When Oregon K-6 physical education teacher Jason Hardrath returned to the classroom last month, he had the ultimate what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation story with which to impress his young students.
Hardrath spent the summer of 2021 notching his 100th fastest known time (FKT) record. But reaching the century milestone, itself an impressive feat, didn’t just entail a couple of hours pushing his body to get up and down a mountain faster than everyone before him. Instead, Hardrath capped off his goal of 100 FKTs with a summerlong endurance quest of epic proportions: He ticked off the entire Bulger List in a few minutes less than 51 days.
For the uninitiated, the Bulger List comprises the 100 tallest peaks in Washington state. Completist hikers and climbers coalesce around these types of lists, like the so-called 14ers in Colorado (the 58 peaks above 14,000 feet) or 46ers in New York (the 46 highest peaks of the Adirondacks). But the Bulger List is arguably the most difficult such compendium in the Lower 48. Only a scant few of these peaks have trails to the top, with technical rock climbing or glacier travel frequently required. Many of them require challenging backcountry route-finding and bushwhacking through the junglelike thickets of Pacific Northwest understory just to lay sight on the summit.
For Hardrath, a former Ironman triathlete now sponsored by Athletic Brewing who shifted his athletic pursuits to mountaineering after suffering severe injuries in a car crash, the brutal conditions of the Bulger List loomed large as a proving ground. “There was something poetic in doing 100 peaks for my 100th FKT, but also the conditions within these 100 peaks were everything that I cared to test myself on,” Hardrath said via telephone from Klamath Falls, Oregon. “It was a cumulative final exam.” (Athletic Brewing and WZRD Films followed Hardrath’s 100 FKT saga, including the Bulger quest, for a forthcoming documentary.)
Hardrath first came across the Bulger List in 2018 in an online mountaineering forum where climbers were discussing the 410-day record set by Seattle University mechanical engineering professor Eric Gilbertson. He figured that record could be beaten — not necessarily by him — and moved on to other subjects. But the Bulgers returned to his radar in 2020 as he neared his 100th record and realized he should hit that mark with an ambitious attempt. The close-knit Bulger List community, meanwhile, was eager to share information and support someone making such an audacious effort. Gilbertson even visited Hardrath the night before he started to wish him luck.
With our relatively short alpine climbing season limiting the months one can tackle these peaks to roughly May-October, ticking off the Bulgers is a multiseason endeavor. To compress the whole shebang into one climbing season, then, entailed a summerlong race against the clock — a perfect fit for Hardrath.
“I seem to derive a greater experience from racing the clock and pushing hard,” said Hardrath.
He climbed an average of two peaks per day for 51 straight days, up and down the spine of the Cascades while operating based out of a campervan-turned-base-camp, starting at 6:21 a.m. on June 13 to ascend Windy Peak (8,333 feet) in the Pasayten Wilderness and finishing back at the trailhead at 6:04 a.m. Aug. 3 after summiting Mount St. Helens (8,363 feet) for a total of 870 miles and 412,000 feet of elevation gain.
That’s like hiking from Seattle to San Francisco and climbing Mount Rainier 40 times along the way.
In between, Hardrath and climbing partner Nathan Longhurst, who tagged along for 65 of the peaks this past summer and is now the youngest person to complete many of the Bulgers, had countless episodes of testing their mountain mettle, any one of which might make for an impressive yarn from a single climbing season.
There was the day in late June under the intense glare of the heat dome hiking from Holden Village along the shores of Lake Chelan to reach Copper Peak (8,964 feet). “The blazing direct exposed sunlight felt like Death Valley,” Hardrath said. “It was wild to walk 12 miles on an exposed road in intense heat and then still climb the peak that same day.”
