On Top of the World: Camas High grad youngest to climb Washington’s 100 highest peaks

Andrew Okerlund, 20, completed difficult ‘Bulger List’ during his 2023 summer break from college

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Andrew Okerlund (left) stands on top of Mount St. Helens with his brother, Vaughn Okerlund (center), and Kevin Hsu in September 2023. (Contributed photo courtesy of Andrew Okerlund)

The mountain-climbing list detailing Washington’s 100 highest peaks is filled with firsts, seconds and youngests.

Russ Kroeker was the first to finish in October 1980. Bette Felton was the first woman to finish in 1986. And Nathan Longhurst was, until being bumped from the spot by a Camas native, the youngest person to complete the 100 “Bulger List” climbs.

2021 Camas High School graduate Andrew Okerlund was a 20-year-old computer science major with a passion for mountain climbing when he noticed Longhurst had set the Bulger List’s “youngest” record Aug. 6, 2021.

“I had read about these two people, Jason Hadrath and Nathan Longhurst, who had done the Bulger List in one season and Nathan was the youngest,” Okerlund, 20, recalled. “Selfishly, I wanted to be the youngest one to do it … but I didn’t know if it was possible.”

Okerlund, the son of Ellen Burton, the former mayor of Camas, and Donald Okerlund, was a sophomore at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, California, when he decided he not only wanted to be the youngest person to complete the Bulger List but that, like Hadrath and Longhurst, he wanted to climb all 100 peaks in a single season.

Realizing his dream, however, would take careful planning and more climbing education.

“I identified the things I really had to do if I was serious about it,” Okerlund said. “I knew my summer break, from June 18 through Sept. 22, was my maximum amount of time.”

He had cut his mountaineering teeth on a few of Washington’s celebrated volcanoes – including Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier — and took an introductory glacier-hiking course on the base of Oregon’s Mount Hood, but Okerlund knew he would need to learn more mountain-climbing techniques before his summer break began in June 2023.

“There were gaps in my climbing education,” Okerlund said. “I hadn’t rock climbed, so I had to find a mentor and learn traditional climbing skills.”

After finding a skilled “trad climber” near his college in California, Okerlund learned the mechanics of safe rock-climbing.

“Ideally, you shouldn’t fall to your death,” Okerlund said, laughing. “You want to have something to attach yourself to the mountain. … Eventually, I met someone who knew how to do that type of climbing, and they taught me those skills.”

Before tackling the Bulger List, Okerlund practiced his rock-climbing skills in Moab, Utah, and at Joshua Tree National Park in California, and Red Rock Canyon in Nevada.

He also reached out to Hadrath for advice.

“He viewed fires as the biggest threat to not finishing in one season,” Okerlund said of Hadrath. “So, he had started in the eastern Cascades.”

Okerlund followed Hadrath’s advice. He also reached out to other Bulger List enthusiasts who had posted in online Bulger List groups about their upcoming climbs during the summer of 2023.

“I wanted to create a web of partners I could rely on,” Okerlund said. “I had planned my itinerary, so I’d ask people if they were interested (in joining me on any of the climbs). They were people I didn’t really know — I knew them from Instagram.”

Okerlund would arrange to meet them at the trailhead on a certain day at a certain time.

“Most showed up,” he said. And one person in particular showed up for Okerlund in a big way. Ross James Wallette, a Pacific Northwest native and Bulger List climber, joined Okerlund on several of the climbs and helped memorialize the journey through photography and videography.

Okerlund said he also reached out to another recent Camas High graduate — Zach Hein, the founder of Range Meal Bars, a company that makes high-calorie meal-replacement bars popular with hikers.

Hein offered to help create a documentary movie about Okerlund’s climbs, which will be released this summer.

Okerlund began his quest to climb all 100 Bulger List peaks in June 2023. On Sept. 11, 2023, Okerlund realized his dream and, at 20 years old, earned the title of youngest to finish the list.

Along the way, Okerlund experienced a few low points — the mosquitoes, the mice that moved into his car, painful blisters from a pair of bad hiking shoes and a frightening rock slide that sent Okerlund sprinting across a steep, smooth, slippery slab of rock to avoid being injured by the avalanche of “basketball-sized” rocks tumbling toward his head.

But the good outweighed the bad, he said, and when Okerlund recalls his season of climbing, he mostly thinks of the positives.

“The problems you’re facing every day are so human,” Okerlund said of his daily mountain-climbing routine. “They’re just much simpler, and they seem more meaningful.”

And, of course, the tremendous views didn’t hurt.

“The landscape is so beautiful,” Okerlund said. “And I love that feeling of total freedom – of doing whatever you want and not having anyone to hear you or see you.”

And although being the youngest person to finish the Bulger List gave Okerlund a deep sense of satisfaction, it was not the end of his mountaineering goals.

Over winter break, in December 2023, Okerlund joined a group of hikers led by Hadrath in Chile, where they climbed Ojos del Salado, a dormant volcano in the Andes Mountain Range that is the tallest volcano in the world and, at 22,615 feet, the tallest peak in Chile.

This year, Okerlund is learning about big-wall climbing, which requires multi-day climbs, and has his sights set on big-wall climbing the sheer granite face of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot-tall, vertical rock formation found in Yosemite National Park.

As for others interested in mountain climbing or even just going for backcountry hikes in Washington state, Okerlund — who found his love of mountaineering as a teenager exploring the mountains near Camas with his friends and his older brother, Vaughn Okerlund — has some advice.

“The only way to really learn how to do it is to put yourself in a situation where you have to critically think … just trying it is important,” Okerlund said.