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When the snow finally melts from the peaks of the 12,000- and 13,000-foot mountains of Colorado, he’ll be ready to resume his vow to top 12,000 feet every weekend during the summer.
That’s how Jeff Burch has spent his weekends since he summited his first peak in 1997. As he climbed, he wondered about the names of the peaks he spotted in the distance. He came across a couple of sources which proved unreliable and said to himself, “I can do better than that.” That was the beginning of a growing business called coloradothirteeners.com, a company which produces panoramic prints of sweeping vistas, with each peak clearly labeled.
Because he was living in Montrose at the time, Jeff was first drawn to the San Juans dominating the skyline to the south. From the point of a hogback on Sunset Mesa, he took the photo that became the foundation of a business venture which combines Jeff’s love of the mountains with his interest in photography.
“My passion is the mountains, not the photography,” he explains. “But my stock in trade, or my niche in the market, is the information on those pictures.”
When he first started with a Fujica 605, he shot a series of photos which he then enlarged and laid side by side to create a panorama. Through pain-staking research, Jeff set out to name each of the peaks in the wide shot. He obtained USGS topographical maps of the area and laid them out on the floor of his office at home. Crawling on his hands and knees from map to map, he identified as many of the peaks as possible using sight lines he drew in with a ruler. Faced with uncertainty, he climbed nearby peaks to gain a different perspective. Soon he learned to shoot a series of photos, then take several steps on either side and shoot some more. By studying a variety of angles, he could then confirm that one mountain stood in front of another — a perspective that was difficult to gain from a distance. He even hired a pilot to fly him from Montrose to identify one of the last peaks in his first endeavor. It took Jeff about two years to finish that poster, but he could confidently say it was definitively researched. In the intervening years, he’s been told of just one mistake — he misspelled “Sneffels” on an early printing.
Jeff left 10 of the finished posters at a local bookstore. The owner was on the phone the next day ordering 10 more; the day after that he wanted 20. “It just took off,” Jeff said.
“It was so much fun that I quickly began looking for other locations that would give me the same formula.”
It turned out finding the mountain range was easy; the challenge was locating the best spot to take a photo. Although he thoroughly enjoys climbing to the top of a 13,000-foot peak, he realizes that people aren’t looking for a picture taken from the top of the peak. They want something more recognizable. That’s why Jeff has sold 2,000 prints of the Montrose view of the San Juans, and the print of the North Fork mountains is in its second printing. He’s also finished prints of the mountains as seen from Ouray, Aspen, Durango, Boulder, Vail, Breckenridge, Telluride, Ridgway, Silverton, Glenwood Springs and the Canyonlands. He’s identified 67 different mountains, about 40 of which rise above 13,000 feet. Along the way, he discovered a lot of unnamed peaks. He explains that in wilderness areas, mountains which aren’t already labeled can only be named through an act of Congress.
Nearly all the finished posters are 40 inches wide, and Jeff soon realized his Fujica 35mm would not produce a picture that was clear enough to be enlarged to that degree. He upgraded to a different camera, but it didn’t take long for him to decide that what he really needed was a panoramic camera which could span 90 degrees of the horizon.
“There’s nothing automatic about this camera,” Jess says of his new Fujica. “I have to set the aperture and the shutter speed, cock the shutter and wind the film forward. But it has superior glass and resolution. Now the biggest challenge is finding a clear day that’s not hazy.”
When he finds the right spot, the right day, and the right time, he shoots three rolls of film of exactly the same scene.
“Every once in a while I take a pretty picture, but they don’t sell very well,” Jeff says. “There’s a million pretty pictures of Colorado, so commercial opportunities are limited.”
Jeff confesses that he spends an “amazing” amount of time adding information to his photos. He believes that’s the most critical element of a finished print — and the reason he’s found his “niche.” He carefully cross-checks a number of sources, and in some cases consults with outdoorsmen who are intimately familiar with a particular area. He credits their input at the bottom of the finished poster.
While Jeff sells a few posters through his website, most people purchase the posters from local retailers. Jeff keeps about 30 outlets supplied from a warehouse of prints in the basement of his home. The garage serves as a shipping center. On a large wood work surface, he fills orders for six to 200 pictures. Small quantities are rolled and inserted into tubes; larger numbers are boxed for shipment directly to stores. The mass produced prints sell for $20 each. Jeff also offers high quality prints at a higher price, with matting and framing as an additional service.
“I find the people who buy my pictures either live in the area, or have visited it. There is a connection,” he says.
His venture has proven so successful that he calls it his “hobby gone bad.”
“A hobby is something you devote a lot of time and money to without making any money,” he says. “I’ve made enough money that it’s ruined this as a hobby.”
But a hobby is also a relaxing interest you pursue in your spare time, and Jeff’s business does fit that criteria. As a full-time U.S. Forest Service employee, he spends his workdays conducting environmental studies. When the weekend rolls around, he’s ready to head for the peaks which he’s studied so closely from afar.
On his website, coloradothirteeners.
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com, he explains his preference for 13,000-foot peaks: “Colorado’s fourteeners are getting hammered by climbers “bagging” peaks with names. The thirteeners are the last true mountaineering experiences, there are hundreds of them and they rival fourteeners in all aspects of the mountaineering experience. And there is nobody there!”