James Reilly Finishes the 48 Contiguous States on Granite Peak

[Published in Apex to Zenith #51 – Fourth Quarter 2000]

Doc Reilly makes his way roped up back across the snow bridge on Granite Peak, after a successful summit climb. Photo by Henri Butler.

“…the weather joined the party. It just rolled in…we clawed and grabbed at that mountain til our fingers bled.”

Time: End of May, 1999. Situation: deep snow, alone, and on the Froze to Death Plateau. I made it to base camp and looked onto Granite Peak. Cold wind blowing, snow, and no one knew I was up here. This sucks…The mountain, ice covered and corniced with black granite was an ominous sign. I started to set up camp when black clouds started coming round the mountain top. The clear day became darker. I had turned around the year before in a cloud that would not subside, it was warm at that time of year, July, and I had a commitment to climb Gannet Peak in Wyoming, so I had to give up the chance for the Montana summit.

But not this year, I am not the kind’a person to get turned back a second time! My hair on my arm started to rise up; you could feel the static electricity in the air. The storm started to move in off the peak and toward the Froze to Death Plateau. I could see a line of thunderstorms in the distance and the mountain howled with laughter. It was like the mountain was laughing at me.

%@#$, this, I’m out of here! You have to know when to say when, and that mountain, well, it will always be there. I trudged back down that plateau in a partial storm and managed to make it halfway down the switchbacks before the weather really hit. I camped in a makeshift cave til morning and beat feet to the car, to drive back to Cleveland with my tail between my legs. In my best Arnold Schwarzennager: “ I’ll be back!”

The beauty of the Club is the camaraderie we share in the highpoints we have conquered. This was accomplished on Granite Peak by using the club newsletter to bring fellow highpointers together. Henri Butler placed the ad in last year’s magazine in the Klimbin Kollaborator looking for others willing to climb Montana’s peak. He, like I, had been kicked off the big hill two times. He was also able to recruit Robert Delligatti, a highpointer with 46 of the 50 states to his credit. Both myself and Henri were on our 48th, with only this baby and Hawaii left.

I picked up Robert and Henri in Billings and off we rode to the start point at the Power Plant, carefully parking at a different spot since me and Henri on both occasions picked the same spot. Well not this year, and we held a prayer meeting with Robert leading the sermon. Why take chances? Let’s bring the Big Guy into this.

On we climbed to Mystic Lake and made camp. Dawn came early and so did fellow highpointers Jay Magiera and Gregg Sargis on a mountain climbing spree of the West. We agreed to team up and meet at base camp on the Froze to Death Plateau at the high camp on the base of Tempest Mountain.

An early start was agreed upon because the British climbers and the Canadians we ran across on two other teams didn’t make it and said the late start hurt them. At 4:30 the next morning we set out on a moon filled night that was great for this time of year. Little did Henri, Robert and I ever suspect that getting to base camp was the easy part.

We dropped off the side of Tempest Mountain and followed the contour of the mountain down into the valley. We gave up 800 feet and started to climb the ice fields to the snow bridge. We watched as the weather started to move in across the top of our mountain. We watched the clouds roll slowly from the southwest to the northwest in long gray and black billows of trouble.

Greg and Jay had crossed the snow bridge while Henri, Robert and I put on any hot gear we had as the rain started to pelt us and make life miserable. This was getting bad, I thought. This could turn to ice. We reached the snow bridge in time to see Jay and Gregg coming back across the ice bride. “It’s no good” Jay said this could get dangerous. Henri agreed; tomorrow we could try again. Robert felt it was early in the day and it might clear. Jay and Gregg decided to turn around and left.

Robert called Billings weather and they said it would be 30% chance of showers, so I agreed to go across and belay and if it turned to crap we could always turn back. Henri agreed, and I went across. Then came Robert and Henri. “Hey are you going for it?” shouted Jay. “We’re going to have a look!” “Well, wait for us.” Over came Jay and Gregg, and that was it, we were committed.

And then the weather joined the party. It just rolled in, right into us as wehe first of the three chimneys. Visibility was 20 feet. Rain changing to sleet. Snow pellets changing to rain. Wet moss and lichen staying slippery when wet. All of us route finding at one time or another as we clawed and grabbed at that mountain til our fingers bled. It suddenly dawned on me where I had seen this before. Gregory Peck and The Guns of Navarone. That was us.

We summited in a mist, unroped, with a hypothermic wind. We were at a critical point. If it changes to snow up here and the wind picks up we may have gone a bridge too far. Jay set the kernmantle rope that Greg had and we rapelled off the summit.

We made slow progress from there when we lost the cairns in the fog and rain. We gave up territory and came to a shear cliff and had to climb back up to do route find-ing. We worked together as a team, we rapelled and climbed down slowly and no one was hurt and no one fell. We were very fortunate. We made the top and worked as a cohesive unit under adverse conditions.

No one person was the leader and each contributed to the party. As we reached the ice bridge on the way down the sky cleared and sun spouted through the clouds. We walked down the ice fields and boulder hopped up Tempest Mountain back to base camp.

It took us 6 hours to get to the top and 9 to get to base camp. We were spent, well at least I was, and ready for bed. We took a team photo and Greg and Jay said they were out of there in the morning. We wouldn’t have made it without them, and then again they wouldn’t have turned around and fol-lowed us without second guessing a good decision to leave in the first place.
We did a leisurely breakfast in the morning and while descending along the Froze to Death we had to take lightning precautions from a storm that would have made climbing a no go for that day too. It was pretty cool; Rob-ert’s hair stood straight up.

“Get rid of the climbing sticks,” I said. Robert had those brand new extendable hiking poles. We found a low spot on the high ground, laid out a poly pad and waited for it to pass. More rain, more wind. As the storm moved to the valley lighting bolts crashed down into the pines below us. It was very pretty. In two weeks the state would be a disaster area due to all the lighting causing forest fires, but we survived. We didn’t beat the mountain, we survived it. It was fun. I highly recommend it. Like the bible, this mountain could be summed up in one word: VICTORY.

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