In Focus: Nicole Morgenthau and the Mountain Men

Mountain men still thrive and photographer Nicole Morgenthau has been documenting them in stunning portraits at rendezvous and the places where they live and work across the West.

The mountain man has been an integral part of the West since before the Louisiana Purchase. (Hey, and when it comes down to it, that individual in-step with the natural world and wanting nothing to do with the regulations of normal society is also the atypical Mountain Gazette reader.) Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, photographer Nicole Morgenthau has been traveling across the West and attending gatherings such as the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous getting to know present-day mountain men and taking haunting portraits that feel vintage and yet transcend time. She took the time to share some of her best work with us and let us know what it has been like to get under the skin of mountain men.

Tell us about this project.  Mountain men?  They still exist?

“As with any other group/ subculture, there are different levels of commitment.  Most of the mountain men I know are teachers, have a wife, a few kids and two cars in the garage.  These folks enjoy the history and often camp in a primitive way.  Very few of the mountain men I know live the life here in 2015.  Oliver is the only one I’ve met that sleeps in a shelter with no electricity or running water; under a buffalo hide and works as a tanner.”

How do you achieve the quality in these photos that makes them feel as if they came from the 19th century, not just technically speaking but also in the personalities you have captured?

“Honestly, it’s all right there—teepees in huge fields of sage, people in deerskin wearing old trade beads, dogs on hemp ropes.  I feel as a documentary photographer, I am good at sniffing out characters.  I’m very outgoing, so if someone looks interesting, I just approach them and nine out of ten people are happy to participate in my project, and tell me how they got here.

As for the vintage quality, I look for textures that will sing in Black & White- canvas tents, deerskin, suntanned skin all work well.  Sometimes I will manipulate an image for days before it’s where I want it.  I love making a good sky a great sky, and making a weathered face look like a topographical map of the Himalyas.  I enjoy writing captions too, but want the pictures alone to tell a story.”

You say you don’t like to shoot landscapes?  But these men seem part of their landscape.  Can you capture the essence of a place through people?

“Great question.  I spend most of my free time outside, on a trail.  I adore wide open spaces, but always want to stick a human in the landscape if I’m taking a picture.  These men are for sure part of the landscape.  They rely on it heavily from the animals they hunt for meat and hides, the quills that are used for adornment, and wood used to start fires for warmth and cooking.  There are mountain men in almost every state.  So far,  I’ve stayed close to home, but I think the rendezvous in Texas, Oaklahoma, Virginia would show a similar a very different setting.  While camping in Texas or Virginia sounds unpleasant to me, the varied landscape would tell a mountain man of that regions story for sure.  Ok, now I kind of want to check one out in a different region.”

Any good stories about hanging out with these characters?

“Um, where to start… There are a lot of marriage proposals.  Additionally, I hear about a lot of divorce too.  People have divulged about their affairs, tumor on scrotums, you know, the norm.  Sometimes I bring beer (othertimes, I drink theirs) and sit and talk to people for an hour or so before taking their picture.  I think photographers, hair dressers, massage therapist, bar tenders are all the same in that we are approachable; people are comfy telling me their story.  I’ve gone to some tiny rendezvous, where it was pouring rain.  All we do is talk.  Sometimes I come home with 2,000 pictures other times 20.  I’d rather be a friend telling their story than anything.  That’s my approach to photography.”

Do you think the West as we imagine it is disappearing?

“Yes.  Ground that was once covered in sage is now home to Kohls, Costco, Home Depot.  Mountain men and cowboys are on their smart phones, so yeah the west as we imagine it is disappearing.  I think a lof of people love the romantic notion of the west, I do.  But as land get sold off, there are just less jobs for people that work the land and encompass our picture of life in the west.  It isn’t gone, but shrinking for sure.”

Now scroll down and enjoy the stunning, all-mountain-man work of Nicole Morgenthau (click on any photo to enlarge):


Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous. Lone Tree, WY“At the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous (RMNR). Two German bookends and a buddy/ brother from Vernal, Utah.”


Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous. Lone Tree, WY“This is Concho. We spent about an hour talking about taxes, divorce, beer, tumors & working dogs. Nice guy. Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous (RMNR)”


Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous. Lone Tree, WY

“Ron ‘Maddog’ Johnson. He had a tear in his eye as the American flag was being raised. If I could keep my mouth shut I would, but I can’t so I didn’t: I asked him what made him sad. He said he’d lost quite a few friends at war and felt bad that he always dodged the draft. The cogs in my brain were spinning for something better than ‘sorry man.’ As we looked west at a sky so cobalt blue and an afternoon so incredibly beautiful, I said ‘You were meant to be here, to honor the fallen, to stand amongst friends old and brand new in this perfect place.’ We hugged, in a dad-and-daughter kinda way, a human way.”


Mountain Man Rendezvous. Ft Bridger, WY 2014

“Oliver McCloskey of Cedar City, Utah.  Brain tanner of deer skin and other game since he was 10 years old.  Tanning and the hunting shirts and mosassins he makes from the hide has been his soul source of income for 15 years.”


Scott Olsen aka "Doc Ivory"

“This is Dr. Scott Olsen aka ‘Doc Ivory.’ He’s a dentist three days a week, mountain man the rest of the time. Doc commutes into the small town of Dillon, Mont., to keep people’s mouths in top shape.”


Mountain Man Rendezvous. Ft Bridger, WY 2014“Father and son- Curtis and Rio.  Rio is now 17 and has been attending rendezvous since he was two years old.  They are from central Utah.”

morgenthau.profile.picA Salt Lake City based photographer documenting life in the west from cowboys to climbers, Nicole takes pictures because that is what she loves and knows how to do.  Nicole contributes growing up in one of the most Uninspiring Town in America (a category she created) to her creativity.  “We had to dream big; flat, suburban New Jersey was not inspiring,” she says, adding that, she would not trade that experience for anything in the world.  Suburbia gave her the desire to travel and meet people of all walks of life– with camera in hand.  Nicole has a keen ability to connect with her subjects regardless of age, race, or status and believes, “We are all unique and that alone is worth documenting.” See more of Morgenthau’s work at

Intro photo at top of page: Oliver McCloskey & Scott “Doc Ivory” Olsen.  These two have ridden long distances on horseback to primitive rendezvous together for 10 years.


Land in the Sky: The Waiting Room

In the waiting room at the dentist’s office. Nobody here but me. The walls are thin. I can hear the unwelcome sounds of the dentist at work. It’s like a muffled tree full of angry cicadas. I look around for something to read. All I find are news magazines, thinner than ever, and an Omaha Steaks catalog. I should have brought a book. I spot a pamphlet for the local rail trail. I pick it up and read.

On the cover it says, “Four miles of paved adventure through time and nature!” I open the pamphlet and learn that the rail trail is a “passage of varied terrain and experiences that you will not soon forget.” Somewhere along the way, the rail trail visitor enters “a deep canopy of trees.” Each rock cut is “a reminder that this was once a major thoroughfare for moving goods and materials on rails.” Eventually the rail trail visitor arrives at a bridge that spans a considerable river. Nobody knows what’s on the other side. The pamphlet doesn’t say.

Meanwhile, here in the waiting room things have gone painfully quiet. Save for the faint and faraway groaning on the other side of the wall, the stillness of the waiting room is undisturbed. Then a door opens, and a voice on the other side says “Next.”

Postcard: Red Rocks at night

I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I ever come across a more majestic music venue than Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. Every year I tell myself to be sure and see at least one concert there. It doesn’t always happen. Summers are short, and dates fill up fast with other obligations. But my two brothers and I made it happen this past Saturday for Reggae on the Rocks, the venerable, all-day festival that spits you out feeling like you ran 50 miles, instead of just watched reggae all afternoon and evening. Sunday morning was no different from any of the prior years I attended, nor was the confirmation that it had been worth it.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Mountain Pasages: The Decline

What happens when your body starts to break down? When trail running is no longer an option? It’s time to simply accept the downhill run. By Alan Stark

For Oliver Sachs

Raging against the dying of the light, while somewhat gratifying, is nonetheless pounding sand and about as useful. In my case, the “dying light” is trail running, a life sport I can’t do anymore. The low-level knee pain afterward is not worth it. Losing sleep because of knee ache makes me grumpy, and too much ibuprofen has the potential to turn my liver into goo.

