The big run
Bay to Baker…and back?
By Ian Ferguson. Top photo by Eric Parker.
Last August, Daniel Probst ran from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mt. Baker, a distance of 54 miles and an elevation gain of 10,781 feet. He was the first person ever to do so, and he did it in less than 24 hours.
A Whatcom County native, Probst had seen Mt. Baker’s white-domed summit on the horizon his whole life, but had never been to the top. In terms of radical feats of endurance, the run up Mt. Baker was nothing new for him; as an ultra-marathon athlete he had run in 200-mile races over 10,000-foot peaks before. It was, however, a first for Mt. Baker, a first for Probst and a harrowing adventure.
The first attempt was a group effort. Four people set out from Cornwall Beach in Bellingham at 1 p.m. on August 6. They ran up and over Mt. Stewart on the east side of Lake Whatcom, ate dinner at the Acme Diner in the South Fork Valley and carried on through the night. They reached the Ridley Creek Trailhead at the foot of Mt. Baker at 6 a.m.
The runners of the original Mt. Baker Marathons in 1911-1913 also used the Ridley Creek Trail, running to the summit of Mt. Baker in little more than leather shoes and cotton shorts. It was an amazing feat, but they got most of the way to the mountain in either a car or a steam-powered train. Not so for the group that was now running up the steep trail, 17 hours after leaving the beach.
A support van from Kulshan Brewery kept the team hydrated and fed along the way. A second support crew hiked in from Baker Lake to meet them with more food and climbing supplies at Cathedral Camp, 5,000 feet up the south side of Mt. Baker.
The runners heard the sound of thunder in the distance as they ran up the Ridley Creek Trail. As they left Cathedral Camp with climbing gear and headed towards Easton Glacier it started to rain. They donned jackets and carried on. The team was in for a shock when they emerged from the trees onto the railroad grade.
“All of a sudden we heard a very loud buzz,” Probst said. “Everybody turned around and looked at each other. We realized our ice axes were buzzing like a high-voltage power line.”
The electrical charge had twisted mountain guide Krissy Fagan’s hair into a tangle where it touched her ice axe. The team ran back down to Cathedral Camp.
While some of the team members slept, Probst and Fagan weighed their options. Over half an hour, the weather only worsened, and they made the call to head down.
Down at the trailhead, the group piled into the Kulshan Brewery van for the drive back to Bellingham. Although they hadn’t gotten to the top, they had proven it was possible to run from Bellingham to the shoulder of Mt. Baker and still feel fresh enough to summit. For one of the team members, Dusty Caseria, the run was his first 50-miler. Most importantly, no one got hurt.
But in a bitter twist of irony so often provided by northwest weather, Probst would find himself at a picnic table at Kulshan Brewery later that day, staring at the white summit of Mt. Baker under a clear blue sky. They had run 50 miles, only to turn back before reaching Easton Glacier because of uncertain weather, and now the blue sky seemed to be
“I couldn’t give up the dream of making it,” Probst said.
The second attempt would be a solo effort, because organizing a group takes time and the window of opportunity was growing short. Probst talked with Jason Martin at the American Alpine Institute, who offered to set him up with a guide.
A couple of days later, Martin called to say the weather looked good for the next 24 hours. Probst set out solo from Bellingham on August 22 with all the food and water he’d need. He met his guide, Jeremy Devine, at Acme Diner, and Devine drove ahead to the Ridley Creek Trailhead. Probst arrived on foot at the trailhead at 1 a.m., and the pair headed up the mountain.
This time, the weather held. The duo roped up and Devine led the way up the Easton Glacier. Just below the summit, they passed and shook hands with Bud Hardwick of the Mount Baker Club on his way down. They reached the top soon after. Probst drank a Kulshan beer and ate a Rocket donut for his sponsors, signed the summit register and snapped some photos. The goal from the start had been a round trip, and now the hard part was over. Or so he thought.
Probst and Devine made it back down to the trailhead by 5 p.m. Devine, who had only been hired for the mountain portion, headed out. Probst said he felt great at the time, but soon after Devine left, a severe headache came on.
“I needed some aspirin and a hamburger – real food,” Probst said.
He had thought he would be able to eat at Acme Diner on his way back, but the diner would be closed in three hours, and he was still 20 miles away. He had no cell phone reception, no support crew in place, and the more he ran the worse his headache got. He started alternating walking and running, and ate everything in his bag: beef jerky, M&Ms and energy bars. The headache persisted.
At midnight, 35 hours into his run and far from civilization, Probst felt raindrops. He didn’t have a rain jacket with him. Even though it was a warm August night, the risk of hypothermia was real. He took shelter under a tree by the side of the road, pulled leaves up over his bare legs and slept for seven hours. In the morning, he jogged out to the road and hitchhiked home. He had made it 74 miles on his feet.
“I was happy about making it 74 miles and really proud of summiting for the first time. It didn’t sink in until about a week later that I hadn’t accomplished the complete goal of a round trip,” Probst said.
As the president of Cascade Mountain Runners, a trail-running club based in Bellingham, Probst has added motivation for completing the run. He thinks the route would be perfect for an ultra-marathon, one that would complement the illustrious history of human-powered racing in the area (Mt. Baker Marathon, Ski-to-Sea) and attract the best endurance runners from around the world.
Thinking beyond racing, Probst sees more and more people combining endurance running and mountaineering, and the route is a prime example of where he sees the sport going.
“You can take your experience in races, and with more education in mountaineering and how to be safe in the backcountry, you can go run 20 miles out in the wilderness and get a very real and rewarding experience,” he said. “That’s what I find interesting.”
This summer, Probst will try again to complete the round trip. He and at least seven other runners who have signed on so far will leave Bellingham the morning of June 27 and attempt to run from Cornwall Beach to the summit of Mt. Baker and back. Look for an update on their specific plans here. x