It was pitch black and early morning as two hikers maneuvered their way up the side of Wetterhorn Peak, anxious to reach the top of the 14er before the sun penetrated the horizon. All was dark except for the hikers’ headlamps and, like an intro scene of a horror movie, a pair of glowing, calculating eyes watched Matt Payne and his hiking partner. A mountain lion looking for its breakfast.
“You see a lot of eyeballs with your headlamp because a lot of deer are out at that time, but deer usually stay put or run away,” said Payne. “These ones followed us for like two miles and, fortunately, I was with my friend.”
Had he been by himself, the Durango photographer isn’t so sure it would have ended well.
“You just keep moving. Get out of there as fast as you can,” Payne said when asked what one even does when faced with a mountain lion thinking of turning you into a filet mignon. “You definitely have all kinds of thoughts that go through your head like, ‘Oh, I could use my tripod to fight it off.’ You pretty much don’t have a chance if it decides it wants to attack you. But it didn’t.”
Since about 2011, Payne has been working toward his goal of climbing the 100 tallest mountains of Colorado and photographing the sunrises and sunsets from these extreme vantage points. After completing his goal in September, he has more than a few tales of missed footings and tense encounters with animals.
Like the time he ascending Dallas Peak, a 13er in the San Juan Range that requires rope to climb. While descended down the mountain, Payne was scooting across a ledge, but his backpack got in the way and pushed against him as he sat down.
“I lost my balance and just fell over the ledge and did a tumble down the mountain, like a couple somersaults on some rocks and stuff, and I was totally fine.”
Another time he was hiking near Uncompahgre Peak in the dark when about 10 feet away, he saw a big pair of eyes and two smaller sets of eyes. At first, Payne believed he had run into a mother moose with her babies – a realization that horrified him, because moose are notorious for charging and trampling those who dare to get too close. Once he realized that the creatures were actually elk, he was relieved.
“I knew that I just needed to go around them.”
Unfortunately for Payne, he was surrounded by thick trees and bushes, so going around the elk family wasn’t an option.
“So I was making lots of noise and – I wasn’t throwing rocks at them, but I was throwing rocks near them to try to startle them to go away. And finally they were like, ‘He’s just annoying,’ and they finally just walked off, but your heart gets racing because you don’t know what you’re going to do.”
It’s amusing to watch Payne recount his adventures with the composure of someone remarking on the good weather, all while explaining how he once tumbled off a cliff or had to race down a mountain during a lightning storm. There is, however, one story that still bothers him. It might come as a surprise, but it’s not the animals that scare the shit out of him. It’s people.
In 2009, Payne was out camping with his parents, wife, and young son near Mount Lindsey. He was planning on getting up in the morning to do a climb and sunrise shot, when early in the morning, some men drove their pickup truck through their campsite, yelling and screaming that Payne and his family were in their campsite. The men were camped down the road about 100 yards away, and from about 1 to 3 a.m., they played their music loud and fired off their guns.
“Apparently they got a flat tire in that process – surprise! – because they were drinking a bunch,” Payne said. “And they came up the next morning and asked us for help because they didn’t have a way to change their tire. We were like, ‘You guys are the ones that were shooting your guns all night and being loud, so we’re not going to help you.’ So then the dude came back about 20 minutes later and was basically shooting the gun off right next to us and saying we weren’t gonna make it out of there alive.”
It was then that Payne and his family decided that their camping trip was over. They packed up, left, and called law enforcement, though, to his knowledge, nothing ever came of it.
“Honestly, I just wanted to get my family to safety. I wasn’t worried about climbing or taking pictures anymore. It was just about getting to safety. Since then, now I try to do all my stuff backpacking because you don’t run into a lot of – we don’t want to say ‘those people,’ but ‘those people’ typically don’t go backpacking. … Ever since then, I almost don’t do any car camping anymore, because it’s just kind of just scarred me.”
If you haven’t picked up on it already, Payne has been quite lucky in his backpacking treks. He’s suffered no serious injuries, though that isn’t to say he hasn’t had moments where he’s made wrong turns or genuinely wondered how a situation was going to pan out.
On one hiking expedition, he and his climbing partner, Silas Musick, found themselves in an extremely dangerous predicament. The pair trekked Snowmass Mountain and once they were done, decided to climb a sub-peak. Afterward, they chose to take what they thought was a shortcut back.
“Never do that,” Payne said, cringing at the memory.
The two ended up in a steep terrain of loose rocks where, with every step they took, the mountainside would give and cause rockfalls, at times with big, heavy boulders just missing them.
“We just got really lucky that we actually turned around and were like, ‘This is too sketchy.’” … It was pretty close calls. Not a good way to do it. Definitely learned that lesson.”
Now that his photography project is finished, Payne plans to make a book out of his work and hopes to start an exhibit. Despite any hardship, cold sweat, and even going 36 hours without any sleep to climb several peaks, there isn’t a single photo in his collection that he regrets.
“Not at all. It was awesome. It’s obviously not comfortable, but it’s worth it. The end result is worth it.”