Mount Baker Ultra Race Report
By Scarlett Graham
I’m still on a mountain high from the Mount Baker Ultra this weekend. I’ve been so lucky to get up in the Mount Baker environs the last 3 weekends in a row. With a deep snowpack and good weather, it really can’t be beat!
The Mount Baker Ultra has been my friend Dan Probst’s brainchild, life mission, passion, thorn in his side, bee in his bonnet, whatever you want to call it, for as long as I’ve known him. His ultimate goal is to get a single track trail from Bham to the foot of the glacier on Mt Baker and hold a race on it. The vision is in the spirit of the Mountain Runners from 1911 who raced from Bellingham to the 10,700 ft summit of Mount Baker and back via cars, trains and on foot. For more information check these links:
This first year of the race was set to start from the town, Concrete. From there we would head to the top of Sherman Peak (10,100 ft) on Mount Baker, the secondary high point that is just outside the protected Mount Baker Wilderness Area. Starting in Concrete instead of Bellingham was a compromise and also a unique opportunity. The permitting and logistical hurdles were just too great to overcome for 2017 to go via Bham and the Ridley Creek trail. The race needed to happen and Concrete welcomed Dan’s vision. Wins all around I think!
While I regret to admit that I doubted he would pull this race off (maybe because I got a little too much insider information), I’m so glad that those doubts didn’t keep me from signing up and experiencing this special event.
The First Start and Miles 1-6:
Photo Cred: Fred Tassinari
The race started at midnight from Concrete, WA (elevation 276ft) on Sunday, June 4th. Seventeen racers started the race. Four of us (Alex, Kelsey, Suzanne and myself) run with Dan regularly at our Wednesday night “Often Epic” group runs. Often Epic night runs are a staple in my winter training regime and epitomize why I love trail running…lots of climbing, new trails, mud, geeky gear talk, getting a little lost, with beer and pizza after. The Mount Baker Ultra has been a frequent topic on these Often Epic runs and over beers for the past 3 years, and many many of the regulars were on course volunteering for the cause.
I was surprised to find one other friend with a bib number pinned to him milling around Concrete – Aaron, #17. He is an elite adventure racer from Seattle, and we had met two weeks earlier on a human-powered Mount Baker summit mission that involved skis and bikes! He told me that he had signed up for the race 5 days previous, on a whim. I did a double take when I saw him, then I tackled him with a hug – Yes! Another crazy familiar face!!
The first mile of the race climbed sharply out of Concrete before we headed above the Shannon Lake dam and alongside the lake for 6 miles. This part was easy and fast. One person, the eventual winner, Piotr from Belarus, took off. The rest of us formed pace groups and chatted about what brought us to this crazy race.
Thunder Creek Snafu – Mile 6:
Photo Cred: Fred Tassinari – Looking for the creek crossing.
At mile 6, we had to cross Thunder Creek where a volunteer crew had established a log crossing with a guide rope the day before. Dan said to prepare for a rough bushwhack and for our feet to get wet. Aid station #1 with drop bags awaited us on the other side. I was definitely nervous about getting in freezing glacial creek water at 1 am, but also knew it might help fight the sleep monsters! At any rate, all the prep was for nothing, because we couldn’t find the log crossing or even how to get down to the creek safely! The 17 racers plus volunteers looked around for about 40 minutes only to be discouraged by dark mossy cliffs all around the marked entry point. Soooo, decisions were made to abort the creek crossing mission and drive around. Skagit Search and Rescue vehicles loaded us up and drove us back to Concrete and up to the Baker Lake dam where the trail should have spit us out. Most of us took naps on the ride – it was kinda nice!
The race restart commenced from Baker Lake Dam (elevation 700 ft) at around 3:30 am. All told, the creek snafu cost us about 2 hours. We were probably all a little thrown off, but in true ultra-runner spirit, everyone went with the flow and marched off into the night not to be denied. From Baker Lake Dam, we got on forest roads again and started climbing up to Schreibers Meadows. Again, Piotr went off the front, and those behind formed small groups. I ended up with two guys – Aaron the paragliding-adventure-racer and Amon the restaurant-BMW-trail-runner. The climb to Meadows is gentle but constant. We were working a little harder than I wanted, but I definitely did not want to be alone and decided to risk going a bit too hard to stay with company. Aaron and Amon chatted a lot during this part, and I tried to chime in too, trying to find a flow.
