Home Featured stories The Miracle Route: An off-trail circumnavigation of Mt. Baker

The Miracle Route: An off-trail circumnavigation of Mt. Baker

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Story and photos by Krissy Moehl

September 4, 2019

Janet starts to rock a bit and I let off the gas as the potholes deepen. Having turned off the paved road in my van (my family has an affinity for naming inanimate objects), this final stretch to the Ridley Creek Trailhead jogs my memory. I’ve been up this road before, but not in a vehicle. Last time, on foot, I could sidestep or splash through these waterlogged potholes. On summer solstice 2018, Jeremy Wolf and I ran up this road listening to podcasts (him) and ‘80s music (me), on a journey from our homes in Fairhaven to the summit of Mt. Baker. We ran over Mt. Stewart, through Acme and out Mosquito Lake Road to this trailhead. This spot marked 50 miles of running and the start of the alpine part of our adventure. Here, we filled up on hot ramen, changed our gear and switched to hiking and climbing instead of running. The altitude and challenge underfoot slowed us significantly; the 15 miles from the trailhead to the summit and back took longer than the 50 miles to get there.

Janet’s lights bounce along and as we reach the end of the road, finally, I spy friends, one new and two I’ve known for over a decade. My words bubble over to Kathleen and John as my window slowly descends.

A long, shared history links me, John, and Kathleen, including ultraruns, adventure travel, sharing a home in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle and weekly early morning runs at nearby Cougar Mountain. We had a deep understanding of each other’s skill, ability and endurance. But we didn’t know much about Jeff List.

When I hopped out of the van, the three were readying their gear for the morning but I interrupted to give them hugs and reintroduce myself to Jeff. We had crossed paths a couple times before. This time I gushed: “I’m so thankful and excited! This is such a cool opportunity to see this route you pieced together. I feel so lucky you are willing to share this with us. Thank you Jeff!” His face peeled open in a broad smile as he hunched his 6’3″ frame to meet me in a hug.

Jeff spent the better part of June scouring Google Maps and scouting the slopes of Mount Baker in hopes of completing a 70-plus-mile circle around the mountain. With only one 12-year-old trip report for reference, Jeff found a path through the off-trail terrain, linking up segments of trail. His end goal: A solo effort on the route on July 20, 2019, which he completed in a little over 38 hours.

“Well, when we make it back here you three will be the first under 60 years old to complete the round,” Jeff told us.

“I like that confidence, Jeff. When we make it back,” I said.

Kathleen and I instantly wanted to catch up like best girlfriends do and she popped in the van while I brushed my teeth. We rattled through our list of things to talk about. “We have three days to catch up, let’s get some sleep now,” I sayid after spitting minty toothpaste into an empty kombucha bottle.

The next morning marked the start of a true adventure – a counterclockwise circumnavigation of Mount Baker.  My eyes drooped as I mentally reviewed the mileage plan for the next three days Jeff had emailed, trail names and locations I would soon know much more intimately. I flipped the switch on the hanging fairy lights knowing sleep would win before I finished the notes. With a 6 a.m. start, sleep in the comfort of our camper vehicles came easy, knowing that for the ensuing days and nights our only shelter from the elements would fit in our backpacks.

Forty minutes into our hike, backpacks and enthusiasm fully loaded for the adventure, I, in the lead and telling a story, felt a sting and then wicked pain on my left calf. I screamed, swatted and threw my trekking pole. I heard “Run! Run, run, run!” I attempted to retrieve my pole as Jeff and Kathleen darted past, swatting at their legs and backs. I abandoned the pole and scurried after them, pulling at an aggressive little black and yellow beast attached to my middle finger and then repeatedly swatting the top of my right knee. Looking up I saw Kathleen standing in the middle of the trail, apparently calm, but distress on her face. She pulled at the sleeve of her T-shirt. “I think there is one still on me.” I reached in just below her armpit and pulled out another buzzing bugger, quickly flicking it away for fear of another puncture.

John remained behind at the scene of attack while Jeff, Kathleen and I counted our red, swelling spots. “What are you going to do, John?” I exhaled the words between gasps.

