77-year-old alpine climber taking on Olympic Mountains

Posted 10/9/19

Washington alpinist Fay Pullen can never get high enough. She’s been bagging peaks in the Cascades for over 50 years and has climbed the top 100 highest peaks on the eastern side of the Olympics.

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77-year-old alpine climber taking on Olympic Mountains

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Washington alpinist Fay Pullen can never get high enough.

She’s been bagging peaks in the Cascades for over 50 years and has climbed the top 100 highest peaks on the eastern side of the Olympics.

Pullen, who gave a talk at Disco Bay Detour’s very last Wilderness Wednesday lecture on Sept. 24, can’t be stopped.

Now, she’s on a mission to climb the 100 highest peaks on the west side of the Olympic mountains, a list known as the “Rain Forest Court.”

“I think there’s something wrong with me,” the 77-year-old mountain climber said. “I have a defect that I need to climb higher and higher and higher until I can’t get any higher. I’ve been that way all my life.”

Pullen began climbing peaks when she moved to Washington in 1963. While getting her PhD at the University of Washington, she joined the UW Mountaineering Club. With that group, she climbed Mount Rainier and began to explore some of the larger peaks in the Cascades.

But once she graduated, Pullen had a hard time finding a climbing partner.

“No one wanted to climb with a single woman,” she said. “The other women had boyfriends or partners already, and the men didn’t want to climb with me because I was very small and not very strong. But what I lacked in technical ability I make up for in determination.”

So she began to solo climb.

“I taught myself solo rope climbing,” she said. “That got me up a lot of peaks and I began climbing randomly, mostly in the Cascades.”

It was then that she discovered the Bulger Top 100 List, a list of the 100 highest peaks in the Cascade Mountains.

The highest peak on the list is Mount Rainier, which has an elevation of 14,411 feet. The list also includes Mount Baker, Mount Adams, Glacier Peak, Mount Stuart and others.

Pullen didn’t think she could finish the list, but just continued to whittle away at it one peak at a time.

“It took me four years to do the first 50 peaks,” she said. “And another four to do the next 50.”

Pullen had gotten a Phd in chemistry, but decided to be a homemaker instead of pursuing a career, so that she could spend her free time climbing.

“I knew I couldn’t raise a family, have a job and be a climber,” she said. “So I didn’t have a job.” She raised two children, who now join her for some of the easier peaks she climbs. When her husband died in 2003, she began climbing even more.

“I’ll admit, I turned to climbing mountains for therapy,” she said. “My kids were gone and I had nothing else to do.”

In 2006, Pullen became the 25th person to ever complete the Bulger List. She finished it with a climb to Forbidden Peak, an 8,815 foot peak in the Northern Cascades.

She then went on to complete the Alpine Lakes “Home Court” Top 100 list, another list of 100 peaks in the Snoqualmie area of the Cascades. When she completed that list, she took on the Washington State Top 200 list, which includes the 200 highest peaks in the state.

Since then, she has climbed just about every peak in the Cascades.

Now 77, Pullen has begun the tradition of celebrating her birthdays amongst the mountaintops. She usually plans a big climb for her birthday, although she celebrated her 73rd birthday climbing the easier Mount Constitution with her children, completing the Top 200 list.

“I saved it for last because I knew my kids could join me,” she said. “They’re not into the more gnarly stuff.”

Now she has turned her eyes towards the Olympic Mountains.

Pullen took on the “Rain Shadow Court” list which includes peaks such as Mount Deception, Mount Constance, Warrior Peak and others. Having completed that, Pullen is now working her way steadily through the Rain Forest list of 100 peaks in the Olympics, which includes Mount Olympus (7969 feet in elevation), Athena, Mount Mathias, Aries, Chimney Peak and others.

“The Olympics have always been neglected by big climbers,” Pullen said.

The peaks of the Olympics aren’t necessarily as tall in elevation as in the Cascades, but there are difficulties in other ways.

“Rain, brush and loose rock just add to the challenge,” she said. “The rock is usually horrible. And I’ve pushed my way through head-high salal.”

Telling stories of disastrous rappels down cliffs into blankets of salal and brush, “bivvies” on the sides of peaks, and getting led astray by the somewhat unhelpful Olympic Climbers Guide—“that guide has sandbagged me so many times,” she said—Pullen’s stories of adventures in the Olympics could make any amateur hiker inspired to head outdoors.

“Climbing some of the more obscure peaks can get you to beautiful places,” she said, describing coming across the sparkling Connie Lake that’s nestled between peaks in the Olympics.

She also shared her talent for problem solving—a necessary skill to have as a peak bagger.

“I can make any climb difficult,” she joked. “I have that talent.”

But despite a few disastrous climbs and sometimes having to try a peak two or three times before conquering it, Pullen loves taking in the beauty of the Washington mountains.

“We’re very fortunate to live in Washington,” she said. “We have such beautiful mountains.”

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