Bomb.com aid station #4. Photo cred Caleb Barber
We reached Aid Station #4 (elevation 3,100 ft) at the snowline at Schreiber’s Meadows around 5 am. I was welcomed with Ochi dog kisses and lots of care from Kelly, Robbie and Caleb who had chairs, a fire going and bacon and ramen cooking. Note to self – always have a seasoned ultra-runner (like Kelly) run an important aid station! Aaron, Amon and I transitioned to our mountain gear packs, which included helmets, harnesses, crampons, gaiters, waterproof shoes/boots, sunglasses, sunscreen, ice axes, and warm clothes. Ugh, heavy packs! This transition felt like an adventure race transition and my mind was spinning, making sure I remembered all the pieces of gear.
On to the snow! The lower part of Schreiber’s Meadows snowfields were very soft and hard to walk on efficiently, and impossible to run. A low-lying cloud hung over us. Snowmobilers love Schreiber’s, and I can see why – its wide open and has gently rolling hills. Quite the playground!
Aid Station #5 (elevation 6,200 ft) was where the fixed line on the Squak glacier started and the snow started to firm up. Here we donned our harnesses, crampons, and helmets and clipped into the rope line. Aaron, Amon and I were still all together. No sign of Piotr except for his snow shoe prints we were following.
Photo Cred: Amon Mende
The fixed line section was nearly 2 miles long and was so well done! The work was the result of the many dedicated volunteers including a local snowmobile club who zoomed all the gear up to 8,500 ft during the previous two days! This race would have not been possible without these guys! Two miles of rope + pickets is HEAVY!
After about another 500 feet of climbing we rose above the clouds and could finally see Baker! The snow got even firmer and to the south you could see the tops of Glacier Peak and Mount Rainier!
At Aid Station #6 (elevation 8,500 ft), we refilled our water bladders and got some hot sweet creamy coffee, yum! The last pitch to the summit of Sherman Peak was so darn fun. Fellow Team Quest adventure racers Dusty, Emily and Mitch had camped up there the night before about 100 ft below the summit, and their tent was tucked in right next to this awesome rime ice wall. The leader Piotr was on his way down and we said hello. That was the last we would see of him until Concrete. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we really weren’t that far behind!
Chris and Jess were stationed higher up on the last ridge taking photos (see below!). Jess handed me home-made candied bacon as I passed her on the rope line. Magical! Aaron and I stood on the summit of Sherman Peak (elevation 10,100 ft) together and looked around for a few minutes. You could see only the top of Mount Shuksan, a little island in the sea of clouds.
Photo cred: Chris Duppenthaler
Aaron, Amon and I again regrouped and descended the fixed line. The guys were ahead of me on the line and started to run down the mountain! It was faster to run and it was a race after all, but I groaned when I saw them start to jog. Running in crampons attached to rope with an ice axe in your hand is tricky! I did not want to fall on that thing!
We passed the other mountain runners on the way down and offered words of encouragement about how awesome the top was. We soon descended into the cloud and got off the glacier. We glissaded a few of the lower steep slopes which was a nice relief for the legs. Besides those bits of glissading, we pretty much ran in snow the whole way off the mountain! The soft stuff at the bottom was super tough to run though. It felt like we were risking dislocating our knees at times…ha…but we made it! Next time, maybe snow shoes? (But I hate snow shoes!)
I was relieved to reach Aid Station #4 again and get off the snow. It had taken us about 4.5 hours to get to the summit from #4, and less than 2 hours to get back. Aaron, Amon, and I were really working together to push now. It was awesome.
Metatarsal Pad Saving Grace:
We got out of our wet clothes and I pulled out my new Hoka One One Challengers. I think Aaron and Amon were a little jealous of the fuchsia squishy boats I had brought for the return trip! I hadn’t revealed to them that I had been having a foot issue recently – neuroma pain in my right foot for the past few weeks, which was growing more agitated in nerve pain when I’d run downhill. I was super worried about charging down the forest roads – hard surface downhill was exactly what irritated it. I had felt it a bit on the snow downhill and I was just waiting for it to flare up. Just hours before the start though, I had cut a little circle of thick moleskin to form a pad for my forefoot. It’s supposed to support your metatarsal bones so they don’t squeeze together and irritate the nerves between your toes. My go-to PT runner friend Nikki told me about the idea and I’ll tell you now – it flippin’ worked!!!!!! Oh yea, and I also took 600 mg of Ibuprofen before we started running downhill…
Back on the forest road, the three of us walked a bit to get loosened up and finished a bowl of chicken Ramen together, commenting on how delicious it was. Then we started to jog. Then we started to go faster. I didn’t have my Suunto watch going at this point, but I could tell we were clipping along. Later Strava analysis said 7:15/mile! The road was a wonderful grade downhill and while my legs felt tired, the running felt good. I tried to let Amon set the pace for this and just relax.