John responded in a near whisper, “Where is your pole, Krissy?”

“To your left, downhill side of the trail.”

“I see it.”

Walking intentionally and slowly, the lightest I’ve ever seen John move on his feet, he reached down and inched his way up the trail toward us without making a sound or a vibration.

Sting count: Krissy 3, Kathleen 12, Jeff 4, John 0.

Adrenaline surged and then dumped from our bodies, we continued to climb above tree line. We left the route I was familiar with from our 2018 summit push and the meadows that opened offered an easy trail, a gift after the startle of the stings. A smaller, plentiful gift sat waiting at about knee height. We skillfully plucked at the wild blueberries without slowing our hiking pace too much. “Don’t get too accustomed to these groomed trails,” Jeff warned. The link up around the mountain required a significant amount of off-trail route finding. This was just our warm up.

Day one quickly tuned us into Jeff’s off-trail ability. The massive, trail-less bowls between ridges boggled my mind. Standing on one ridge, we scanned the terrain to the next, perhaps a mile away, with nothing but boulders and glacier-fed streams between here and there and not a sign of a trail. John moved ahead, easily tapping into his climbing days and comfort in lopsided terrain. I marveled at his ease as he bounded from rock to rock and scouted different lines across streams and through smashed dinner plates of talus and used-car-lot-sized boulders. Meanwhile, Jeff checked the GPS to ensure we stuck to the general direction.

The first day was filled with countless stream crossings. We got into a rhythm of scanning from afar, finding the “safest” crossing, gauging the flow and going for it. If the intensity called for it we talked through the approach, using our poles to point out the best route and to measure the depth of potential routes. John or Jeff would go first, followed by Kathleen and then me. More than a few times, we gripped each other’s forearms for extra support. After a couple crossings late in the afternoon, it took long minutes walking even slower than before to allow the feeling to come back to our frozen feet.

Jeff List starting one of many, many creek crossings.

The final crossing of the day was the most challenging. After assessing the flow and finding no easy way, we decided to cross in twos for more stability. John went first. Kathleen hesitated a minute, watching for John to point out the best steps. She joined on a shallow island in the middle, where water rushed around their feet. John motioned to me to follow but then, feet frozen from the time spent waiting, he changed his mind and they exited together. I put my poles in one hand and committed my right hand to Jeff’s left forearm; he returned the support. We entered together, Jeff just ahead of me, and opted to step in just upstream from where Kathleen and John crossed. This allowed us to break up the crossing into two sections.

First, we moved into the flow and then stepped up to a patch of rocks out of the flow. As I neared the high step the rushing water caught me off balance and I fell forward. Water rushed around my waist before my poles and left hand caught on a rock in the current. Jeff pulled upward on our arm lock, saving me from a full submersion. As my balance shifted back, Jeff heaved me forward releasing my arm, and like a dance I instinctively followed his lead and took a few quick steps up on to the rocks and then offered my hand to pull him up in return. After an easier second section, we joined John and Kathleen in the screaming barfies (climbing term for the feeling of frozen digits coming back to life) on the other side.

Jeff ensured us that was the last of the sketchy crossings – just one more in the morning that would hopefully be running lower early in the day – and we continued up and over the next ridge, hanging on to trees and vegetation on steeper sections. We skipped a hot springs a mile before camp in favor of setting up camp before dark. We boiled water from Rainbow Creek to rehydrate our dinners, filtered water for the next day and cleaned a little before emptying our packs of clothing to completely cover our depleted and quickly chilling bodies. Jeff was saying goodnight before I’d had my first bite of rehydrated Patagonia Provisions chili. That man is efficient! We hung our food bags high in the trees before settling in on the mossiest bed I’ve ever slept on.

From left: Kathleen Egan, Jeff List, Krissy Moehl and John Fiddler.

