The Mount Baker Adventure Race Resurrected

Frank Kovalcheck
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The original Mount Baker Ultra Marathon, which traces its roots to the early 1900s, could be considered one of the earliest adventure races. Along the harrowing, grueling route, 108 miles from Bellingham Bay to the top of Mount Baker, freezing weather, a train collision, and deep crevasses were just some of the obstacles facing the hardy runners who first attempted it, and concerns over safety eventually meant the race would only be held for three years.

In some ways, the race’s spirit lives on in Bellingham’s famous Ski to Sea race, which was born from this legendary marathon. But if Bellingham ultra runner Daniel Probst has his way, the original race—the big bully of a race—will be resurrected in the near future as the Mt. Baker Ultra Marathon, tentatively scheduled for June 2016.

Ski to Sea in 1911
Ski to Sea in 1911 Whatcom Museum

Under Probst’s leadership, a group of dedicated volunteers has already started the process of rebuilding the trails that will be part of the race’s route.

“The original Mount Baker Marathon was a feat of endurance, bravery, and adventure,” says Probst, who has been working on the project for four years. “The Mount Baker Ultra Marathon will bring back the excitement and challenge of the individual journey. It’s important to revive the history of the original race.”

It all started in 1911, when a group of Bellingham businessmen called the Mount Baker Club came up with up the idea to have a race up the mountain as a way to draw tourists to town. A seemingly impossible race was put together, with two separate routes to the summit following either the Deming or Glacier Trails. Both options involved partial shuttle assistance: one via train, the other via a Model T Ford. After being dropped off at designated spots, runners then traversed 14 to 16 miles up the mountain. Both routes gained nearly 10,000 feet in elevation, and runners had to climb the mountain at night in the freezing cold, wearing logging boots.

Six of the 14 contestants dropped out and one of the three finalists was in a train wreck. Dazed but undaunted, the runner eventually found his way to Bellingham via horse and buggy, then on horseback (at one point being thrown), before placing second in the race to great fanfare. All this made for sensational headlines, drawing tourists to Bellingham just as the Mount Baker Club had envisioned.

The next year the race was expanded, with a huge spectator turnout and more contestants after an even larger prize purse. But a blizzard hit Mt. Baker, forcing a weeklong postponement. The race eventually went off with success, though one runner suffered a broken rib and some began to question the race’s viability.

The third year was the most perilous of all, with severe weather and two runners narrowly escaping with their lives after falling into crevasses. Even though the race was generating a ton of interest, it just became too dangerous, even for the valiant daredevils known as the Mountain Runners. Fearing a fatal tragedy, organizers called it off for good.

Fast forward 100 years, when Ski to Sea started. The epic annual race has now evolved into a team-style format with seven legs. “The Ski to Sea relay is its own crazy race,” Probst says. “It’s much tamer and designed for the first time racer, weekend warrior, and a few professional ringers.”

Which brings us back to Probst’s quest to revive the original race as the Mt. Baker Ultra Marathon. An early step was forming a group of 11 like-minded runners called the Cascade Mountain Runners to help with the project. Various members of the group made the trip four times before finally completing it last summer. “We needed to prove the route was possible today even without a trail so that park agencies, land managers, and sponsors could get on board with the project,” Probst says.

Weather and exhaustion ended the group’s first three attempts to finish the course, but on the fourth go, they finally made it through all 108 miles in 48 hours and 17 minutes. “This was not a speed attempt and it took a few hours longer than planned,” Probst says. “It was hotter than expected, and the snow felt like lava. We only took a few short naps and tried to push straight through. Returning back to the bay was a good feeling after a few years of pulling this together.”

Chris Duppenthaler

Another critical component was support from local businesses like Kulshan Brewery , which, among other things, provided the support vehicle during the first successful attempt. “There was beer in the van when we started and not so much when we returned it,” Probst says.

Probst thinks the historical value and technical challenges of the race will draw local and international athletes to experience a sea-level start and finish, glacier travel, and over 100 miles on foot. “The race will attract runners from around the world to test their limits,” he says. “It will bring back the excitement and challenge of the individual journey.”

Rebuilding the original trail and adding another 30 miles of new trail is a task that requires brute force and patience. Old-growth trees had fallen across the trail and volunteers had to remove them just to start the process. They spent hundreds of hours on the project last fall, finding the old trail, clearing vegetation, and, with the help of the Washington Trails Association, re-cutting the trail bed. “Rebuilding the trail,” Probst says, “is an art that should be done by hand. With a good crew you can build 50 yards of trail a day.”

The goal is to hold the first ultra marathon in June 2016 and complete the trail by 2020, a 50-mile stretch from Bellingham Bay to the Easton Glacier, with roughly four miles of glacier travel to the summit. Probst envisions the trail becoming a favorite among the outdoorsy set in Bellingham. “It’s a trail for everyone, not just a once-a-year race,” he says. “Whether you run, hike or bike it over multiple days, it’ll be something people will want to put on their bucket list or use on a regular basis.”

Until then, Probst is welcoming anyone who wants to help achieve that goal by volunteering to help build the trail and signing the petition to support the race. “The race will make it possible to fund the construction of the trail, so we’re throwing everything at it to make it happen,” he says.

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