In the FAQ section of Washington’s Patrol Race, you can find the following:
What does the $65 entry fee get me? Depending on conditions, it could be something like a standing in a cold shower while holding a blowtorch to your thighs and lighting your lungs on fire.
Translation: This isn’t just an ordinary day on the slopes. The Patrol Race—a 20-odd-mile backcountry slog that climbs almost 5,000 vertical feet along the Pacific Crest Trail through the serrated peaks and deep drifts of the Cascade Range—is both brand new and (very) old news. Staged by Seattle outdoor club The Mountaineers from 1930 to 1941, and described as “one of the year’s great competitive events” by Seattle Times, the event was the first of its kind in the United States. It originally included teams of three who were required to ski from one Mountaineers hut to another with barely more than their pluck and navigation skills. Their original gear checklist included a package of raisins, can of beef, and a few candles. In 1936, a guy named Wolf “the Fox” Bauer and his mates set the course record of 4 hours and 37 minutes -- on hickory boards -- which, it turns out, is flying.
The race eventually disappeared from the calendar for seven decades, but in 2014, local skier Nigel Steere, with the scouting help of Seattle mountaineer and alpine historian Lowell Skoog, decided to resurrect the Patrol Race.
Steere’s grandparents were known to visit Meany Lodge—the original finish line of the race, and still run by the Mountaineers—so when he ran across an old photo album with descriptions of the event, he couldn’t resist. “What better way to celebrate the tradition of winter outdoorsmanship in the Northwest than to resurrect a race that was the first of its kind and which culminates at a lodge that is the oldest of its kind?” he says.
He tried to stick to the original route as much as possible: Snoqualmie Lodge (elevation 3,200 feet), Tinkham Peak, Mirror Lake, Yakima Pass, Dandy Pass (3,700 feet), and Stampede Pass. (Although, since Snoqualmie Lodge burned down in 2006, the race is now a mile or two longer than the original). Eleven teams started, nine finished, and the winning time was seven hours and nine minutes. Everyone celebrated at Meany, a classic mountain bunkhouse, where a bed and meals run just $45.
In the spirit of the Patrol Race of yore, some of the rules remain similar: Each team must consist of three members, and they have to finish within a minute of each other. As Steere notes: “The word ‘patrol’ comes not from what we think of today as the ‘ski patrol,’ but rather a military patrol of soldiers working their way through enemy territory with a defined purpose.”
Skiers need to know how to bivouac in gnarly conditions, and because it’s a true backcountry race, their avalanche skills need to be ice-axe sharp. “It’s unique in that it simulates how we move in the backcountry in reality,” says Steere. “A team, together, and no one gets left behind.”
Yes, there are two manned checkpoints now, but they exist for time cut-offs, not Power Bars and rescue sleds. Volunteers cut a skin track over the course close to race day, but there’s no guarantee that it will be visible.
What the Times wrote in 1939 still holds true: “The Patrol Race breeds weather-wise and snow-wise skiers….To simplify their crossing of the Cascades’ rugged slope, they must also have snow-sense; how to wax for a twenty-mile journey; how to beat the dickens, but conserve enough strength for a staunch finish, in other words, how to conduct themselves in the mountains.”
Though such races never went out of style in Europe, they’re having a renaissance in the States, with mountaineering races in several states, a national championship, and an explosion of new gear. There’s even talk of an event at the 2022 Winter Games. But it remains to be seen how far we’ve come since the Patrol Race had its heyday.
Rumor has it that race officials sent the 2014 results straight to Wolf Bauer himself—he’s now 103 years old. He still loves to talk about backcountry skiing. Seventy-eight years later, despite huge leaps in ski technology, his record seems to be plenty safe.
Does that sound like a dare?