Missed a Turn:
Eventually with all that pounding downhill, Nature called to each of us. First Aaron peeled off. I was trying to make it to the Baker Lake aid station bathrooms. Amon said he would stop there too. But tttthen, gah, I just couldn’t wait, so into the woods I zoomed to dig a quick cat-hole and take a pretty awesome poop.
I quickly hopped back onto the forest road and looked uphill for Aaron. Nothing. I started running downhill again pretty fast looking out for Amon. Also nothing. But I was still hopeful we would regroup into our “merry trio” at the aid station. I was pretty much out of water and really looking forward to getting more. Then all of a sudden we hit a main paved road. Drat! This wasn’t right. I had been looking for a turn off of the main Schreiber’s Meadow road but hadn’t seen it. In hindsight, I should have turned around went back to get back on course. I know now I would have had to run up hill over 2 miles to get to the right turn. That might have done me in, but at least I would have rejoined with Aaron. Instead, what I did was look at the road sign which read, “Left to Baker Laker” and “Right to Concrete.” I knew we had to get to Baker Lake Dam, so I took off left. After running for a mile, I flagged down a car to ask them if I was going the right way. It was taking so long! They said yes; I kept going. This part was stressful because I kept doubting myself and the person in the car and was also worried about the other racers getting lost.
Eventually, I made it back to the aid station at the Dam, and Dan was there waiting. He was so happy to see me! He thought I was leading. No, no I told him, the others are just off course because the turn wasn’t marked. There was a pretty big gap between the top 4 of us and everyone else, so I told him to get up there and fix the markings. He sped off to fix the markings and I continued on.
Photo Cred: Dan Probst – Removing the log crossing rope hold the next day. Crazy man.
Next stop was the infamous Thunder Creek crossing that we couldn’t find at 1 am. Dan and the others had been out marking it and it was daylight now, so I was feeling good about finding it this time. This section of forest road was very long, flat, and lonely. I tried to keep up the pace, but I was tired and frustrated by the course markings and sad I was alone!
After about 3-4 miles of running, I found the markings for the bushwhack to the creek. Dan promised that our friend Morris would be here waiting. I was eager to see someone! After about 5 minutes of walking, there was a rope hung to rappel down off the bank to the creek bed. I found a downed tree with a guide rope and it didn’t look horrible, but I still wanted a lifeguard at 40+ miles and 13+ hours into this thing…Where the heck was Morris?! Then, finally, I heard him whoop from the other side and he emerged looking a bit dirty and weathered. Morris had been with us at 1 am looking for this thing the night before. I wondered if he had slept at all that day either. He also was excited to see me and said I was the first one to come through. I told him what had happened with the missed turn, and that Dan was fixing it, and to expect others soon.
The finish. Hell ya.
The final 6 miles were some of the hardest. The road was flat and it was hot and I was alone again and running out of water. I kept eating Gu’s and shot blocks to keep sugar flowing to the brain. I also stopped a couple of times to fix course markings to try to make it clear for other weary runners that they were on the right path. We had been on these roads before but it had been dark. And that late in a race, you just need those confirmatory markings every few minutes or else…
The last steep descent to Concrete hurt a lot. While limping down it, a couple that was walking on the forest road asked me, “Did you make it all the way to Lake Shannon?!” I chuckled and told then I went all the way to Baker! Ha, they probably thought I meant Baker Lake. Who knows. I didn’t have time to explain.
Finally, back in town, I crossed the finish line at the funky retired police station, gave Dan a hug and plopped into a chair. This race was a lot of things for me. First, it was another beautiful day on the mountain that I look toward with love so often. That mountain and the wonderful weather were so giving on race day. Aaron called it “benevolent,” and I like that description. Second, it was the actualization of Dan’s dream race that I’ve witnessed him and others work so hard at over the years. Third, it was the hardest I’d ran probably since Squamish 50 last summer. It felt so good to push, and to feel like I had push to give, in me, again.
Bringing home the final finisher and the funky Concrete police station. Photo Cred: Dan Probst
Goa-to-it! Photo Cred: Caleb Barber, volunteer extraordinaire