Mt. Baker Ultra Run, a new twist on an Old Adventure Race

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On June 3rd I set out on foot with 11 other runners. We started in Bellingham WA on the beach of the ocean and made a 108 mile round trip journey to the 10,781 ft glaciated summit of Mt Baker and back. Bellingham sits in the cradle of the cascade mountains at the edge of the Salish Sea. It’s a glacier carved landscape with large volcanoes jutting out of rugged mountains. We are far from the open Pacific ocean but none the less connected by convoluted salt water passages of the Salish Sea winding through rocky archipelagos of the San Juan and the Gulf Islands. It’s one of the few places in the world where a journey like this is possible all in one non stop effort.

The idea is not new, over 100 years ago the early white settlers organized a similar race to see who could get from the coast to the summit and back the fastest. In that competition they used either car or train to get as close to the mountain as possible before summitting on foot. Although the Mount Baker Marathon was a huge regional attraction car wrecks, train derailments, and other mishaps made it short lived. There’s a great documentary about the race called The Mountain Runners.

Fast forward to modern times and you have my friend and running mentor Daniel Probst. He has traveled around the world doing the toughest and longest foot races he can find. He had the vision to bring back the race as an ultra marathon. Ultramarathons are generally foot races longer than a standard 26.2 mile marathon. Since most of us who run long distance abhor running on road for it’s detrimental effects on the body, ultras are usually at least partially on trail. Unfortunately there isn’t much trail on the route between Bellingham and the mountain but that inspired Dan to champion the idea of a multi use hiking, biking, horseback trail to connect Bellingham with our most spectacular natural wonder that is Mt Baker.

Unfortunately it’s not easy to just get a whole slew of land managers to agree to a trail through their property so Dan decided the best way to raise support for the trail would be to just do the run on existing roads to show people how cool it would be to connect our coastal city with the glacier clad volcano in our back yard. It took a few tries but in 2014 Dan and 2 other runners finally made the full trip all in one 48 hour excursion. I’ve wanted to be part of an attempts ever since Dan started throwing this idea around but I was in Europe the last few summers paragliding and this was the first year I was able to participate.

We started running at 6:00 PM on a hot sunny afternoon. We wound through the streets and trails of Bellingham passing cheering crowd at Kulshan Brewery, a big supporter of the runs and trail project. As we left the city our route took us along a quiet winding road that follows the north shore of Lake Whatcom. None of us were happy about the the long stretch of flat road but we had continuous views of the sparkling lake through woodsy shores. Dan had organized a super solid support crew with a couple vans who stopped every few miles and set up a smorgasbord of food and drink for us. Half way down the lake shore the road ends and we had our last stop before heading up our first climb over Stewart Mountain. We pulled out lights out of our bags and grabbed a little extra food for the next 12 miles where we’d be on our own. Heading up the mountain we got to a nice view point just in time to see the orange sun setting over the San Juan Islands beyond Bellingham.

All but four of us had at least one 100 mile race under their belts. I’d never run more than 55 miles in one shot and I was a little nervous about how I would hold up. You should understand that when I talk about “running” in the context of ultra distances that running the flat and down hill but walking uphill, we definitely don’t run the whole thing. On a 50k (31.5 mile) I’ll run up most of the hills if I’m feeling good and going for a fast time but longer distances it’s important to walk a lot to conserve energy. Fortunately Dan was leading the run with the goal of getting us all to the finish line as a group, this was not about racing, just about showing what’s possible. Dan has tons of experience with 100 and 200 mile races and he’s been a pacer in 100 mile races that go through the night. Competitors are allowed to have another runner (pacer) join them the last 50 miles of the race. The pacer helps keep the runner moving through the night’s sleep deprivation and the delirium that sets in as hours on the trail stack up. Since this was the first 100 for myself and 3 others, a slow and steady pace kept everyone from wearing themselves out early.

As we continued pushing over Stewart mountain it got dark and our lights came on. We crested the 3000 foot climb to be greeted with a magical ghostly view of Mt. Baker glowing in the starlight. Looking at Baker from a distance it’s easy to think of it as a little white bump on the horizon. We knew however that standing over 2 miles tall and covering the area of a good sized city it would be a formidable challenge and we’d spend all of the coming long summer day going up and coming back down the snow clad giant. We wound through clear cuts, patches of young forest, and mature trees following the logging roads over Stewart and down the other side.  The night was warm and only just starting to cool down to a comfortable running temp. As we descended towards the Acme valley we started thinking about our next visit with the support crew who reportedly had burgers ready to grill as soon as we got close.

