Story and photos by Peter Lillesve
Dogs chased me down the dark highway – fast ones, loud ones, all unleashed and unfenced. Of the many contingencies I thought about before this adventure – things like glacier travel, flat tires, sunburn, calories, and companions – dogs were not on my radar. Nor were hot rod semi trucks.
Maybe I should back up a bit.
A year and a half earlier, I woke up one winter night after a rare nightmare and had trouble going back to sleep. Lying in bed, a concept somehow coalesced. The idea is nothing radical and probably occurs to every mountain-loving person who lives in sight of Mt. Baker: let’s climb that thing. No doubt, having read about the mountain runners who made a similar trip last year was on my mind. The mountain runners took it a step further by starting and ending their climb at sea level and traveling under their own power the whole way.
An awesome idea, but I’m fairly certain I couldn’t even walk the 100-plus miles required to repeat their trip, much less run it. Besides, the thought of walking down more than 6,000 vertical feet of perfectly skiable snow seemed like a terrible waste of gravity. No, there had to be another option.
Back to the dogs: I was somewhere near Welcome (ha!), about 2:30 a.m., riding my trusty commuter bike toward Mt. Baker, when out of the darkness came a chorus of barks and paws beating pavement. My headlight was on my handlebars, so I couldn’t see what kind of head start I had, but one thing was clear: It wasn’t enough.
Adrenaline – it had been a while since my last taste. But it still worked, hitting me immediately, a tidal wave of heat flooding through my chest, my face, my arms. Wait for it – my legs. Yes, legs! I jumped up from the saddle, shifted up two gears, and jammed. The skis, the panniers and my pack all groaned as I accelerated, clinking and swaying like some garbage truck injected with nitrous oxide.
Do dogs have adrenaline? Maybe, but these mustn’t have used it. I pulled away slowly, then faster as my momentum built. The dogs eventually gave up and I laughed hysterically, a final manifestation of the quickly subsiding adrenaline buzz.
A moment later, all was quiet. It was just me and the stars again.
The summer after I conceived the idea came and went, because, well, life. I got married, we moved, different trips happened; it was a great year. But the idea stuck with me: Bellingham Bay to Grouse Creek by bike, skin from there to Mt. Baker’s summit, then reverse. Traveling by bike meant I could take everything I needed without my knees exploding. Skiing meant safer glacier travel and a fun descent. It looked reasonable as a day trip. This would be great!
Again, life. In the spring we were looking at buying a house. I did different trips and before I knew it, I had written the journey off for another year. Then, in late June, my buddy Jon texted me looking for a partner to ski Baker two days hence. A fuse was lit: here was an opportunity with little time to reason my way out. I pitched a plan to him. My buddy Pavel was in, too. They were both satisfied with just skiing, so we agreed to meet at the trailhead.
Midnight – Glass Beach, Bellingham
I realize I left my ski boots at home in the flurry of after-work packing.
12:30 a.m. – Glass Beach, Bellingham
I load my bike with a heap of gear and enough food to get me round-trip. I dip my tires into the water while my wife Julianna takes a picture, and then I take off as a train rumbles by, drowning out our goodbyes.
I stop for minor load adjustments on the outskirts of Bellingham. I’ve loaded skis on my bike for many late spring approaches, every time a different way. This time I nailed it, thankfully as 90 miles would be a long way to endure knees rubbing on bindings, or ski boots threatening to fall off.
The miles pass while I awe at the stars during a new moon. As I roll through Nugent’s Corner around 1:45 a.m., the temperature drops noticeably, so I change gloves. Deming goes by to the sound of crickets, then Welcome with its unwelcome dogs. Between Welcome and Kendall some kind of hot rod semi-truck flies by like a bat out of hell, passing too close for comfort, then is swallowed up by the night. It’s too early to be hallucinating, isn’t it?
I stop in Kendall to update my wife once before losing phone service. A state trooper pulls in to see what I’m up to. When I tell him, he shakes his head, wishes me luck and pulls away. I can’t fault his curiosity; I probably do look suspicious.
Just before 4 a.m – Glacier
I stop outside Graham’s Restaurant to eat a banana, knowing what comes next. Despite considering this idea for so long, it never occurred to me to install a granny gear chainring. Climbing 3,000 feet from Glacier to the Heliotrope Ridge trailhead on a loaded bike rammed home this oversight, one slow crank revolution at a time.
