The Olympic Mountain Project: The Mission of 30 Peaks
“The Olympic Mountains truly invoke a sense of mystery and remote wilderness, and after seeing them for the first time, I wanted to experience that mystery and know them for myself.”
WHAT IS THE “OLYMPIC MOUNTAIN PROJECT”?
My name is Nate Brown, and I am a mountaineer based in Seattle, Washington. I spend a lot of time in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, here in Washington, and I am in the midst of a long term objective:
I am setting out to climb 30 peaks in the Olympic Mountains within 3 years.
I call it the “Olympic Mountain Project.”
EVERY GOAL HAS ITS OBSTACLES
This is definitely a lengthy project which will only be accomplished with consideration of multiple challenges.
Things like weather dependency, seasonal availability of the mountain interior, my “normal life” requirements outside of the mountains, availability of climbing partners, and even a global pandemic (yeah, what?!) can have an affect on the timeline.
I never thought something like a global pandemic would be a challenge when I initially thought through everything that could happen, but it is simply the reality now.
With various stages of stay-at-home orders for my region in Washington State and public land closures to consider, all of my early 2020 plans came to a screeching halt.
But, as things begin to open back up, I am remaining hopeful that I will be getting into this gorgeous mountain complex more and more.
Being safe and having fun are my top two priorities with this project, so I will always err on the side of those themes, because an obsession on speed can often lead to poor choices.
I started the project in June 2019.
So far I have completed 11 summits (10 unique peaks, with the tenth being a repeat of one summit in a different season).
That brings me to a total of 175 hiking miles and over 50,000 feet climbed so far.
Most of the peaks I’ve done so far are on the outskirts of the range and are relatively low in mileage, with the exception of Sentinel Peak (which was a 46-mile trip) and Henderson Peak (nearly 12,000 feet of gain via circuitous route that took me over several other mountains).
CLICK ON THE MAP, TO BE TAKEN TO NATE’S LIVE MAP!
VIDEO: Watch the summit of “The Brothers”, a well known climb in the Olympics. Video c/o The Wild Outsiders.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
When I arrived in Washington state back in 2013, I didn’t have much mountain experience.
After all, I grew up in the [very flat] American Midwest.
Not a lot of mountains out there.
But after moving to the Pacific Northwest, I felt drawn to the mountains, so I began working on my outdoor education and building my experience.
I took classes on glacier travel techniques, basic alpine climbing, wilderness navigation, mountaineering-oriented first aid, and other essential outdoor skills.
I took myself to the bunny slopes of the local ski resort and taught myself to ski, for the sole purpose of being able to experience the joy of skiing down a snowy summit, after I climbed it.
I also bought my first camera and learned how to operate it manually, so I could try to get better photos of the amazing landscape where I was spending so much of my time.
I kept developing and honing all of these skill sets, getting more comfortable both in the outdoors and behind the lens. I was completely immersed and dedicated to these tasks, and, every so often, a friend would ask me a pretty simple question…
“What’s your goal here? What are you trying to accomplish?”
I really didn’t know…
Typically, I’d just shrug my shoulders and say I was “having fun” and that’s that. But I felt like I was pursuing something that I wasn’t entirely unaware of.
Over the years, I’ve earnestly followed along while other people tackled outdoor objectives and projects; everything from epic National Geographic expeditions to local backyard outings.
I always ate those stories up.
I’d spend hours reading about them and loved following along on many journeys, from a distance. I had been drawn to these types of stories for years and years, but I never entertained the thought of trying to set out on my own project.
One day it finally clicked for me…
The first step had been putting down roots in a region I loved, after 13 years in the Army.
And the rest of the steps had been completed as I crossed them off my checklist, one by one: all that time spent increasing my hiking endurance, learning technical climbing, finding routes in the backcountry, and shooting with my camera had brought me here…
…to my Olympic Mountain Project.
WHY THE OLYMPICS?
The Olympic Peninsula and I have a special connection.
When I arrived in the Pacific Northwest in 2013, I found an apartment to rent in Olympia, Washington, because it was near my Army base and seemed like a great city.
Two weeks after arriving, I had an extended 4-day weekend for a holiday.
I decided to take a road trip on Highway 101, which runs in a loop around the peninsula.
The absolutely stunning beauty that I witnessed during that long weekend caused me to fall in love with the PNW.
The stark contrast of lush rainforest, the snow-capped mountain alpine area, and the coastline with its epic sea stacks were all overwhelming and intoxicating.
