Surviving Sunset On Montana’s Trapper Peak
Hike magnificent Trapper Peak in the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness and race against the sunset in a story of love, adventure, and letting go.

Placing the last of my belongings onto their moving day pile, I assess for stragglers. Satisfied, I head for the kitchen. “I’m ready, let’s go!” I call. I’m annoyed as my boyfriend, David, sits at the table pouring over a trail map. Your typical mountain man, he’s being obsessive about memorizing the route and painstakingly noting every geographic detail. Man on Trapper PeakNormally the one to hurry me, he ignores my indignation as I stand over him, hands on hips. Today is our last adventure before parting ways and we are heading out to hike Trapper Peak, the tallest point in the Bitterroot mountain range under whose shadow we had spent much of the summer living in this cabin together. It’s almost afternoon, late for this sort of hike and I’m feeling on edge. Tomorrow, we’re throwing in the towel. I’m leaving for Colorado. After about 30 seconds of glaring, I grab the bear spray hanging by the door. Though grizzly bears have not been reported in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, it is suspected they inhabit deeper parts of its 1.3 million acres. Black bears, on the other hand, do live here and unlike grizzlies, who prefer to maul people only when antagonized, a predatory black bear will happily eat you. It’s true that such aggressors are rare and most black bears prefer not to engage with human folk, especially if a dog is present. However, on the off chance I meet a man-eater in the woods, I prefer to be equipped. Securing the bear spray in a front strap pocket of my daypack, I call my dog Kelvin and head for the car. The sun is shining as I step outside. It’s August and the arid landscape reminds me I forgot our provisions. Returning to the kitchen, I grab the hydration pack, our PB&J sandwiches, two apples, and a bag of dark chocolate. There’s no way that my body would make it through a few hours, let alone a 6-mile hike, without replenishing water and energy stores. I channel my inner David who reminds me that you never know when we’ll get stuck in the forest at night. I toss in a protein bar for good measure. Satisfied, I walk back outside, slide into the passenger seat and put my seatbelt on. A minute later David emerges. He puts the keys into the ignition and we’re off, heading south, toward the tallest peaks of a 200 million-year-old mountain range. He grabs my hand and I stare out the window, annoyed that it’s late in the day and he still insists on torturing me with errands pre-hike. Knowing I hate errands, he takes seemingly great pleasure from turning them into a family affair, so it figures that he would force them on me one last time for good measure. Off we go to the post office. After the errand mission has ended, I relax a little and we make our way toward Trapper Peak. I know I’m being a brat, but does he have to force this most despised chore on me on our last adventure together? David reaches over, tickles me, and grins. Breaking off a piece of dark chocolate from the bar in his lap, he feeds it to me, knowing that I know he’s manipulating me. I crack a reluctant smile. This is a typical David move—make Dag angry, then distract her with boyish charm and chocolate, because the minute she steps into whatever enchanted naturescape you’re driving her to, she’ll forget all about it. To my disgust, I happily fall for it. Reaching 6,817 feet in elevation we arrive at the Baker Lake Trailhead. It’s one of three trailheads that lead to the peak, and by David’s assessment, the most interesting. Stepping out of the driver’s door, he hides our keys near the vehicle and points out the landmarks I need to look for, should I find myself stumbling back alone to the car. Though at first this seemed to me like grand theft auto waiting to happen, he had always assured me that the chances of having your car stolen were far less than those of falling off of a cliff and leaving the other person stranded without a way to get help. I see his logic and take note of the key hiding spot. dog on Trapper PeakWe hike silently through the forest, stopping briefly at Baker Lake, where Kelvin hops in for a swim while we hydrate. It’s late afternoon and the sun is beginning to set. Knowing that we would have to hike down in the dark, David hurries me along. He’s right, but I stubbornly ignore him, because dusk and dawn are when animals tend to feed and travel, making them the two best times for viewing wildlife in action. Expecting to spot a mountain lion hunting in the distance, I scan the surrounding mountainsides for any sign of movement. Seeing nothing, it occurs to me that perhaps we are the prey tonight, and I feel for the bear spray, assuring myself that it’s still within reach. While engineered for bears, bear spray can be a helpful tool for warding off sensitive-nosed mountain lions, provided you spot them before it’s too late. Vigilant, I keep my eyes peeled for any glowing eyeballs and generally suspicious activity. It isn’t long before we approach a boulder field and begin our scramble up the granite slabs, which will lead us to glory. The stones increase in size as we gain elevation, becoming so large midway up that their stacks create deep crevices. Many are too big for a dog to traverse, and David has to carry Kelvin on his back. Though I know I’m in a race against the sun, my speed slows to snail pace as I watch him skipping over these unnervingly sharp pits of doom with my 80 pounds of precious dog cargo. Considering the potential consequences of a misstep, I’m grateful that David, anticipating such horrors, had convinced me to hide the keys near the car earlier instead of allowing me to bring them with us. This way, if he falls into a jagged hole I would still be able to drive home and get help. That is at least if I successfully made it out of the woods, which considering it was getting dark and I had not taken the time to orient myself or look at the map, would be a challenge. I’m relieved when all three of us reach the peak without getting impaled. My heart is still racing from the boulder field below and I catch my breath. Savoring the view of the enchanted spiny landscape, I feel an overwhelming sense of awe as I sit myself into a rock depression. Trapper Peak summit viewAtop 10,157 foot Trapper Peak, the tallest in the 2,590 square mile Bitterroot Range, I switch from