By Oliver Lazenby
Dan Probst wants to hold a trail race from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mt. Baker and back, a 108-mile journey with more than 10,000 feet of elevation gain. He envisions a world-class race on a world-class trail that would draw hikers from all over the planet to walk the course at a more leisurely six-day pace.
The problem is, despite a corridor of public lands, the trail doesn’t exist. To advocate for and build the roughly 40 miles of trail needed to complete the route, he wants to hold a race to raise money.
To complicate the chicken/egg scenario, getting permits to hold a race is an ever-expanding venture with multiple government agencies involved. The crux is that he needs an OK from the U.S. Congress to hold a race through a designated wilderness area, as the route winds through about two miles of Mt. Baker Wilderness Area. That would be an action without precedent. Currently three races in the United States cross wilderness areas, and all three predate the creation of the wilderness areas they are in.
The Bellingham to Mt. Baker race also predates the wilderness. Kind of. The Bellingham Chamber of Commerce held a similar race from 1911 to 1913.
“There’s never been a case where the race has been dormant for 100 years and then has been accepted back in the wilderness area,” Probst said.
Probst is all in on the project – he’s not only attempted the 108-mile course six times and completed it three times, he’s also been working for years with dozens of politicians, government agencies and private landowners to make the event happen, even as new challenges unfold.
“It’s all or nothing,” Probst said. “The point in which I should have dropped this so that I could maintain a life has well passed.”
It’s all or nothing. The point in which I should have dropped this so that I could maintain a life has well passed.
Probst and his nonprofit, Cascade Mountain Runners, are making progress. Whatcom County Council added the trail to a draft of its comprehensive plan update. But the next year could be make-or-break for the proposed Bellingham to Mt. Baker Trail. Probst and the nonprofit are burning through money.
“Without a race this next year, the trail may also fail,” he said. “I cannot personally afford to keep pushing for the trail.”
Probst, through an LLC separate from his nonprofit, started planning a race for next year on an alternate course from Bellingham to the summit but that course didn’t work due to one private landowner refusing permission. He’s now on Plan C: “I have no choice, we’re going to move the race out of Whatcom County and we’re going to Concrete.”
Probst hasn’t gotten final approval from all the government agencies involved, but if all goes according to plan, the first ever Bellingham to Mt. Baker race will start at 12 a.m. on June 4, and go from the town of Concrete to the summit of Sherman Peak – a sub summit of Mt. Baker, about 700 feet below the true summit – a distance of 55 miles with about 10,000 feet of elevation gain.
It’s a compromise in service of the end goal – the Bellingham to Mt. Baker Trail.
“The race will ensure that every single year we have money coming in for the Bellingham to Mt. Baker Trail,” Probst said. “We can get donations and we can get grants, but none of those are sustainable. They’re one time.”
Probst needs at least 100 people to sign up for the race by January in order to fund it. He’ll also need a local guiding company to fix ropes on the glacier portion of the course, which could require tens of thousands of dollars and up to a mile-and-a-half of fixed ropes.
“What makes this race incredibly expensive is the glacier,” Probst said. “But that’s also the draw.”
He’s not crazy for thinking that hundreds of people might want to run the course. His model for the Bellingham to Mt. Baker Run is the Tour dés Geants, a 205-mile race in the Italian Alps. That race boasts an international field of 750 runners, and this year had to turn away about that many. That race also has its own trail, built for the race, which is now a hiking destination. In Europe, this kind of thing – races over seemingly inhuman distances in the mountains – has its own name: skyrunning.
It takes a world-class course to make a world-class race, Probst said. The race from Concrete will be great, but a trail race from Bellingham to Mt. Baker would have a truly global pull, he expects. The race is on to build it.
For more information, check out cascademountainrunners.org.