5:30 a.m. – Heliotrope Ridge Trailhead
Five hours clear of the beach I reach the trailhead and meet Pavel and John, who’ve been waiting for me for an hour, since I’m behind schedule. We BS while I repack, filter water and eat leftover pizza. The snow has long since melted from the trailhead, so we hike an hour to the Hogsback before transitioning to skis. The climb is uneventful in the best kind of way. We enjoy the sunny day on a mountain with friends, with views of the Cascades, Olympics, Coast Range and Puget Sound. It doesn’t really strike me that I started down there; it feels like two different adventures. There are no dogs chasing me up here.
We’re in no great rush as we make our way up the Coleman Glacier, weaving around crevasses and wondering at ski lines off the Coleman Headwall, Colfax Peak, and the Black Buttes. We stop a few times to shed layers, snack, and continue that 11th essential, more BS-ing.
Our speeds diverge on the Roman Wall and I decide to follow my own pace, resorting to booting as the slope is still a little icy for skinning. A couple hundred feet later, two guys on ski mountaineering race gear pass me and I give chase, suddenly inspired to put my skis back on my feet where they belong. I follow them to the summit, arriving just under 13 hours after leaving Bellingham Bay.
I relax and chat with others as they arrive but cannot convince myself to nap. Pavel and John show up about an hour later. We take some pictures and congratulate each other, and they take their own break. I am impatient and ready to go, but recognize they probably felt the same way at the trailhead.
3 p.m. – leaving the summit
Finally, we tour back across the summit crater and then ski the Roman Wall. We stop at the saddle next to Colfax Peak, where they decide to melt water. Once again, I’m anxious, knowing that every minute makes my day that much longer, but I suck it up. These are my friends after all, ones I don’t see as often as I’d like, and what a wonderful place to wait, anyway.
The Coleman Glacier skis well. Open crevasses are obvious but sparse; the corn snow is plentiful and consistent. The hike out – well, let’s say I wished I’d done this a month earlier and been able to ski to the trailhead. I’m still thankful I brought skis, though each step back down the trail squishes my spine infinitesimally shorter.
Back at the cars, I load my gear back onto my bike. Pavel and Jon take their time packing, but I still have a few more hours to go and no daylight to squander. It’s 6:30 p.m. by the time we say goodbye and I point my rig downhill.
The lack of a granny gear is no longer an issue, though the extreme tail-heaviness of my bike makes the first miles even livelier than they otherwise would be. Thankfully, my small investment in the bike did include good brakes.
The next 40 miles are not so much a blur as a slow transition to tedium. There is no novelty to this anymore and my only goal becomes making it back to the water before sundown. Myriad cars stream past and I am grateful for the space they give; most of the Mt. Baker Highway is not especially accommodating to cyclists, even if its drivers might be.
Just before Deming, Pavel and Jon drive past after eating what I imagine was a very satisfying meal in Glacier. I dwell on this as I scrape the last crumbs from a greasy sandwich bag.
9:45 p.m. – Bellingham
Finally, I roll back in to the Bellingham city limits. I cruise down Sunset Avenue, then take Cornwall Avenue clear through downtown. I hoist my bike over driftwood and onto the sand at Glass Beach, rolling the tires into the water. The last rays of the sun bend over Lummi Island, a melancholy farewell to a day of constant movement.
Were there any takeaways, revelations, or epiphanies from this trip? To risk sounding uninspired – not really. I was fairly confident (too confident, my wife says) in my success before I started, so finishing was only a respite from pedaling. That said, I am more humbled and inspired by the multitude of potential adventures in this region. We may be limited by time, experience, creativity, or stamina, but never by geography.
If an ascent of this style interests you, I recommend you check out the movie “The Mountain Runners” for inspiration and an excellent history of the original Mt. Baker Marathon, which covered a similar route from Bellingham to Mt. Baker, though with the assist of a train and/or cars. (An alternative route was used in that race, which followed the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River to the Easton Glacier. This route is also viable and has certain benefits in that it could be slightly shorter overall, with less time on busy roads.)
The route described, following the highway through Glacier, then up FR39 to the Heliotrope Ridge trail, was around 105 miles, and 14,000′ of climbing roundtrip. Lots of reflective clothing and lights are recommended due to the long distance on the Mt. Baker Highway.
If footraces are more your thing, Cascade Mountain Runners stages a race from Concrete to Sherman Peak on Mt. Baker, with the hopes of one day having a full trail route from Bellingham.
In the meantime, there are many variations to get from Bellingham, or wherever your front door happens to be, to the top of Baker. Be creative, be safe, and have fun!
Peter Lillesve is a native Minnesotan who traded the Land of 10,000 Lakes for a land with 10,000 peaks (or so). He is a licensed professional engineer and lives in Bellingham with his wife and their crazy coonhound.