holding Kelvin to clutching the large slabs of stone around me. It’s an effort to keep my hundred pound frame from getting windswept onto the sharp, glacier-carved granite protrusions that stretch below us. Once penetrable by only the brave few, this land, untouched by modern civilization, is one of the most pristine and rugged areas in the nation. Turning east, I look over the Bitterroot Valley, and carry my gaze toward Stevensville, Montana. The state’s birthplace and summer home of our shattered expectations, Stevensville is a historic community in the foothills of the Sapphire Range. Just as the Bitterroot mountains where we were standing had shed their skin to form the rolling sedimentary hills of the Sapphire range some 70 million years ago, I too, was molting a layer. David. Despite our inability to agree on much of anything, the ensuing arguments and a general failure to get along, however, our past year together had been an incredible adventure, and though ready to let go, I’m feeling nostalgic. Trapper Peak mountain rangeFrom the moment we met, our relationship had been a series of not so well thought out, last minute decisions conceived at odd hours of the night across barrooms and hotels. “Okay, I’ll cancel the flight and my upcoming move to Spain next week.” I had said last September, mere hours after what should have been our first and final goodbye. Though David and I had met less than two weeks prior, the job, home, and friends who were expecting my arrival in Bilbao, barely managed to cross my mind as I imagined myself in Montana’s wilderness, riding mountain goats and frolicking with grizzly cubs across Glacier National Park. David’s photos had lured me down this rabbit hole and a week later, we drove to Montana, leaving Spain behind. What initially began as a few weeks trip out west, had turned into a year-long cross-country tour, during which David had introduced me to his favorite Wisconsin cheese curd spots, mountain beaches, and roadside burger joints while imparting various lifesaving lessons such as “cotton kills,” and “don’t put your clean clothes on the toilet.” Though I couldn’t help falling in love with him, there were, in the end, too many things we could never agree on. Like whether it was OK for him to eat gas station pizza or for me to put the mugs on the same shelf as the glasses. Normally, the novelty and excitement of standing inside a jagged granite landscape tucked away in a land before time would have caused me to fall for him all over again, but after a year of impromptu rendezvous across hidden beaches, old coastal roads, pastry shops, and remote mountainsides, I’m seasoned at withstanding the side effects of bliss and my falling-in-love hormones are becoming immune to the powers of these scenes. Thus far, I had always come back to him, and now I am leaving for good. ‘Or am I?’ I wonder, glancing over at him, my brooding best friend, as I consider the number of times I had previously uttered this statement. No longer sure of its validity, I focus on the things I am sure about. Tomorrow, with no future plans to return, I’m moving far away from here. It’s dusk and my thoughts circle back to the sun looming dangerously close to the horizon. I find that I can no less tear myself away from the fiery sky before me, than I can from the man who had brought me here. Like a drug, he had stolen my heart and mind on a roller coaster ride of the highest highs and the lowest lows. I was addicted. ‘Just one last fix,’ I thought, consuming the scene before me, and etching it firmly into memory. I’m angry that things didn’t work out, and overwhelmed by the long trip ahead of me, yet strangely empowered by embarking on a whole new adventure. Humans have been a nomadic species since the beginning of time, and the road was my comfort zone. Our decisions were made and there was no time to dwell on the past now. woman with dog on mountiainI go to where he is seated staring off into the sunset. We embrace and for a moment everything is as it should be. Seconds later he pulls away and smirks guiltily at me. “What?” I ask, not sure what to make of this. “We forgot the map and the headlamp,” he tells me. After a rush of errands in the morning, we left home in a daze, wholly unprepared to hike. The stress paves the way for rookie mistakes we would never make otherwise. It’s the reason I always try to calm myself before doing anything that requires thinkinglike getting a daypack together before hiking at sunset. In a race for the final remnants of light, we begin our descent down the other side of the mountain and I realize that, similar to the boulder field on our way up, the trail down is indistinguishable. Slightly unnerved by the lack of a marked path I relax as David points out a few landmarks that guide our way. For possibly the first time ever, I’m relieved that he hadn’t paid me any attention earlier when I hurried him away from over-analyzing the map. Before long, we come across a cairn. The pyramidal stacks of rocks that serve as markers for hikers when a defined trail either doesn’t exist or becomes obstructed by snow. To our utter delight, a few more cairns lead us to a trail, and we continue into the darkness of the heavily wooded mountainside. The rising pitch of the woodland creatures begins to wear away at me and I’m running downhill now, paranoid that from the shadows hungry male black bears are waiting to prey on us. Perhaps they are competing with a mountain lion, hell bent on feeding her cubs. The majestic, sub-alpine forest trail distracts me and my brain perceives every rustle to surely be the end of us. The path is uneven and the added pressure of escaping certain death by hungry mountain lion at night leaves me nerve-wracked. David barks at me to slow down so I don’t twist my ankle, because he doesn’t want to have to carry me back to the car. Annoyed, but knowing he’s right, I oblige. Descents are where accidents happen and I don’t want to break a leg just before the finish line. Out of the woods, we retrieve the keys from their covert hiding place and get in the car. I turn towards him grinning and our smiles widen in appreciation of how close we came to being in trouble. Then, it’s over. I remember this is our last adventure together. I feel tears flood my eyes and press my lips together. I can’t look at him anymore. Salty streams begin spilling down my face. I turn my head to gaze out the window and reach for his hand.

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