Matt Payne had a goal: climb Colorado’s 100 highest peaks.
It may have taken the Durango resident 39 years to do it, but he logged his last trip this month.
During the last decade of climbing, Payne has captured more than 60,000 images of nightscapes, sunrises and sunsets from more than 70 mountain peaks that sometimes took hours or hundreds of photographs to compose. He has lugged dozens of pounds of camera equipment up some of Colorado’s most rigorous trails. He has gone more than a day without sleep for a picture.
“I have a really strong connection with the mountains and the wilderness, and being up in those mountains really feeds my soul,” Payne said in a recent interview.
Payne came from Colorado Springs to Durango in 2000 to work for Colvig Silver Camps, and soon after decided to make it his permanent home. While he lived in Oregon in the interim, he moved back to Durango in late 2015 for its proximity to the San Juan Mountains, the size of the town and the like-mindedness people here seem to share.
“This is probably the best part of Colorado; it’s pretty tough to beat,” Payne said.
There are a couple of things that keep pulling him back to the mountains, he said. Completing the goal of climbing a mountain is “pretty rewarding,” and experiencing the amazing views once he reaches the top – “there’s really nothing like it,” he said.
Climbing Colorado’s 100 highest peaks is an objective his father, Ray, had. It was a legacy he passed on to his son at the age of 4 when the two climbed their first mountain together.
“(Of) course, he moaned and groaned most of the way up,” the elder Payne said. “But we got back down and he wanted to go more.”
As the Colorado Springs natives climbed more mountains, Ray Payne said he saw a passion for nature growing in his son. They would climb or hike almost every weekend; it was a way for them to spend time together and was a respite from their busy schedules.
While Matt Payne has been climbing since he was young, it was not until about 10 years ago that he began to own his passion for the mountains. He asked his father about different trails in an effort to draw on his more than 30 years experience climbing in Colorado. But memory can serve only so well.
That is when it struck him to begin documenting his travels so that he could share his experiences with friends and others who were curious. He grabbed a camera, created a blog – mattpaynephotography.com – and started to shoot.
“Every climb that I’ve done, I can show other people and I can look back on it,” Payne said. “The more I got into it, the more I got into the photography side of things.”
As time went on, Payne said he invested more time to understand the finer points of photography. He checked out books from the library to learn techniques on how to frame a photograph and shoot landscapes. He started a podcast in which he speaks with other photographers from around the world about their art and anything else that comes to mind. He was recently featured on Denver’s 9News The Most Colorado Thing for his photography.
Silas Musick, a Colorado Springs friend of six years, said he cherishes his relationship with Payne as a climbing partner; the two met through a mutual friend on a hike and have been friends since. He said Payne is an expert at orienteering and knowing where to go next. He can be overanalytical at times, Musick said, researching routes, trail conditions and weather patterns to ensure each trip can be done safely.
“He never had this macho, masculine ‘I’m bigger than the mountain’ approach,” Musick said.
The two have spent countless hours chasing photographs. Whether it was getting up before dawn to capture a sunrise or traversing a mountain in the dark looking for a great nightscape, they “would end up in all these obscure places at all these obscure times,” Musick said.
But photography is more of a side hustle, Payne said. He works full-time as the adult-services program director for Community Connections Inc., a Durango nonprofit that provides services for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
“Every space that he shows up in, he does it in this over-the-top way, and he brings it,” Musick said. “I think the people around him are better because of it, because of how much he pushes the envelope.”
Matt Payne is also a father to one son – Quinn – a role he fills masterfully, Ray Payne said.
“As good a photographer as he is, I think he’s a better father,” the elder Payne said. “It’s nice to have the accolades of being a great photographer and climbing those peaks, but a lot of times you don’t get the recognition of being a good father.”