2018 Mt Baker Ultra: Seeking A New Runner’s High

It all starts with a beer…

Mid-winter, sitting at Backcountry Brewing in Squamish, I had one beer too many, then signed up for the Mt. Baker Ultra. A bunch of BC friends (Shauna, Tara, Kerry) all said they would too, and of course, only Kerry, bored after having completed all the 200 milers, followed through. The race involved running from Concrete, Washington to the top of Mt. Baker’s glaciated Sherman Peak at over 10,100ft., ascending the glacier with fixed ropes, ice axes and crampons. I had never actually used those before, but this race seemed like the perfect push I needed to finally learn those things. I went home, signed up immediately, then started madly messaging Scarlett, last year’s female winner, on everything about the race.

Excited. Photo by Ben Groenhout

For me, this wasn’t really just a race, it was an adventure, and also a way to join and celebrate the amazing efforts that local hero Dan Probst has been putting into developing this event. Inspired by the original Mt. Baker Marathons in 1911-1913, Dan wanted to bring a new (safer) version of the crazy mountain race back to life, and not just that, he’s working on creating a world-class trail system all the way from Bellingham all the way to Baker! His energy is infectious, whether you’re a runner in the event, a volunteer, or a spectator, it’s just amazing to get behind his vision.

Before I begin to talk about the race, I’ll just start by saying that I’m pretty anxious around heights and exposure. It’s very bizarre, and it must be super annoying for my belayers when rock climbing, but I figure I should approach that fear to the right extent, rather than run the other way. This race seemed like the perfect amount of comfortable fear… it would involve a logging road run to snowline, an easy hike on snow for maybe 5,000 feet, and then just a tiny bit of summit ridge, which would really test me. I figured, if it really seemed sketch, I could simply turn around early when I got there. Either way, I wanted to try.

DIY intro mountaineering training

Thank goodness, I was able to get in one good morning of ice axe training before the race, with the help of my friend Raz. We gathered a bunch of friends and created our own self arrest course on the slopes of North Vancouver’s Mount Seymour, about a month before the race. (So much fun!)

Practicing self arrest with Tory and Tara. So fun!

Training with the new crampons didn’t go as well. I forgot about it until the week before the race, then hiked up Evac Trail in Squamish, only to find no snow, only patches about 6 feet long on Al Habrich’s Trail. Feeling foolish, I actually walked back and forth along the 6 feet as “training”. (Thankfully no one saw me!) I got one quick practice hike up Hollyburn Mountain in West Vancouver, and come race day, I was so lucky that I had at least worn the crampons properly once.

I had also never worn hiking boots (I usually just wear runners), but I decided to wear them because they were suggested to would work well with the crampons. I found the cheapest pair at an outlet store, then I took them out for a few hikes on the Chief before the race, realizing, these are a great invention, why have I never had them?!

The race would have a long fixed line, and I even practiced clipping and unclipping the carabiners while walking, so that I would be more efficient come race day. (I’m not sure if that helped!)

Meanwhile, Kerry didn’t bother with any of this practice, being fearless and drawn to exposure and heights. Instead, Kerry focused his efforts pre-race on choosing the best baker outfit to wear for his summit on Baker… (for those of you who haven’t, check out his adventures on youtube, here.)

Party time! Run through the night, up a glacier

Another reason this race appealed to me, was that it started at midnight. Strange, but I love that little push to get out in the mountains at night with the stars. There’s a certain peace, solitude, and feeling of being alive when you’re alone in the night.

The race has about 20 miles of logging road running followed by about 5 miles of snow travel, then glacier to the peak, before returning back down the same way.

As predicted, I loved the midnight logging road experience, running across the Baker Dam, and feeling the air get colder as we approached snowline. I got to the snowline feeling awesome, and to my surprise, there were the most amazing waffles, with bacon, upon our arrival at the snowline aid station. From here, we would be donning all the mountaineering things, and then essentially approaching to the summit on snow. I proceeded to faff around after the waffle, fiddling with the harness, ice axe, crampons, even a set of snowshoes came out. After listening to Dan and the volunteers, I decided to wear the snowshoes for a bit, with the option to drop them at the next aid station. Feeling great, I ran out of the aid station, just in front of another woman, and a nice new friend, Nick. It was about 3:30am once we faffed with all the gear and waffles, and we were still making great time, as I planned.

Faffing around. Photo by Ben Groenhout.

At this point in the race, I think I was leading the females and maybe quite good in the overall standings, but I started to feel a big low. Suddenly, I was super fatigued, and I needed to drop my pace and just focus on any forward motion. I let Nick and the other woman pass, and started mowing cheese croissant, as though the cheese croissant would be the saviour to take me out of my sorry state. This part of the trail started to really piss me off, it was a snow-track made by sleds, lopsided rather than flat, with post-holes, and just steep enough to necessitate walking, but low enough to make me feel badly about it. I wish I had hiking poles here, in this sorry state. Finally around 5am, light started to reveal how beautiful the area was around us. There were sharp, black volcanic rocks contrasting the snowfields, and you could start to see a pink glow in the Cascades, to the east. We were getting close to the glacier, where the fixed line, and a beautiful sunrise would greet us.

