Thrill Peakers 

Why climb a mountain with a new boyfriend? For the upside.

Starting a relationship is a lot like deciding to hike in a new area. Will the path be rocky or smooth? Will it be stormy or calm? Is it going to be spectacular and fun, or tedious and grueling? What tools will I need? And, ultimately, will it be worth it? Barely three months into a budding relationship, I decide to find out the answers.

"Where is this place?" My boyfriend, Jason Kannberg, sounds skeptical when I float the idea of a trek up Scotchman Peak.

"Northwest of Missoula, um, up past Noxon," I answer, somewhat lamely. At the time I first mention the trip, I don't know much more about it than that. "You can see Lake Pend Oreille from one of the peaks," I offer.

I'm laid back about the backcountry—I show up at a trailhead and hope for the best. Even the best-made plans can go awry, so I usually just stick to a general idea—a vague impression of where to go and what to do. But I want this trip to go well. And since I have no answers to Jason's follow-up questions about the hikes, trail conditions and distances, I realize I'd better bone up on my facts to help convince him to go. If he agrees, it will be our first time hiking in the mountains together. Actually, it will be our first time hiking anywhere together.

click to enlarge JASON KANNBERG
  • Jason Kannberg

"I'll get more info," I promise.

A quick Internet search fills me in on the basics. The Scotchman Peaks proposed wilderness area, I find out, is an 88,000-acre roadless stretch of dense timber crowned by craggy peaks in the Cabinet Mountains. The 7,009-foot Scotchman Peak itself, one of the highest summits in Northern Idaho, rises nearly a vertical mile above Lake Pend Oreille, promising a rewarding view. The region overlaps Montana and Idaho in the Kootenai National Forest, home to grizzlies, black bears, bull trout, wolves, Canada lynx and mountain goats, among other fauna and flora. The Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, a nonprofit group with almost 3,000 members, fervently advocates for a permanent wilderness designation to protect the area.

Most important for the purposes of my adventure, Scotchman Peak is a non-technical climb, albeit not a cakewalk. With almost 1,000 feet of elevation gain per mile for the roughly four-mile hike, it promises to be an unrelenting ascent.

Jason lives in Washington—we trade off traveling to visit each other—and I'm hoping he can spend a Friday with me in Missoula. I suggest we leave on Saturday, after sleeping in. We could possibly hike up Scotchman on Saturday afternoon and camp out that night at Big Eddy, a campground along Highway 200 near the town of Clark Fork. We could either do another summit the next day—maybe Star Peak?—or drive around the eastern edge of the wilderness up Highway 56 to the Ross Creek Cedars Scenic Area to see the land from a different perspective.

click to enlarge NOËL PHILLIPS

I figure we'll see how we feel. That is, if there's going to be a "we."

"I'm not sure I'll be able to make it over there this weekend," Jason calls me mid-week.

Dismay churns in my stomach. Of course, I understand completely—he's been working the night shift all week in Washington, running heavy machinery at a rock-crushing plant. He's exhausted. But here's the problem: I'm strong and in good shape from my job as a personal trainer, but I'm a chicken. Hiking alone scares me, bears and heights freak me out, and so does sleeping solo in a tent. Let's just say I make Scooby-Doo look brave.

Thankfully, Thursday night brings a welcome phone call confirming that Jason will, after all, be heading to Missoula after work on Friday.

After a leisurely start to the day with several necessary stops, i.e., picking up some chai for both of us and grabbing last-minute groceries, we head west on Highway 200 toward Clark Fork, Idaho, and the trailhead.

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