Backpacker, peak bagger scales Montana's highest mountains
Harrison Fagg holds up one of the many rocks he has collected from his climbs to the top of all of Montana’s peaks over 12,000 feet above sea level. Fagg said he believes he and his son, Grant, are the only ones who have scaled all of the peaks. JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff

Harrison Fagg never walked the same trail, even when he walked the same trail.

The 73-year-old backpacker and mountain climber explained his reasoning. He's got a cabin along the upper Stillwater River. Over the years, he's hiked up the nearby trail into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness many, many times. "And every time it has a different face," he said. "You never see the same gorge. You never walk the same trail."

Fagg, who owns a Billings architectural firm, nurtured his love for the mountains while spending time with his uncle, Ed Ikerman. Ikerman owned the Beartooth Ranch, a dude ranch near Nye, and would take Fagg along on pack trips into the Beartooths. Fagg credits Ikerman with blazing many of the trails into the wilderness backcountry. And he hooked Fagg on mountain climbing.

"He got me to climb Mount Hague for the first time when I was 16," Fagg recalled.

Fagg continued to roam the mountains until his youngest son, Grant, came along. At age 8, Grant and his father scaled Mount Wood (elevation 12,661), Montana's second-tallest mountain. At 10, he climbed Granite, Montana's highest peak at 12,799 feet above sea level. Then Grant decided his greatest ambition in life was to climb all of Montana's peaks higher than 12,000 feet.

"I thought there were four or five," Fagg said. But he and his son ended up climbing 27. "I'm convinced we're the only ones to climb them all."

It took the duo five years to find and climb all of the 12,000-plus peaks in Montana. The most they did in one year was eight. "We finished on Mount Hague when I was 50," Fagg said. "Then I started re-climbing them."

Here are some of his mountain memories:

Worst mountain meal: "Freeze-dried food is always the worst," he said.

Favorite place: A lake he nicknamed Crazy Mule Lake, after a mule that went crazy and ran into the lake and drowned. It's located on the Lake Plateau, an expanse of alpine lakes ranging in elevation from 9,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level.

"It's just a pristine, beautiful area and the fishing is excellent," Fagg said. "It's always plush and green. And there's just a feeling of solitude there that's lovely."

But he also feels a special kindred for Granite Peak. In 2000, he climbed the peak with his son, Russ, and grandson Eugene Burke. "It's so miserable," he said. "It's a moonscape, just nothing but rocks and windy."

In all, Fagg said he has climbed Granite seven times and attempted to reach the summit another 12 times.

Favorite gear: His new Go-Lite backpack. It is so small that it arrived in the mail in a manila envelope. It weighs 18 ounces and holds 5,000 cubic inches of gear. "The secret is how you pack it," he said. "I'm sold on it."

Fagg said that because of lighter gear, he now carries the same amount of stuff into the mountains, but saves about 15 to 20 pounds.

"I try and keep my load under 25 pounds for five or six days," he said.

It's a far cry from when his uncle would take an extra horse for each person, just to haul their gear.

Fagg's advice: Be prepared. That lesson hit home when Fagg made the mistake of leaving his coat in the car during a day hike to Granite Peak. He got caught on the aptly named Froze-To-Death Plateau in a storm on the way down.

"The clouds rolled in, and it was a terrible storm," Fagg said. "We just hunkered down and took turns lying on top of each other. That taught me a lesson: Don't leave your coat just to lighten your load."

Now he packs an extra day's ration of food and an extra set of warm clothes - a fleece top and bottoms and a down coat.

"You're walking into God's world and you can get into some terrible weather. That's part of the experience. But I can't say it's bad, because it's part of the experience. So I can't think of a bad hike or a bad trip."

Brett French can be reached at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

The Billings Gazette interviewed several area people whose connection with the mountains of Montana, whether through work or play, has set them apart.

Coming next week: Retired game warden Joe Gaab, of Livingston, recounts a lifetime in the saddle.

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