In shorter faster paced runs I stick to sugary, easy to absorb foods. When your muscles are working hard they take up most of your blood flow and there isn’t much left to power your digestive system. I’ve hear that a person’s body can only absorb a couple hundred sugary calories per hour when working hard. Our 100 mile pace was different. Steady hiking pace up hill and slow lazy jog in the flats had me sweating a tad in the sun but generally very comfortable. I wasn’t breathing hard and my appetite was definitely healthy. Chilled watermelon, potato chips, juicy hamburgers, were just a few of the delicious treats waiting for us at the next food stop next to the south fork of the Nooksack river outside the tiny town of Acme. After 15 minutes of eating, stretching, kicking back in camp chairs, and checking our feet we headed out on Mosquito Lake Road, passing through farm fields across the valley towards Van Zant Dike and Bowman Mountain where the foothills start in earnest.

As we got further from anywhere and closer to nowhere the sleepiness crept in. Soon there were no cars passing us except for our support crew and I tried to give my brain a little rest by closing my eyes, calming my thoughts, and focusing on the sound of runners ahead of me to stay in the middle of the road. I’d flick my eyes open a couple times a minute to make sure I wasn’t headed for the ditch but it worked pretty well. Some people chatted to pass the time and other ran in their own space. I had managed to sleep in the previous morning so I never felt too tired that night. After a couple more hours we were on the gravel of Forest Service Rd 38 getting back into the larger mountains. The smell of the air changed to mountain forest and we wondered if we’d need our lights at all after the gravel road ended at mile 13 and we’d leave the vehicles to hit the Ridley Creek trail.

At the trail head we got out our mountain packs that contained out mountain gear. Up until that point we’d been free from carrying anything but the vans couldn’t follow us up the mountain so we had to start working a little harder. We did have another support crew waiting at the high camp where the snow fields turn to glaciers. They had carried in our ropes and stoves for melting water which saved us a lot of weight in the first stretch of the climb. The sky was already bright enough to see well in the forest as we left the trail head, crossed little stream that was the beginnings of the Nooksack middle fork, and headed into the muddy, lush, forest. We were over 45 miles into the run at that point and my body had been starting to tighten up, especially in my hips. The limited range of motion plodding along the endless flat roads was not good for me and it felt great to change up my gait as the trail offered all kinds up, down, and around twists. We were at the base of the mountain and it quickly became a constant up hill climb that we would maintain until that afternoon.

At tree line we started walking on snow. I had decided to make the ascent in my light close fitting running shoes instead of switching to heavy boots or gore-tex shoes. I knew I would spend the day with wet cold feet but I’ve done it before and I find it preferable to having hot sweaty feet in heavy, poor fitting boots or shoes. It was spectacular to meander over snowy ridge after snowy ridge as the day blossomed leaving the thinning trees behind and entering the world of the mountain. As we neared our base camp crew there was a loud cheer and those of in the lead were graced with a rare sight of a quadruple full moon. Cresting the ridge into camp we were finally in the sun and it was time to take a break, fill up on water, enjoy the view, and put on our glacier travel gear.

In order to travel safely across glaciers we needed to rope together so that if someone fell in a crevasse their rope partners could stop the fall and pull them back out. The glaciers on Baker are covered with a thick snow pack that blankets over the deep cracks in the glacial ice. This snow is usually pretty solid and allows us to walk over the fissures, often without knowing that they’re there, but the snow was melting fast in the long days and we knew we’d see at least a few of the portals into the glacier’s soul that can be over a hundred feet deep and swallow an unprepared rope team. I left my crampons off as the snow was a perfect hiking texture, just soft enough to easily kick a step but hard enough for solid footing. With our ice axes in hand we got moving up the mountain again as the sun started to beat down on us.