Around 5am.

Arriving at the fixed line felt like progress, the fun part was about to begin! I left my snowshoes behind and opted to start without crampons, as a volunteer thought I could maybe kick steps, although he seemed to regret saying that when he saw my lightweight boots. The climb would steepen to 30 degrees, then level off, then repeat. I couldn’t really kick steps in my hiking boots, and I was ascending super inefficiently, stepping all over the place from one side of the fixed line to the other, looking for existing footsteps. After a while, it seemed like a storm was coming, and I started to feel afraid. To give myself a bit more confidence, I decided to switch to crampons, and suddenly the hiking became way easier. I wasn’t looking around for footsteps anymore, I was simply walking straight up. (It was inevitable that I wouldn’t be efficient with the gear.)

At this point, the weather was cooperating, and I was excited for a beautiful summit view. I could not have been more wrong… Photo by Ben Groenhout

The glacier section had three wonderful aid stations, each one with amazing, encouraging volunteers, water and surprise candy they had muled up, and radio updates from the other stations. I arrived at the midway aid, and was told that I should wear some waterproof pants, the storm was getting heinous above us. Adding a layer proved challenging with the harness and crampons, and thankfully a volunteer helped me take the harness and crampons off so that I could slither into my waterproof pants, then put it all back on top. I also struggled with long transitions to remove all the gear again to pee. I was never destined to be a triathlete, being slow at changing clothes and awkward with my hands, and I’m also horrible at mountaineering transitions.

As the storm picked up around me, the dream of a sunrise on Baker eroded. It was against my normal instincts to keep climbing to a ridge during a storm, and my pace slowed as every cell in my body resisted. I thought about turning around, and on my own I certainly would have, but I had to keep reminding myself that we were roped in to a fixed line, so this was strangely fine! Snow started to pelt me in the face, and I kept climbing, past crevasses beside my right foot, past and above the amazing Sherman Crater to my left. As I climbed, I was navigating a cognitive disconnect: my primitive instincts were to retreat away from the storm immediately, but my conscious thoughts corrected, recognizing that we were roped in, with experienced volunteers around! I was determined to carry on in, but I switched into slow and safe mode, resigned from any race ambitions, and just wanting to focus on surviving the current moment.

Finally I arrived at the final glacier aid station near the summit, which meant just a few more sections of rope to go! The pitch ahead looked very steep, but the volunteers encouraged me, telling me I had crampons on, I would be good! I let the man near me go ahead, turns out it was Yassine, I wanted to watch him to build my own confidence. Yassine also looked slightly afraid, which actually helped my confidence, so I followed behind. (Turns out later, he had issues with his carabiners freezing on the summit!!) There was a little rocky scramble after that with a hand rope, and I let another man go ahead, again so I could watch him. We were entering the eye of the storm, right along the ridge to Sherman Peak, with drop-offs just a few feet on each side. I was pretty terrified, barely being able to see with the storm on this ridgeline, and sharing it with multiple other climbers at the same time. Finally there was one last section, which I reluctantly crossed, and I summited in the storm. I have so much respect for the volunteer who was sitting in the storm all day at the summit, giving us amazing smiles and high-fives, and taking photos. (Hopefully there is a good one of Kerry with his baker hat on the summit!)

Posing beside the Baker on Baker. Photo by Kerry.

The rest of the event was “all downhill”, although way, way slower than I expected. I didn’t even attempt to run down on the technical sections with the crampons on, and then when the terrain was runnable, the snow was incredibly heavy and soft, running felt similar to walking. I was lucky that Kerry reared his baker’s head midway down the glacier, and we chased one another down to the snowline aid station, an oasis in the rainstorm. That aid station was one of the most fun parts of the race for me, with a bunch of tired and hyper runners huddled around together, regaining strength before the ~20 mile run back to town in the downpour. We took our time there, enjoying the company of the other runners and the amazing volunteers, who helped us celebrate the end of the snow with burgers, bacon, and amazing ramen soup. We were all on a bit of a high, coming from the summit and storm. Finally, Kerry and I decided to accompany each other to the end, taking our time to walk/run our way back to Concrete together.

Snowline aid station party. Photo by Ben groenhout.

Over 17 hours from when we started, we finally rolled across the finish line in Concrete, and to my excitement, I saw a tiny person in the distance, it was Tara there cheering. She had been waiting in the rain for five hours, as it took me that much longer than expected!! Immediately while crossing the finish line, I was able to muster some half-serious remarks to RD Dan about how sick and twisted he is, this race definitely felt more like a 100 miler. Such a fun adventure, with amazing people, I would definitely recommend doing it once!

Full results, here.

Race info, here.

Time to reflect, recover, and get curious about other interests again, besides just running and mountains…