 The bike route from Breckenridge to Frisco starts in town at the gondola and winds along the Blue River. Over to the left heavy gray clouds pour over the peaks and down to the ski area. The sky is lighter toward Frisco. The bet I am making with myself is that I can outrun the storm. This is not the first time I have made this bet. I seem to not learn much from previous experience, as I often let my enthusiasm override observable facts.

Most of this route to Frisco is slightly downhill giving me the illusion that I might be the strongest person on a road bike today, when in fact, the physics associated with being twenty pounds overweight makes the carbon fiber bike go faster. I am one speed on a bike far superior to my skills…tubby speed.

signThe short-term answer is to see an orthopedic surgeon at the end of the month. He’s the same guy who stitched my quad to my patella. The operation was slick. He drilled holes laterally through the patella, laced sutures through the holes, and then stitched the sutures into the tendon and quad muscles. Then he tightened the sutures and pulled the disengaged quad ligament up against the proximal side of the patella that had been roughed up.

Not so slick was the way I busted the quad running downhill on mud and ice, slipped with the knee under me, and hyper-flexed it, causing a complete separation of the quad tendon from the bone. Ouch! I love it when I look at my medical record and see the phrase “nontraumatic tear of left quadriceps tendon.” I don’t know who wrote that. It may have been the surgeon who obviously has a well-formed sense of humor.

I’m moving past the Flight for Life hanger at the hospital and along the bike trail south of Frisco. It’s raining now and I turn into town for some shelter. One of their choppers went down just before the Fourth of July. I couldn’t stop thinking of the crew as I watched the parade in Breckenridge. Med-evac crews risk everything to save a life. We must always keep moving on but sometimes it is moving on with sadness.

The streets of Frisco are filled with flatlanders, many of whom make me, with my modest pot-belly, look skinny in comparison. The rain slow downs, I pull off a rain jacket and decide I can get to Copper Mountain and if the weather keeps going south, take a shot at Vail Pass for a forty-fvie mile out-and-back ride.

The route from Frisco goes slightly uphill along Ten Mile Creek and is filled with bikes. I like the folks on rental bikes who are indomitably going uphill grimacing at the triple whammy of uphill, rain, and altitude but pushing on with an occasional shout of encouragement to one another. I live hree part-time. Altitude, rain, and steeps are all part of the game. I try to be gracious and almost always say something encouraging as I pass, “looking strong or looking good.” Inane words, but I think they appreciate the thought.

This failure of a body part is most likely due to the earlier injury, but I know the knee problem is indicative of things to come as I get older. I am slowing down. My parts are clearly out of warranty and there are a number of failures looming. This isn’t ominous to me for a number of reasons: I have a good marriage and have finished an interesting career. I have been able to live a number of years doing exactly what I wanted to do in the backcountry and never really had any long-term injuries or parts failures. Add to this a genuine thankfulness to be alive given the early death of some friends and a number of backcountry incidents that could have gone badly.

Sure, just like you, I’ve had some minor injuries. There was a broken wrist when I came unglued from a tree as a kid, a cracked radius and ulna while skiing patches of snow between the sheet ice in Vermont, and a mashed scapula from doing airtime over the handle bar of a commuter bike in the Port of Seattle complex. The dumbest and long-term painful injury came when I was trail running with my dog with his leash looped around my chest. Mac ran around one side of a tree and I ran around the other. I crashed to the ground and broke two ribs. My PCP taped me up and said, “don’t laugh for eight weeks,” Thanks Doc, not helpful.

The sky is grey and angry looking. I’ve beat the storm this far, what the hell, I’ll keep going. The route up Vail Pass from the south is surprisingly easy gaining less than 1,000 feet over four miles. There are several slight pitches that get me out of the saddle and sucking wind but it is mostly a moderate uphill crank. The danger is the tourists who ride to the top of Vail Pass in a van. Then they ride their rental bikes the twelve miles down to Frisco, usually in control. They are not exactly experienced bike handlers. I smile a good deal, but I watch them carefully as they cruise downhill.