My favorite experience either hiking or flying my paraglider is watching the peaks around me drop away and having an ever expanding view of the horizon. Mt Baker is huge and I got to have that feeling most of the day as we climbed. We passed serac’s where the glacial ice is broken and jumbled, looking like a giant art sculpture, hopped over a few narrow crevasses, and watched the 7000 foot twin sisters range drop away below us to reveal the island dotted Salish Sea in the distance. The day was perfect for climbing, it got a little hot as the sun climbed overhead but I stayed cool putting a little snow under my helmet and down my shirt now and then. Finally we reached the crater with rocky Sherman Peak on it’s Southeast flank and the summit just to the north. The saddle at the edge of the crater was the first place it was windy and we quickly got chilled but just a little ways further up we were out of the wind again and kicked back on the snow for a final rest before pushing to the summit.

I’ll have to digress a little in this next paragraph for my flying and weather friends. If that’s not your cup of tea you can skip it. I had been watching the clouds intently as the paragliding forecast for the high mountains looked especially good. Before I went out of cell range the night before I had noticed a weather pattern setting up that had brought me on a first ever flight over the twin sisters and almost to the top of Baker a month before. A counterclockwise rotating low pressure area over northern California and a clockwise rotating high over BC were aligned perfectly to move a big chunk of the hot dry eastern Washington air mass out over the western cascades. In western Washington, traditionally, any easterly flow is thought of as bad for paragliding. I’ve started to learn though that a light east flow driven by weather system rotation instead of pressure gradient can lead to magic conditions in the higher mountains of the western cascades. The trick is that you have to start out high. There will probably still be a cool layer of marine air under the warm air mass and no thermals will rise through that strong inversion at the boundary between the two layers. In fact, under that inversion it will probably be particularly nasty because hot thermals are trapped in a thin layer of air with limited room to rise up. Away from the coast in the higher hills though there can be great flying. The warm eastern Washington air mass is a “heat low”, it is already rising and when the sun heats things up thermals form readily and go very high. High stratocumulous at sunrise was confirming my hunch that we had lofty buoyant air mass for the day. Shortly after that burned off Baker formed a cap cloud but instead of the classic smooth lenticular it seemed to be a puffy textured cumulous-lenticular combination. I saw the first cumulous cloud of the day pop very high somewhere near Saulk Mountain just a few miles to the to the SE of us. It turned out my hunch about the day was right. Unbeknownst to me a large group of paraglider pilots would fly Saulk that day and take advantage of the special conditions to make a first ever, historic crossing of the north cascades. Several pilots crossed rugged remote terrain, some flying as far as Mazama that day.

I had been carrying my paraglider in my pack since the trail head. I was hoping to fly down after we made the summit and possibly fly part way back to Bellingham. The cumulous clouds that are the tops of thermals and represent good flying conditions had been forming for a little while but as we rested near the crater another cloud phenomenon caught our attention. A high wispy cirrus cloud had a bright rainbow through it. I don’t know exactly what made the rainbow but it was a spectacular sight. I was excited about the possibility of a spectacular flight and the extra 16 lbs of glider equipment didn’t bother me as we headed up the steepest part of the climb, the Roman wall that comes just before the summit.

That last steep push seemed to last forever. People were mostly quite as we pushed along spread out in single file for safety, 4 people to a rope. At the back end of our rope Richard and I probable annoyed some of our friends cracking bad jokes and disjointedly taking turns half singing, half chanting The Distance by Cake. Finally the climb started flattening out but still it went on and on as we all waited in anticipation for that last little flat walk across the verrrrry tippy top of the mountain to the little bump that is Baker’s true summit. I only learned recently from Dan that Baker used to have a taller pinnacle summit until it collapsed in an earth quake a little over 100 years ago. Supposedly there was an artist on Vancouver island painting a picture of Baker using a telescope, He felt the quake and when he looked at baker again the pinnacle had vanished from the summit. There were no earthquakes from the mountain but as the flat top and the summit came into view there was a deep tectonic shift in each of our souls and we became a little jubilant as we almost pranced the last quarter mile over to the top of that part of the world.

