Union Peak: The Quest for Solitude

By Colton Smith

In Montana, our drives and adventures often led us to amazing places we never knew existed. Union Peak is no exception. One day while exploring the handful of ghost towns in The Garnet mountain range we stumbled across this hidden gem. A tiny fire lookout posted on top of a massive mountain, with a 360 degree panoramic view that leaves you breathless. The tiny cabin has one rule; use it, enjoy it and leave it the way you found it. Over the next couple years we did just that. We hiked in, camped out and cherished the feeling of solitude the cabin on Union Peak gave us. 

Then, one snowy December weekend we decided it was time to return to Union Peak for another visit, but this time our quest for solitude would be far from easy.Normally the trek up to Union Peak is quite carefree. It's a long drive on a twisty mountain road with a brisk hike up to the top. Winter, however, makes things a little more complicated. Snow had made that nice mountain road inaccessible, turning our once nice drive into a ten mile uphill battle. Of course it was going to take more than a little snow to discourage us. We were prepared or so we thought. Jack, myself and our roommate, David, packed up our truck with supplies for a few days, threw our two dogs in the cab and we were off.

We drove out to the base of the mountain, went as far as the road would let us and then we hiked. Now before I go any further I need to talk about my feet...I'll explain. Right before we left town I decided it was time for a new pair of shoes. I purchased a brand new top of the line pair of hiking shoes, not really cut out for winter but I figured they would manage. The only problem was I never had a chance to break them in. I'll come back to this later. The first 7 miles went by rather quickly. The road was somewhat plowed and a little icy but our crampons were holding up. We were all in good spirits, the sun was shining and the dogs were loving it. We were making great time and estimated it would only take another hour or so to reach Union Peak. Then, we came to a fork in the road, literally. On one side was the nice plowed road we had been hiking and on the other, a nasty looking road covered in feet of snow. This route unfortunately, was the only way to get to our lookout.

With the first few strides we instantly realized how brutal this was going to be. Each time I took a step, I found my legs sinking into the deep snow. Taking one step felt like taking five. Huffing and puffing we pressed on. As we made our way up the mountain, the bright blue sky we basked in earlier started to change. Dark clouds rolled in, the winds began to howl and the temperature began to drop. It was right then that I started to feel an uncomfortable pain in my feet. It felt like someone had jammed a jagged rock between my heel and the back of my boot. I was hurting but realized there was little I could do, we had to press on. There was a storm moving in, and even though our current situation was unpleasant I knew if we slowed down it could quickly become serious. We were all hurting and I'm sure everyone was thinking maybe we had bitten off more than we could chew. At this point we had no other option. We were now eight miles away from our car and if we went back we risked getting trapped in the incoming blizzard. With the feeling starting to leave our toes, and snow and wind pounding our faces, we kept going.

Finally we came to a landmark. The last stretch before our cabin, an exposed section of our trail where the snow was deeper and the drop off the mountain was steeper. We were beaten up but knew shelter and warmth was waiting at the top. The two things we needed most. We harnessed every ounce of strength we had left and made our final push. With snow swirling all around us, I looked up into the distance and saw the outline of the lookout. We made it!! Cold and out of breath we opened the door and hit the ground. My heels by now were throbbing with pain. I slowly removed my ice crusted shoes, only to see that my socks were soaked red with blood. Waiting for the feeling to return to our toes and fingers we all looked at each other and couldn't help but smile. None of us could comprehend what we had just done.

For the next couple days it was a white out. The tiny cabin would shake as the snow and wind pelted its sides. We found ourselves constantly digging out our entrance to travel in and out, just to do to it again later as more snow fell. We never got our amazing view and yet I had never been happier. Our wood burning stove was roaring. We walked around in shorts and t-shirts, played music, cooked brats on the stove and just relaxed. Our dogs ran outside and played occasionally, quickly running back in covered in snow. It wasn't easy to get here but we pushed ourselves and this peace and solitude was our reward. We knew that if the snow didn't stop we might not be able to make it back down when we had planned. Fortunately, we had enough food to last us a few extra days and an endless supply of water so I didn't care how long we stayed.

Up on that mountain, immersed in the trees and engulfed in snow, was paradise. The events in my life that leave an imprint are not the ones surrounded by chaos but rather the moments where the earth seems to stop spinning. To find that kind of solitude is rare, and often times the path to get there isn't easy. The risk, however, is worth the reward. On our last night the snow let up and the stars came out. The stars lit up the mountains and we sat in silence, in awe of what had been surrounding us the whole time. In that moment, there was no other place I wanted to be. I still have the scars on my heels to remind me of our trip to Union peak but I'm happy to bear them. They serve as a reminder that the things in life we seek the most are always attainable but the journey to reach them may test you. In the end, you just have to ask yourself – how badly do I want this? Great things don't come to those who wait, they come to those who pack their backpacks, grab their maps and go out and find them.