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.

"Is the water really that color or is it just my sunglasses?" I ask Jason, pulling off my shades.

We've just turned off Highway 93 at Ravalli. Teal-colored currents replace the chocolate milk of the Clark Fork I pass every day on my way to work in Missoula. We follow the water past small Montana towns I've heard about but never visited—Dixon, Paradise. They drift by as sparsely as the clouds above us. I wonder if the old men sitting in front of dilapidated buildings in Paradise were friends of my late grandfather, who died before I had a chance to visit him, but was a longtime resident of this town.

Then it's on to Noxon, with its one-lane bridge across the river. Small crowds of people browse myriad yard sales along a barren stretch of highway; they've apparently driven from their homes many miles away.

As we near Bull River Junction we see more than just humans. A black bear nibbles at some shrubs. A small cluster of bighorn sheep in the road surprises me after a sharp turn. Deer, chipmunks, a marten race across the highway.

click to enlarge NOËL PHILLIPS

Once in the town of Clark Fork, population 530, well-marked roads lead us to the trailhead for trail #65 to Scotchman Peak. Early afternoon sunshine beams through the cedar canopy. A hot, punishing climb lies ahead.

"Mother Nature is the cruelest personal trainer," I grumble good-naturedly. "She makes anything I do to my clients look nice."

The comment produces the desired effect: Jason's laugh. To distract ourselves from the sweat dripping off our faces, we keep toying with the image of Mother Nature as a leather-clad, whip-wielding dominatrix, an exercise which—who knew?—is a great way to pass the time while suffering.

The steep climb eventually breaks through the forest on an intermittently muddy and dusty trail, with sporadic views of glittering Lake Pend Oreille. About two-thirds of the way up, dripping cedars give way to bear-grassed hills. The remains of winter's snowfall cling tenaciously to the final bit of dirt before we hit the shale-covered slopes leading to the summit.

We take a lunch break next to a vertigo-inducing drop enhanced by a snowy cornice below the peak. Three preteens pass us en route to the top, leaving their parents behind and ignoring us completely.

As I munch on my cranberry and turkey wrap and Jason eats a Snickers Marathon bar, the two of us take in the views: the thickly forested hills below, the hazy blue waters of the lake, the kids picking their way up the snowy talus trail toward the jumbled summit of crumbly metamorphic rock.

"Those kids are at the top now," I note, surprised at their speed.

click to enlarge NOËL PHILLIPS

Then I see something above them—something with more than two legs.

"Hey! Is that a goat?"

"Where?" Jason looks up at where I point.

"Right above the kids."

"Maybe we should go up there," Jason says. He's never seen a mountain goat before and wants a better look. I have seen a mountain goat before but I also want to check it out.

We pack up quickly and head toward the summit on a surprisingly well-worn path, passing the kids on their descent. But we don't get far. After rounding a bend, we're stopped by two mountain goats standing directly in our path.

We freeze. The goats freeze. After several minutes, the goats finally make their way down the trail toward us, the more brazen of the two barely giving us a chance to step off to one side. His partner takes a more discreet route above the trail through the krummholz. Jason and I exhale, and I'm pleased at myself. The wild beast encounter is just what I'd hoped for.

A few more strides carry us to the summit; we've made it in a little over two hours. The payoff is amazing. We sit and relax on some rocky outcroppings and chatter about the views, noting the alluvial fan of the Clark Fork emptying into Lake Pend Oreille. A cool breeze dries our sweat-soaked clothes. The topic drifts back to the encounter with the mountain goats.

click to enlarge NOËL PHILLIPS

As if sensing the turn in our conversation, a goat suddenly peeks around the edge of a stacked shale shelter. He studies us for a moment, ducks from view, and then reappears... behind me. I sit down to ease any apprehension on his part. I start making tsk-tsking sounds to get his attention. The goat tilts his head and steps toward me. I close my mouth. He continues advancing. Four feet ... three ... two ... is this really happening? A flash of fear surges through me as he steps even closer. He stops, and we lock eyes, heads cocked in opposite directions. Then he blinks, gives a last curious look, and turns and saunters away.

"He was so close! That was so cool!" I'm almost breathless.

"I know!" Jason replies, totally thrilled. He'd been just as excited and nervous as I'd been.

The elation buoys us on the trek down until the angle of descent pushes away the good feeling, replacing it with burning quads.

A couple of hours later, our tired legs eventually find the truck and we head for the nearest town. A cold Fat Tire and dripping Philly cheese-steak sandwich for Jason and a Moose Drool and deliciously greasy Reuben for me at the Cabinet Mountain Bar and Grill in Clark Fork provide the perfect ending to our first hike together.

We drive the half hour to the Big Eddy campground, about three miles west of the junction of Highway 200 and Highway 56. As we set up the tent, we agree that spending the next day on a leisurely walk through the Ross Creek Cedars—a grove of giant trees, many over 200 years old—sounds better than another summit climb.

Early morning light filters through the cedars the next day as we hike along the cool, dark trail through the grove. Unfortunately, massive amounts of deadfall stop us from reaching the waterfall at the trail's end, but the stroll provides a nice respite from the steep, sunny slopes of Scotchman.

We start the drive back to Missoula by afternoon. As the scenery flashes by, I sort through my thoughts, replaying the weekend's highlights. It's an adventure to visit such a rugged place, I realize, but the true adventure had been sharing it with Jason. The trip with him was hilarious, light-hearted, serious, mellow and even a bit scary (thanks, goats). The clinking of our beer glasses, our silly antics along the trail, his firm, but good-natured instructions to help me blast my truck through a muddy spot of road (and his amused "Yeah—something like that" after my slippery, fish-tailing success)—these were the things that stuck out in my mind. Maybe we both had questions in the end that we never got answered, but that was part of the thrill.

Sometimes the adventure isn't about where you're going. Sometimes it's about who's there with you.

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