The downhill run is always amazing. I’m slower going uphill than I used to be but getting better at managing the speed on the downhill, daring myself to not use the brakes and let the bike just freewheel. I water up in Frisco, munch on some energy food, and head home on the slightly uphill ride back to Breckenridge.

FireweedI’m a Boomer and have lost friends to some bad luck, really asinine wars, sullied drugs, excessive alcohol, and now some god-awful diseases. In the middle of the night I can see their young faces, and remember good times and laughter and exactly where I was when I heard they were gone. There is no good reason that some of them are dead and I am still here.

Did she forget to check the belay point? Did he know it was his last patrol? Would a reasonable person put something down their throat without knowing its provenance? There was always alcohol, there will always be alcohol, often too much alcohol. I never listened when I was taught that the immune system can also kill slowly and exceedingly painfully.

When I was serious about trail running I did the Pikes Peak half-marathon. I started up the Manitou Incline with a guy who said he was seventy. I was in my mid-thirties. I never saw him again until I reached the top. He told me I’d get better with age. My goal was to be able to run Pikes Peak when I was seventy. That doesn’t look like it will happen. I’ll be happy to do Vail Pass on my bike. When the riding, and skiing end the way trail running apparently has ended there is ongoing reading, writing, and gardening. I plan to learn fly-fishing, maybe try golf, and get better at backgammon. I hope to end up sitting in the mountain sun enjoying the passage of time with an old friend or dog or both, for as long as life goes on, until I stop breathing.

Alan Stark is recovering from a career in book publishing and a now a volunteer backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest. He lives in Breckenridge and Boulder.

Postcard: Burro racing in Idaho Springs, CO

Burro racing might be the greatest sport the world has never heard of. I covered some races back when I worked for a newspaper (the sport’s epicenter is in Colorado), and always found the scene to be hilarious. Last month, I got involved firsthand in Idaho Springs, during the annual Tommyknocker Mining Days festival. A power-hungry donkey named Marsha and I ran five miles through the hills above Clear Creek, fighting for control the whole time, before finishing back in town and rewarding ourselves with carrots (her) and beer (me). There is nothing else like it. In this photo, taken shortly before the start, a handful of our foes readied themselves for the race to come.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Another Dummy Idea

My friend Dennis dropped by this afternoon to help me clean up a mess. I had gotten myself into some more tree trouble. These dying hemlocks just never fall the right way when I cut them down, especially when they’re near a power line or the house. I wish they didn’t do that. I wish they weren’t all dying.

This particular hemlock, when I managed to get it to fall, got all hung up in some nearby ash trees, which are also dying. There was nothing I could do about it. The hemlock just stood there like a shady Antaeus. Dennis said he’d come over and take care of it. When he pulled up in his truck, the collie barked in greeting. He barked and he barked and he barked. He barked in joy.

Dennis knew better than to let me “help” clean up this mess. He knew what he was doing. So I handed over the chainsaw and he said: “Okay, where’s this tree?” I showed him and he went to work. Dennis is a guy who “smokes with two hands” but wields a chainsaw with just one. He had that hemlock down quicker than it took me to get it all hung up in the first place. No structures were damaged in the operation. The collie continued to bark with joy.

As Dennis climbed into his truck to go home, I said thanks and it was good to see him. He said: “Now come up with a better dummy idea the next time you want to see an old bastard.” I told him that would be easy. Dennis drove off as the collie barked goodbye. I looked around at all the dying hemlocks and ashes still standing—trees I grew up with—for my next dummy idea.

Postcard: Long Beach, California

What do you notice in this photo? A cool tree, sure. Lots of hands in the air. Pretty blue sky. The Pacific. Me? I see the lady on the left side/pink mat not following the leader. What does that say about me? More broadly, what does it say about us, if I can be representative of our species? I think it says we notice the people who don’t fall in line. If that’s true, would you rather be the one people notice because you weren’t doing the same thing as everyone else? Or would you rather reach for the sky when all the others are too? Tough choice, eh? So it went last Sunday at Yoga in the Park in Long Beach.

Photo by Devon O’Neil