About The Northwest Mountain School 


John, Olivia, and Josephine Race
Olivia, John & Josephine Race
The Northwest Mountain School is a small climbing and skiing guide service started in 1994 and run by IFMGA - UIAGM certified guides Olivia and John Race. We are based in Leavenworth, WA and one of only a few married couples in the US to be working together as IFMGA certified guides. We have a combined 40 years of guiding experience and have worked for many large guide services such as Rainier Mountaineering, Inc, International Mountain Guides, and Alpine Ascents International. The Northwest Mountain School is the umbrella under which we offer small group trips of the highest quality to the worlds premiere climbing and ski destinations.

As IFMGA guides we have each passed rigorous courses and exams on our way to becoming American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) certified Rock, Alpine, and Ski guides. Both college graduates, John with a BA in English Literature, Olivia with a BS in Wildlife Biology, we have ended up spending our adult lives guiding and have built a business that will allow us to raise a family, provide our customers with a very high quality experience, and remain involved in protecting the very fragile environment in which we work.

Organizing and leading your trip of a lifetime is a job that we take seriously. We will work hard on your behalf while keeping things light enough to keep you smiling and coming back.

John's Background 

John Race, Northwest Mountain School owner
John Race
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IFMGA Licensed Guide
John started guiding in 1989 and has guided full-time since 1992, when he completed his BA in English Literature at Colorado State University. John's early guiding took place on Mt. Rainier and led to a critical apprenticeship under well known guides such as Phil Ershler, George Dunn, Eric Simonson, and other veteran guides working at Lou Whittaker, Jerry Lynch, Joe Horiskey, and Peter Whittaker's company Rainier Mountaineering Inc (RMI) in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Those years involved more than a hundred trips up Mt. Rainier (160 reaching the summit as of Oct. 2011), and eventually led to dozens of expeditions to places like Denali, Mt. Everest, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Aconcagua, Mt. Elbrus, the European Alps, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, and other big, but relatively non-technical mountains.

By 1994 John was looking for a new guiding challenge and started the Northwest Mountain School (NMS) at age 25. The idea for NMS was a young person's idea, but a good one that was originally intended to teach environmental education and climbing to high-school aged students. Successful DC area businessman John Ourisman and a group of past Denali customers backed John in the startup of the NMS despite any evidence that John could balance a check book much less run a business. John operated this program in addition to his adult trips until around 2003, when it became clear that youth programs were always going to be desperate financial propositions. As the youth programs were slowly phased out, John became more involved in training offered by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and he set himself the goal of becoming an AMGA certified Rock, Alpine, and Ski guide. If certified in all three areas, this would give John his full IFMGA certification and the ability to work in other IFMGA countries such as France, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Canada. When John finally passed his AMGA ski mountaineering guides exam in Valdez, AK in May of 2006, he became one of the first 35 American's to reach full IFMGA certification.

2015 will be the 27th consecutive season that John has made his living guiding and he hopes it will lead to another 20 seasons as interesting and rewarding as the first. A recent highlight of John's guiding career include a month-long sailing and climbing trip where John, Dave Hahn and Skip Novak accompanied a family from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia Island in the remote South Atlantic and successfully retraced Ernest Shackleton's crossing of South Georgia. In most years John spends several months in Alaska, does some ski and alpine guiding in Europe, and the puts together a variety of trips in Washington and worldwide based on what his customers are looking for. John previously served on the AMGA Board of Directors where he was the Vice President and worked to improve the level of guiding in the US and to open new opportunities for other guides going through the AMGA program.

Olivia's Background 

Olivia Cussen, Northwest Mountain School owner
Olivia Cussen
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IFMGA Licensed Guide
A native of Washington, Olivia was completing a BS in Wildlife Biology around the time John and Olivia met in 1999. At the time Olivia was a river guide and curious about climbing. On one of their first dates John and Olivia went climbing together in Leavenworth. Although river guiding was fun, Olivia was looking for a more physical challenge and quickly started to spend more time climbing than boating. Her early climbing career featured a series of unusual firsts. Olivia's first ascent of a big mountain ended up being a winter ascent of Rainier. A couple years of actively rock climbing and alpine climbing led to work as a guide on Mt. Rainier. At the conclusion of her first season on Rainier (which at the time was the highest mountain she had climbed) Olivia joined a Cho Oyu expediton organized by International Mountain Guides (IMG) as the trek leader while John was the climbing leader. One thing led to another and by the end of the trip Olivia had become one of the few American women to have climbed an 8000 meter peak when she reached the summit of Cho Oyu (26,907) the world's 6th highest peak just days after her responsibilities as trek leader were over. She has guided 10 expeditions to Denali and in June of 2011 gave birth to Josephine, John and Olivia's daughter.

Starting in 2003 Olivia became involved in the training offered by the AMGA, becoming Rock certified in 2006 and then Ski and Alpine certified in 2007. In September of 2007 at the age of 31, Olivia passed her final AMGA exam and became the 3rd woman in US history to reach IFMGA certification (the 1st was Cathy Cosley, and the 2nd was Margaret Wheeler). Anyone who has visited John and Olivia in Leavenworth or been on a trip where Olivia was cooking can attest to the fact that in addition to being a "rippin" skier, and climber, Olivia loves cooking, particularly for tired friends back from a day in the mountains.

John and Olivia together 

In December of 2007 John and Olivia were finally married at Rob Newsome's Boudreaux Cellars, and are currently one of the few couples in the world to be working together as IFMGA guides. They live together in Leavenworth, WA where they run the Northwest Mountain School. Olivia tends to hold the books, permits, and staff together, while John spends a lot of time designing and selling trips. Both lead most of the programs that they participate in, but whenever possible they run programs together. Each continues to work for a variety of other guide services such as International Mountain Guides, as well as several local independent schools.

Our Philosophy 

After a combined 40 years of guiding and dual IFMGA certifications we started to see some possibilities on the horizon that had not seemed reachable before. At the heart of all of our guiding is the ethos of delivering a professional, well-organized, and enjoyable program for our customers while keeping a close eye on managing the inherent risks in all climbing and skiing programs. This is what we have chosen to do for our life's work and we take great pride in making sure that our customer's time and money are well spent on any program we are involved with.

Why So Small? 

We are currently running primarily private programs as they allow us to keep our company small and the quality of each program very high. Our schedule is usually 70% booked about one year in advance and we have been focusing on having a more European approach to guiding with small groups of return customers doing one or more trips per year with either or both of us. We have both found that by running programs to a wide variety of places each season we can work very demanding schedules and not get burned out. In the past we have each worked in environments where we climb the same mountain over and over all summer and we found that after a certain number of trips the quality of later programs suffered.

Running a good trip requires extensive pre-trip planning and we balance our schedule seasonally so that we have enough office time each year to help our existing customers to get ready for their program. We can help with any aspect of your trip from the trip itself to equipment purchase and selection, training, and travel arrangements. Consulting for corporate groups, helping design equipment for the military, fetching more beer for our summit team, we are happy to do whatever it takes to make your trip work well.

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