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Teacher gains fame as 100-peaks climber

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Klamath Falls man sets speed records up the tallest mountains in sight
Photo courtesy Luke WebsterJason Hardrath removes crampons before climbing final section atop Mount Formidable
Photo by Luke WebsterJason Hardrath on the summit of Washington’s Sinister Peak.
Photo by Luke WebsterJason Hardrath scrambles to the summit of Mount Formidable in the Cascades of northern Washington.

Most days Jason Hardrath is a physical education teacher at Bonanza Elementary School, a small community in Klamath County.

But when he’s not teaching, the 33-year-old is likely working out, or even more to his liking, taking on ever-more challenging climbs of daunting mountains.

But he’s not just any climber. Hardrath has earned national attention for being the first person with 100 Fastest Known Times and, during last year’s summer break from teaching, obliterating the record for climbing Washington’s 100 tallest peaks in a remarkably miniscule 50 days and 23 hours. Distance-wise he covered 869 miles, with a staggering elevation gain of 412,000 feet.

Why does he do it?

“The views, the sensation of being up there. I love the feeling of the clouds, the breeze, the feeling of looking down and saying, ‘My legs brought me up here,’“ he says of summiting challenging, often trail-less mountain peaks. “I love bringing my skills to the test. The feeling I climbed a mountain the best I could. The feeling I’m bringing the experience of my best nature to nature.”

Hardrath, who grew up in Eastern Oregon’s Baker City, says climbing mountains is a response and outlet for his ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder). “As a kid I couldn’t sit still … I found athletics as this realm where I can be successful.”

Successful he is. But mountain climbing wasn’t his original ADHD outlet. In middle school he wanted, and eventually succeeded, to run a mile is less than six minutes. In high school he ran track and earned a college scholarship to Corban University in Salem — “I had to work my butt off to keep my scholarship” — where he ran track while earning a degree and teaching certificate in physical education.

For several years Hardrath found his outlet in Ironman triathlons, events that combine swimming, biking and running. Life changed in 2015 when, after what he remembers as a challenging day of teaching, coaching and meetings, he momentarily took his eyes off the road, resulting in his car flying off the road and rolling. Because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt, Hardrath shot out the open window. Riddled with a litany of injuries, his competitive running days were over.

Amazingly, the ever-competitive Hardrath shifted his hyperactive outlet to climbing.

It helped that nearby climbing opportunities are abundant — Hogback in Klamath Falls and nearby more challenging mountains like McLoughlin and Shasta, which he’s summited more than 25 times.

“I cut my teeth on volcanoes,” explains Hardrath, who stands 5-foot-9, weighs 170 pounds As his climbing proficiency increased, Hardrath sought greater challenges, which led to speed records, or FKTs, for climbing mountains, often by complex, steep, technical routes.

When he neared his 100th FKT, he decided to make the climb symbolic. And, to add to the challenge, he wanted that FKT century mark to signal and symbolize the culmination of his record for climbing Washington’s 100 tallest peaks, known as the Bulger List. When he stood on the summit of Mount St. Helens at 6:04 a.m. Aug. 3, then 34-year-old Hardrath, who had launched his 100-summit effort at 6:21 a.m. June 13, 2021, shattered the previous record of 410 days set by Eric Gilbertson in 2018.

His 100 peaks journey included 51 days of challenges, not only reaching the summits but sometimes suffocating in stifling heat, devising ways to reach climbing routes normally accessed from COVID-closed Canada, teetering on knife-edged ridges, being doused by heavy rain, climbing technical rock terrain, traveling across glaciers, and readjusting schedules to avoid forest fire closures.

As word of his attempt grew, Hardrath was joined by 21-year-old Nathan Longhurst, who accompanied him on 65 peaks and later became the youngest Bulger record holder. Hardrath earned sponsorships, including from Athletic Brewing, whose president insisted, “We need to make a movie of this,” which led to film crews from WZRD Media to document his final four climbs.

“It’s been kind of a wild ride to where it is now,” laughs Hardrath, who is now sponsored with Path Projects clothes, Norda Run trail shoes and Coros watches.

Completing the Bulger List in less than two months — a time frame partially necessary because it happened during the summer break from teaching at Bonanza — wasn’t done on a whim. After wondering, “How realistic is this?” Hardrath sought logistical advice from other Bulger finishers, including Gilbertson, through near-daily Zoom calls over a six-month period.

For now it’s time to reflect on his adventures. Hardrath genuinely appreciates his time past, and time to come, on the challenges and rewards of climbing memories. “When I get out there (on mountaintops) it’s like complete silence. I can feel the breeze across my skin. It’s more of a sanctuary than any church I’ve been in, and that’s a pretty powerful calling.”

He talks about giving his body a rest, including visits to Denver, Seattle, Portland and elsewhere for upcoming showings of “Journey to 100.” But this year’s plans include more challenging adventures — from rejoining Longhurst for the Norman 13, linking 14,000-foot Sierra Nevada range summits — and, beginning in 2023, tacking the Rainier Infinity Loop, which involves two summits of Mount Rainer and the entire Wonderland Trail, climbs in South America, and outings like the Teton Picnic, which includes biking 23 miles from Jackson Hole, swimming 1.3 miles across Jenny Lake, climbing 10 often technical miles to the summit of 13,775-foot Grand Teton, then reversing the route back to town.

“I have a laundry list of things,” Hardrath laughs.

For now the immediate focus is on teaching, which includes instilling a sense of you-can-do-it for his students at Bonanza Elementary and encouraging others to gain self-confidence on hikes or by biking Moore Park’s new Bike Skills area, a project in Klamath Falls he helped fund.

“This desire to help and lift others has been ingrained in me,” Hardrath explains. “I’m most passionate about getting the kids in the outdoors more. I like the idea of a real, full-on adventure, and I hope to instill that in others, too.”

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.