involved camera gear at any point during the hike. Why?

Well, in my book, that is the third item that 14ers have working against them: you are racing against the clock. The goal is to get up to the peak and back down as early as possible, preferably before noon, to avoid being caught up there during the afternoon rain and thunderstorms. Being caught in a downpour can be unpleasant, if not downright dangerous. It could also f*ck up your camera equipment.

Speaking of, camera equipment is very heavy, and I learned very quickly that how much weight is in your backpack is of paramount importance. When you don't have a porter, are having to carry everything yourself, and can hardly breath because the air so thin, something like a tripod is out of the question. When we were packing for the hike, and I saw Frank and Janelle debating things like whether to take the weight of a tiny extra water bottle or not, I realized that me bringing a selection of prime lenses wasn't a bright idea. Even bringing one extra lens turned out to be wishful thinking. I'm glad I listened to them, though, because once we were above 12,000 feet, just my camera alone felt like it weighed 100 pounds. They later taught me how to pare down to the barest of essentials and pack appropriately for the day, and they were right: this ended up being great practice for trekking on Everest.

The getting up early part, and the monotonous landscape part, I might have been able to handle and come to terms with. But once you start telling me that this whole entire ordeal isn’t really conducive to photography? Uh oh. My sails are suddenly starting to deflate.

Me scrambling around on the side of Wilson Peak, trying to keep up with Janelle -- which was never gonna happen.
Me scrambling around on the side of Wilson Peak, trying to keep up with Janelle -- which was never gonna happen.

As she's struggling to just stay on the side of the cliff without sliding off, Ashley's face seems to say, "Are you kidding me? You're taking a picture?" Which is the exact same thing I think a tripod would say to me if I tried to set up shop here on the side of this slippery, sloping wall of scree and boulders.

After doing two more 14ers with them, it became apparent that we were looking to get different things out of these hikes. Their "Total Hike Time"— or how fast they completed the ascent, summitting, and descent— was very important to Frank and Janelle. The only pictures they cared about getting was a picture of themselves at the top with that elevation sign!

Me on the other hand, I could care less if I even made it to the very top. Isn’t all that’s up there to photograph just a sign? And maybe also the exact same photo angle or selfie that a gagillion other people before me have already taken? That’s not sounding too appealing to me, I’d rather spend more time with my camera somewhere else along the way.

In fact, I realized something very important about myself in hiking these 14ers with them. I love nature, and they do too, but I bag photographs. Not peaks.

I called my mom back days later, after having this revelation.

“I'm not a Peak Bagger, Mom, I’m a Photo Bagger!”

“What honey?”

I’ve invented a cool new term! Instead of photographer, what do think about me calling myself a Photo Bagger from now on?”

“Wow, Ryan. Now that does sound gay.”

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Can't get enough high altitude hiking? Join me in the Himalayas on the longest trek of my life HERE!!

This is only one type of landscape that I shoot.
This is only one type of landscape that I shoot.