Pure Freedom

By Adeline Bash

During the warm climbing months, the summit of Longs Peak—one of Colorado’s most popular fourteeners—typically buzzes with dozens of hikers celebrating their completion of the rigorous hike. But on a warm August day in 2011, Maddie Crowell and her childhood friend Lindsey Cannon hiked the peak and found the summit uncharacteristically quiet. Not a soul was in sight.

The climb was a milestone for then 21-year-old Crowell, a Telluride native. Though summiting high mountains was nothing new to her, the hike was the first high-elevation climb she had done since the summer before when she witnessed a friend, 20-year-old Spencer Nelson, fall into a couloir on Maroon Bells peak outside Aspen. Shaken by his death, Crowell avoided high summits until the morning she and Cannon set out for Longs Peak.

Crowell dedicated the hike to Nelson’s memory, and completing it with the added bonus of an empty summit seemed like something to celebrate. And at that moment, for two young Coloradans, that meant stripping down and taking a photo in nothing but their hiking boots. “It was like skinny–dipping times 100,” Crowell says.

That first photo sparked a movement that Crowell and her friends called “MtnBabes.” Within three months, Crowell had designed and launched a website, www.MtnBabes.com, inviting women from Colorado and beyond to share nude outdoor photos of themselves on the site. The first submissions came from Crowell’s core group of friends, but within a few months, photos of strangers began popping up. When Crowell started a MtnBabes Facebook page in 2012 and an Instagram account the next year, the photos began pouring in. By April 2015 she had received more than 4,000 submissions from women of all ages, taken on summits spanning every continent.

Tapping into Freedom

On its face, MtnBabes has created a space to collect and make public naked photos of women on mountaintops. But at its heart, Crowell and others say, it fills a void by helping women tap into the freedom that comes from doing something adventurous and outrageous—and, most important, from experiencing the outdoors. “For me the real appeal is knowing that a group of girls went outside, had this experience and captured a moment of it,” Crowell says.

mtnbabes-Sunflower-Tower,-Indian-Creek,-UTThe photos follow certain parameters. They must be of a woman or group of women; they can only be taken from behind; they cannot show breasts, etc. And, above all else, they must be shot outside, preferably on a summit.

“We aren’t looking for mountain pornography here,” the site’s submission guidelines read. “We are looking for a free spirited, epically taken, artistic summit pic.”

The photos give a snapshot into excursions big and small. Some have backdrops in exotic places; some are familiar scenes. Natalie Brown, 24, of Boulder, says one of her most memorable photos was taken at dusk after a solo freeclimbing ascent to the top of Boulder’s Flatirons.

Telluride native Lindsay Newman, 24, one of the first to post on MtnBabes, says her favorite shot was taken far away from Colorado—in Tasmania. The photo followed a six-hour hike last October through Tasman National Park to the top of several high cliffs overlooking the ocean. What made the shot so memorable was that Newman’s 57-year-old mother posed with her.

By publicizing these shots of women celebrating outdoor excursions, Crowell and others hope to help empower other girls and women to do the same.

“It’s that idea of pure freedom, taking charge of your own body and your own life—this kind of small sense of rebellion,” Brown elaborates. “We have these amazing bodies that do these incredible things, so being able to celebrate that in Mother Nature is appealing to women.”

Colorado People Understand

While women from around the world have submitted MtnBabes shots, the concept seems to resonate particularly with women from Colorado. Crowell estimates that about 20 percent of the photos submitted to the site, and some 300 of the photos she has selected to post, were taken on Colorado trails.

mtnbabes-MtFor Boulder native Sarah Timm, 20, going to a school far away from the mountains made her realize how important they were to her, so in 2014 in her first summer home from college, she dedicated heself to playing in them as much as possible. She summited five fourteeners, explored Rocky Mountain National Park, and snapped her first MtnBabes shots—something she feels more comfortable doing in Colorado than in other states.

“I thought people in Colorado would understand it more,” she says, explaining that Coloradans’ appreciation for the outdoors makes them relate to the desire to be “natural in the natural landscape.” Timm’s photo that appeared on the website was taken during a sunrise hike to the summit of Mount Sherman.

Despite its popularity, the site has faced some barriers and criticism. The MtnBabes Instagram account, which at its peak had gathered close to 10,000 followers, has been deleted seven times for breaking the site’s nudity policy. The Facebook account was also deleted once. Crowell has kept her current accounts active by toning down the shots she posts on social media, reserving the fully nude photos for the website.

With an average of 75,000 visitors annually, Crowell recognizes the site could eventually become profitable through paid advertising. So far, however, MtnBabes does not generate revenue. “That’s not really what MtnBabes is about for me,” she says. “I’ve never thought of it from a business perspective.”

If she ever did allow ads, Crowell says, she would want the funds to support a nonprofit or advocacy group that shared her goal of getting girls outside. In the meantime, she plans to dedicate her time to recruiting more and more women to join her and her fellow Mtnbabes on mountain summits around the world.

“For me, standing on top of a mountain naked is a true form of feeling alive. You’re baring it all; you’re totally free. It’s exhilarating,” Crowell says. “You feel confident, and you don’t care if anyone is watching. That moment is 100 percent for you.

“I tell people, ‘Even if you don’t want to take a picture, if you’re on a mountain by yourself, stand up there naked.’ They will remember that mountain for the rest of their lives.”

Freelancer Adeline Bash, a Boulder native, studied journalism at the University of Oregon before returning to Colorado. She enjoys climbing, and works in marketing for a local natural food brand. 

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