When you’re on the top of Baker you’re in a different world. You are so far from cars, houses, stores, TVs, that all that “stuff” that defines our everyday lives ceases to exist in any meaningful way. The elements define everything. The summit is almost always windy and our day was no exception. We got out our jackets and stumbled around, grinning deliriously, tangling in each other’s ropes as we took pictures. We each had carried up a summit beer provided by Kulshan Brewery and now it was time to crack them open. Koma Kulshan is believed to be a native name for the mountain we stood on, coming from one of the native dialects spoken in the days when humans lived harmoniously with the sea, the forests, and the mountains. The mountain is probably one of the few things that hasn’t changed much since the ambitions of “civilization” have overrun the land. We none the less enjoyed the warmth of our synthetic clothing and drank our beer from brightly colored cans. I enjoyed that pinnacle of the ascent, I was looking down on everything between Mt Rainier to the south, and the Canadian mountains far to the north. The sun made the ocean glitter like copper through the light haze, sparkling between the islands. But we couldn’t stay too long, we were only half way through our journey, and although going down would take less energy, the second half of the journey would take much more will power as we would all go into our second night without sleep.

Soon we were descending. The snow was rapidly getting soft and what had been fairly easy footing on the way quicklyl turned to unwalkable mush that was impossible to keep from falling in every few seconds. I gave up and started slowly glissade down the Roman wall, sitting down in my shorts and harness, getting snow wedged everywhere but at least not struggling to keep my feet. That stretch was soon over and in the following shallower slopes I had to go back to walking. I took the most scenic poop I’ve had in recent memory during a break at the rim of the crater, bagging it to carry off the mountain like every responsible mountaineer should. A little below the crater I got ready to break away from the group and fly. Most of Baker and the surrounding terrain is wilderness area. Although it’s not quite clear if launching a paraglider is prohibited in the wilderness it’s certainly toeing the line and I had no intention jeopardizing the reputation of the expedition. There is a National Recreation Area on the south side of Baker that has it’s highest point at Sherman Peak. Snow mobiles are allowed to brraawp and romp all over that side of the mountain all winter and although the mountain  didn’t look any different there launching my paraglider was definitely legal.

I got ready extra quick but it was already after 4:00 PM and my hopes of staying high and making a cross country flight towards Bellingham were fading. I could either land in the creek bed at the trail head or I would have to stay high as I pushed out west because the first 10 miles back out of the mountains has no sane landing areas. Fortunately I got a little puff of uphill wind right as I was ready to launch and I ran down the hill with my wing gradually taking my weight as I dragged my toe down down the snowfield for fun. I headed west and just had enough altitude to duck over the saddle  between Baker and the rocky pinnacles to the west. I flew briefly over the Coleman Glacier on the north side of the divide, checking out a massive ice fall and hollering at climbers camped below. I didn’t want to get separated from the group though so I ducked back south on the other side of the rocky spires and looped back around looking for lift. Tall rocky cliffs baking in the sun are usually a great place to find thermals but after flirting with them and bouncing around in some rough windblown bubbles of hot air I decided to look elsewhere. I was sleep deprived and I had no way of communicating if I got trashed in turbulence and had to come down under my reserve parachute. Normally I fly with a delorme satelite tracker but it was being used for the live tracking of the main party.

I searched for lift and found some climbs but gradually lost altitude. The wind flows were confusing me and I was having those moments where I almost fall asleep and have to shake myself out of it. I wasn’t worried about actually falling asleep in the air but whenever it would happen I would lose my sense of balance and where the horizon was.  It made it hard to stick with the funky broken thermals and I decided to work my way to the trailhead to land. I was sub-stoked to find that the wind was blowing up the valley as I worked in over the boulder strewn creek bed to land. Normally I would never choose to land down wind (with the wind at my back) because that means I’ll touch down going quite fast compared to landing into the wind. The problem is that the creek bed is so steep if I go into the wind and down slope I’ll keep flying at the same angle as the creek bed drops away and it’s easy to far overshoot the landable area I’m aiming for. So I brought it around and aimed for the least rocky area and focused on my flare (slowing the glider to a stall to kill my speed as my feet touch down).  I had to run hard over the bowling ball sized rocks as I touched down hot but fortunately I didn’t twist an ankle or fall on the rocks.

Our crew was chilling at the trail head passing the time waiting for us to get back. I was a little delirious but I managed to stay focused and eat a burger while I got all my gear put away and took the nap I’d earned by carrying my glider up and flying down. The rest of the group had to descend around 7500 feet over 5 soft snowy miles while I crashed out in the back of one to the vans. I woke up when the rest of the group made it to the trailhead and swung open the door to the van, it was time to get going again. I had a little time to relax still while everyone dropped their packs, ate, counted their blisters and prepared to run back 45 miles to Bellingham. As the sun sank out of sight we walked and slowly jogged down the long gravel road wondering what exactly had seemed so glorious about the idea of running all the way back to town from the mountain.

