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Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Making the Impossible Possible


Jason Hardrath

Making the Impossible Possible

Story by Lee Juillerat


Jason Hardrath spends his summers doing seemingly impossible things, like climbing Washington’s 100 tallest peaks in 51 days and summiting California’s fifteen 14,000-foot-plus mountains in less than a week.

The rest of the year he uses those push-himself-to-the-limits experiences to create a sense of can-do, a belief that seemingly impossible things can be achieved, for students in his physical education classes at Klamath County’s Bonanza Elementary School. “I want them to know we can do things when we’re scared. That you can experience fear and learn to work through it,” he explains. In his classes, youngsters gain confidence by doing things like riding a bicycle or a skateboard, working their way up the school’s climbing wall, walking and jogging, playing ball and, most of all, having fun. “I need them to walk away with a variety of indoor and outdoor experiences so that they can say, ‘That’s cool. I can do that.’”

Hardrath, 33, has an “I-can-do-that” attitude because he’s overcome a series of challenges, including ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). He’s used running, triathlons, and other endurance sports as outlets. As he explains, “As I kid, I couldn’t sit still. I found athletics as this realm where I could be successful.”

While in high school in Baker City, he pushed himself in track hard enough to earn a scholarship to Corban University in Salem, where he earned a degree and teaching certificate in physical education. His self-confidence increased in 2011 when he bicycled across the U.S. “That’s when I learned these things can be done.” He followed that up by competing in Iron Man competitions, which combine bicycling, swimming and running, along with other outdoor activities. 

His endeavors nearly ended in 2015. He almost died and suffered crippling injuries in an accident when, weary from a hard day at school, he lost focus while driving and his car went off the road. Because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, he flew out an open car window. He tore a knee, broke his shoulder, had broken ribs along with a collapsed lung, and damaged internal organs. He aggressively worked his way back into shape, but the injuries ended his running. “I was told I’d have to give up that part of my life. I knew I couldn’t do that. Moving my body is paramount to my ability to function.”

Hardrath refocused on climbing. Before he had moved to Klamath Falls, a short commute to Bonanza, he had already climbed local mountains, including 14,180-foot Mount Shasta, which he’s summited more than 25 times. He also learned and honed technical rock climbing skills in Utah slot canyons, Northern California’s Castle Crags, Smith Rock State Park, and numerous Sierra-Nevada mountains, always increasingly focused on complex, technical routes.

Another near miss happened last May. Racing his mountain bike down a dirt road on Mount Shasta, he collided with a deer that ran into his path. While hospitalized with serious injuries, he learned he had COVID-19. “That,” he remembers of the physical and mental injuries, “rattled my confidence. I asked myself if I could really trust my body out there.” But he regained that trust and confidence last summer by completing a 41-mile ridge traverse in Yosemite National Park in three days and 12 hours. He considered it a “test piece” for the challenge that followed, Norman’s 13, which involves climbing the thirteen 14,000-plus peaks in California’s Sierra Nevada Range. Despite struggling from lingering injuries from the collision and effects of long-COVID, “I still managed to make it happen.”

Norman’s 13 involved 107 miles of hiking, with nearly half the distance off-trail, along with more than 40,000-feet of vertical elevation gain and 5th class rock climbing. He finished in a Fastest Known Time (FKT) record three days, 22 minutes and 19 seconds. Then, without a pause he bicycled to another 14er, White Mountain near the California-Nevada border. After summiting White, he was back on his bike, pedaling 400-plus miles in 90-plus degrees heat to far Northern California’s to climb Mount Shasta.

In all, he summited California’s 15 tallest peaks in a FKT record six days and 22 hours. During the nearly non-stop journey he overcame his fatigue and lingering injuries by repeating two mantras, “I’m not gonna die out here,” and “Keep the dream alive.”

Keeping the dream alive wasn’t easy. “I had hallucinations the whole way up,” he tells of climbing Mount Tyndall, one of those Sierra Nevada peaks, in the dark. While bicycling to Mount Shasta he remembers thinking, “I’m going to do it. I’m beat up, I’m exhausted, but I’m going to do it.” It wasn’t his first time doing the unthinkable. In 2021 he climbed Washington’s 100 highest peaks – including Mount Rainier and dozens of lesser-known, often technical peaks – in 51 days. The previous FKT for what is known as The Bulger List, was 410 days. Hardrath’s journey is told in a documentary, Journey to 100.

The challenges will continue this summer. He is looking at hiking the length of the Grand Canyon, a 277-mile distance that’s mostly off trail, and lowering the current FKT of 24 days, and tackling the Rocky Mountain Slam, which includes hiking more than a thousand miles and summiting 205 peaks all over 12,000-feet in elevation, in Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. The current FKT is 60 days.

He emphasizes the need for preplanning, for “being as efficient as possible,” something he says is easier because of technology. But even more, “I want to do things in beautiful places,” he says of tackling seemingly impossible challenges in beautiful but remote areas most people only see from a distance.

Hardrath is proud of his personal accomplishments, but he also wants to transfer the can-do mentality to others, especially his students. “Embracing challenges is subtly embedded in my PE programs. I want to let them participate, to have moments when they choose to do more, to know we can do things when we’re scared. To experience fear and learn to work through it,” he says “The end takeaway is that it’s a positive experience, one that they and their friends have fun doing.”

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