Wilder still, perhaps, Hardrath and Longhurst turned around the next day to knock off Martin Peak (8,511 feet), Bonanza Peak (9,511 feet), and Dark Peak (8,504 feet) in a single 22-hour push. As they approached the infamous Bonanza-Dark Traverse, a knife-edge ridge between the two summits with thousands of feet of exposure on either side, the duo was short on daylight. While most trip reports indicated six hours to make the traverse, they crossed the technical terrain in a mere three hours and 15 minutes. By the time they reached the summit, it was getting dark on Dark. They downclimbed to the Dark glacier and then bushwhacked down 5,000 feet to the Pacific Crest Trail. From there, it was 7 miles of trail walking to reach a resupply from Ashly Winchester, Hardrath’s significant other.
“You know that feeling when your head starts to droop and you shouldn’t be driving?” Hardrath said. “That happened while we were walking. We ended up nose-diving onto the trail and taking a dirt nap.” Winchester wandered up the trail the next morning with coffee and breakfast. She found them asleep on the ground a mere 1.5 miles from her camp.
But that weeklong sojourn up Lake Chelan paled in logistical comparison to the six Chilliwack Peaks, which are normally accessed from the British Columbia side of the Cascades even though the peaks reside in Washington. With the U.S.-Canada border still closed to nonessential travel at the time of his attempt, Hardrath and Longhurst hired a boat from Ross Lake Resort — they would ultimately take three boat rides over the course of the Bulger List endeavor, which they scheduled during the brief windows of cell service while standing atop summits — and started off that day with the nastiest that Northwest forest can throw at a climber.
“The worst mosquitoes you can imagine were bouncing across every part of our body, we were breathing them through our mouth and nose,” Hardrath said. “For 11.5 continuous hours we didn’t sit down because the bugs were so bad.”
The silver lining? They overpacked on food for this leg after underpacking on an earlier segment. On the final 22 miles, they each ate three dehydrated meals plus two days worth of snacks — a smorgasbord of Top Ramen, mashed potatoes, chili macaroni and cheese, Chex mix, Fritos, Oreos, gummy bears, salami and jerky. “I’ve never eaten that well in the backcountry,” Hardrath said. “We ate like kings.”
While Hardrath’s physical endurance held up to his ultimate challenge, there were logistical factors outside his control. In addition to the Canadian border, he contended with wildfire closures that affected public lands and the North Cascades Highway. Hardrath shuffled Golden Horn, Tower Mountain and Azurite Peak to the front of the list once fire threatened those areas, and was forced to bushwhack a less-traveled route to reach Dome Peak and Sinister Peak due to a fire closure. In the spirit of climbing in “good style,” Hardrath insisted on respecting all border and public land closures.
“There was a constant doubt that the project would have a chance of going because of fires,” he said. As a regular visitor to the alpine realm for his personal pursuits who also guides professionally on Mount Shasta, Hardrath believes conditions in the Northwest mountains are becoming hotter and drier.
“These changes are having massive impacts on how people interact with the outdoors,” he said. “This may be one of the last years that doing the Bulger record is even possible.”
Whether for weather and climate reasons or simply because there isn’t someone else as driven, or arguably as insane, as Hardrath, early Bulger List conquerors tip their climbing helmets.
“Jason’s logistics for his Bulger Top 100 FKT were as mind-boggling as his amazing physical accomplishment,” wrote John Roper, who became the fifth-ever climber to finish the Bulger List in 1987, via email. “[I’m] pretty sure this one will stand for a long time.”
A Washington climber posting online as RandyR considered himself an early skeptic of Hardrath’s effort who was won over by his herculean feat. “Many people doubted he would succeed, even laughed [at the] hubris of such an attempt — I will admit, I was one of them — his persistence and dedication won me over,” he wrote in the comments on Hardrath’s FKT entry. “It is my opinion, that this is one of the more inspiring and significant things to happen in the mountains, especially in the PNW, this year.”
Hardrath also may have permanently altered Washington climbers’ notion of what is possible in our mountains. “This concept redefined how a community looks at a set of peaks,” he said.
The message he took back to his students is a bit simpler. “My belief in dreaming big and believing in yourself permeates how I teach them,” he said. “I’m just some kid from some small town and if I can do big things, then so can you.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Ashly Winchester’s first name and misstated the number of Chilliwack Peaks. There are six Chilliwack Peaks, not seven.