“I had never experienced such a variety of beautiful terrain in my life. I was hooked.”
I was especially drawn to the mountainous area, with its peaks that seemed to extend, without end, into the interior of the peninsula.
There is a unique challenge with the Olympic Mountains…
They are hard to get to.
It’s not your typical mountain range that runs in a long line, with roads crossing and winding their way through it. It is a circular cluster of mountains, with no road access directly through them.
The closest most people ever come to seeing the interior is from one of the many viewing areas on the outskirts, like the gorgeous panoramic view from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center.
Standing at one of these overlooks, scanning over the countless mountain ridges and river valleys of the interior, you might see the range as so close yet also so remote and wild.
The Olympic Mountains truly invoke a sense of mystery and remote wilderness, and after seeing them for the first time, I wanted to experience that mystery and know them for myself.
I wanted to summit enough mountains in the Olympics to say that I had truly seen every nook and cranny of that mountain system.
The first natural question I asked myself was “So, where do I even begin in accomplishing this goal?”
It wasn’t an entirely easy question to answer.
I knew from the start that I wasn’t only interested in including the tallest or most technically challenging mountains.
The tallest mountains in the Olympics are generally contained within just a couple clusters, which means I wouldn’t actually have seen and experienced every part of the Olympics with that method.
Going solely for the most technically challenging peaks wasn’t a great goal for me either for that same exact reason, and also for the honest fact that I am not a great alpinist.
[If there’s an easy way and a hard way up a mountain, most of the time I’ll happily take the easy route. No shame.]
The majority of the peaks in the Olympics are so remote that they require an expensive entry ticket in the form of a 20-50 mile trek, just to get in and out of the area, let alone climb it. And on top of that, for any technical climbs, any prospective mountaineers would need to be hauling a rope and all the associated hardware with technical climbing.
Since I would already be carrying a heavy, multi-day overnight pack, hard goods would just make things worse for my back and knees (who are already a tad upset at me for the weight of my camera gear.).
I knew that I also wanted to avoid doing neighboring peaks; I wanted to choose a mix of the major ridges and clusters so that I could cover every sub-region of the Olympic Mountains without too much overlap.
After a ton of planning and scrutiny, I created a list of thirty mountains that both highlight the diversity of the range and cover the most ground, which ultimately serves my purpose of seeing as much of the Olympics as I can.
Most of the peaks are in the 6,000-7,500 ft elevation range, but there are a few outliers like Lightning Peak (4,654 ft.) or the crown jewel of the Olympics, Mt. Olympus (7,980 ft.).
VIDEO: One of the simpler summits, Mt. Buckhorn.
A WAY TO GIVE BACK
Climbing these peaks and seeing them, simply for my own enjoyment, didn’t seem like enough.
I wanted to use my skill set in photography to document the journey and to shine a light on the areas of the Olympics that aren’t seen as much.
I also wanted to help give back to the National Park that has meant so much to me.
So, I decided to partner up with Washington’s National Park Fund (WNPF), because they are the official philanthropic partner of the three National Parks inside of Washington State: Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Olympic National Park – all of which I love dearly (though the Olympics are clearly the best, in my opinion).
The WNPF does incredible work for parks, like funding research and park maintenance. To help support them and give back to the area I love, I donate 25% from all photography prints purchased from my website.
MOST RECENT PROJECT UPDATE
updated: 7/1/20 by Nate Brown
As of July 1st, Olympic National Park is open to backcountry camping! This is welcome news because I am finally free to plan some trips into the park. This summer, I plan to attempt climbs of Mount Deception (the second highest peak in the Olympics), Mount Constance (the third highest peak!), McCartney Peak, and Mount Lena. I would also love to get my first thru-hike completed (I enter the park in one location and exit in another) in which I hike 40+ miles and summit both Mount Steel and Mount Elk Lick. But if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that patience and backup plans are essential.
30 PEAK CHECKLIST:
Buckhorn Mountain (x)
Elk Mountain (x)
Lightning Peak (x)
Mount Angeles (x)
Mount Elk Lick
Mount Henderson (x)
Mount Townsend (x)
Mount Washington (x)
Sentinel Peak (x)
The Brothers (x)
Written by Nate Brown. All images by Nate Brown, except lead image and top video c/o The Wild Outsiders.
To learn more about what Nate does in the outdoors, you can keep up with him in the following places:
For more stories from the mountains, be sure to check out the Helly Hansen blog!