By midnight we decided to take a half hour nap break at the end the gravel road. I was in better shape than most with my extra nap but I was still eager to throw out my bivy sack and let the world melt into sleep. When you’v gone 30 hours without sleep a nap doesn’t make you feel rested but it helps a lot. As we got moving we found out that Suzanne had decided to call it a day. She had been recovering from a bike crash the week before and was struggling with the sleeplessness and newly formed blisters. She was the only person in our group besides Dan who had successfully completed the run before, finishing with Dan in 2015. The question of what separates a healthy challenge from pointless self torture was pondered by those of us pushing on all the way back to Bellingham. Most people know that pains come with running some distance but I’ve done enough long races to a know many pains will fade and go away if I go easy on my body but keep pushing on. I was very lucky that my feet stayed in great shape with no blisters.

The wee hours of the morning after our nap were the toughest for me mentally. My worst pains of the run were during the night though, just tight back and hamstrings from all the flat road running. In the middle of the night it’s easier for the little things to add up and be disheartening but I kept on moving. My other pain issue was belly aches from over eating at the delicious food stops. Our van crews were rockstars, and even though they barely got any more sleep than us they always had our food tables and chairs set out whenever we rolled into a stop. Coming back Acme the sky was just getting light and when we rolled into the was a big spread of bacon on the BBQ. Apparently our crew had barely got it cooked, almost out of propane they started cooking it and luckily a grease fire started in the BBQ and the bacon finished cooking itself after the propane had run out. As the sky got brighter we slowly plodded up the steep gravel road up Stewart mountain. The group had started to come alive a little and people were talking and joking. I was so mentally tired it was hard to keep my feet moving but as the sun came up and we got past the steep ascent I gradually came around. We were a long ways through our course but we still had a long way to go. A route always seems slower when you’re seeing it for the second time we were walking most of the time as we came off the mountain and followed the winding road along the lake.

Finally we reached the end of the lake and the edge of the city. It was out last aid stop and we were starting to get excited with only about 4 miles to go. We picked up the pace to a run briefly but one of our group had a worsening tendonitis on his shin that slowed him to a hobble. We grouped up with him and made our way together along Whatcom Creek trail that runs from lake Whatcom to the Bay. It felt a little weird coming through downtown sweaty and bedraggled. We managed to pick up the pace to a run for the last few blocks as our finish came in sight. We had a little crowd of friends and family cheering as we came to the end of the street and walked out the muddy beach to touch the sea. It was a funny feeling to finish such an epic journey, a little bit anticlimactic hobbling in right back where we started. It was an amazing though to think back on all the the areas we’d passed through on one long run. Almost like going to burning man and coming back home all in a couple days, but with a feeling of continuity and connectedness to the places we passed through, everything last bit connected by our footsteps and in my case a little bit with my wing.

Doing the run definitely reinspired me about the potential to have more and better trail networks around Bellingham, my home town. Traveling in the Alps in Europe and in places like New Zealand it’s amazing how many wonderful single track routes there are through the most scenic places. It definitely makes me wish that we could embrace recreation more in this country. We we have a lot of trails already but linking the bike paths of the city to wilderness of the alpine summits with a car free route would be something special. Hiking and running are wonderful because they don’t require special gear, monthly membership, special racks on the car, special car or big truck, overtime at the job to make payments on all of the above. Trail is beautifully simplistic and infinitely enjoyable. I hope you’ll check out Dan’s organization, Cascade Mountain Runners. If the idea of a trail corridor connecting the sea, lakes, rivers, leading to the Summit of Mt Baker speaks to you please consider writing a letter in support of the trail.

I’m proud to have run my first 100. I skipped a few miles flying but I definitely made it over 100. I also added on a tad of distance at the beginning and end. I ran from my house to the start and from the finish back to my house. I like to see what is possible from my house with out driving in a car. It turns out a lot is possible, which is why I live where I do, in the throne of Cascadia. I’ll be heading off to the Spanish Pyrenees mountains in a few days to get ready for my next big challenge, the X-Pyr, a hike and fly paragliding race. I’m feeling well prepared after this run as the X-Pyr is sure to have many miles I’ll have to cover on foot.

 

 

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