Each day had special experiences, but day two stood out for the distance covered, the variety of terrain, the laughs as we got to know each other better and the distance from either end of the trip – we weren’t just starting and we were far from the finish. Perhaps the whole day was set right by another morning berry binge. This time we halted to pick and eat to our hearts’ content. I wouldn’t be surprised if we ate berries for 45 minutes before finally starting up the next climb, which eventually topped out at the only other section I’d previously visited, Artist Point.

Our phones blew up with messages as we approached the road that winds up to the tourist point. I sent a few photos to loved ones to let them know we were okay, and posted one photo to Instagram of the crew hiking away from me and leaving the land of the connected for the last time before the trailhead. We reconvened under the shade of a tree to reapply sunscreen – a treasured tiny amount from the travel-sized tube that Kathleen gracefully shared. We’d been worried about weather and brought our Gore-Tex, but, as true Washingtonians, we hadn’t prepped as well for sun.

We hiked along the familiar Ptarmigan Ridge for a short section before looking right at another broad bowl. Leaving the trail, we followed Jeff onto unstable scree. He held the GPS route on his phone and, at times, lashed a plastic compass to his forearm to keep a directional bearing. John would bound ahead picking a good line and I would marvel at how quickly the three could make distance on me as I tried to pick the next good place to step.

Jeff warned us about the steep forest descents. On the way down, we looked at each other multiple times wondering how this seemed like a route option. Jeff called these off-trail passages “miracles.”

“How did you look at this hillside and think, ‘That’ll go?’” John grunted, lifting his left foot for the umpteenth time over a pick-up-stick pile of rotted logs.

“Isn’t it a miracle?”

“A miracle?!” the three of us blurted in unison.

“Yeah. I looked and looked for weaknesses in the terrain and this was the only possible one,” Jeff said. “I didn’t know if it would even go. But here we are!”

We decided Jeff’s idea of a miracle was a little different than ours as we limboed, ducked, shimmied and slipped down the Plinko course of trees.

“I think … there are bees. Run!” Jeff said.

Without thinking, I ran, bounding over lumpy grasses and downed logs to catch up with Jeff. I now had matrix-like ability to sprint through terrain that had tripped me up countless times in the hours-long descent. But I got three more painful stings.

Fortunately, my quick-to-startle-and-scream characteristics (I am rather comical to watch a horror film with) alerted John and Kathleen and they evaded attack.

“Just to be clear, we like bees. Bees are good. These assholes are wasps,” John said.

“You know what I meant. You try to yell the word ‘wasps’ when you are hurdling decaying logs and outrunning those little jerks,” I replied.

“Fair enough. ‘Wasp’ is tougher than ‘bee.’”

“I’m sorry, honey. I can’t believe we found more,” Kathleen said.

“Better me than you Kathleen, yours swell so badly.”

Her wrist was now just a straight extension of her forearm and her watch now set at its loosest setting.

Sting count: Krissy 6, Kathleen 12, Jeff 4, John 0.

Kathleen, a few hours later:”Ow!” Kathleen never complains or notes pain. “Ouch! Dang it. Run! Bees!” she screamed.

I leaped laterally over a few rotten logs, trying to clear a path for her to scurry. John stood motionless a couple meters uphill, balanced on a large log. Jeff, downhill, looked up from his compass.

Sting count: Krissy 6, Kathleen 15, Jeff 4, John 0.

Later, the sun shone through the trees illuminating the path Jeff had just traversed. My step forward turned into a pivot and I ran back towards Kathleen and John, once again impressed with how adrenaline heightens my maneuverability skills.

“Dammit! I got another on my calf,” I said.  “I saw them, but he must have chased me. Bastard got me twice.”

Final count: Krissy 8, Kathleen 15, Jeff 4, John 0.

“Who or what are you?” John sputtered as his feet finally hit the level ground of a gravel road.

“What do you mean?” Jeff turned to respond.

The three of us looked at John, a bit of worry expressed between Kathleen and I. We’d just finished a super challenging descent and we hoped John wasn’t going to uncharacteristically lash out in frustration. We’d all slipped, slid and fallen multiple times. The wasps had had their way with us a couple of times. I’d stepped on a rotten log that rolled, landing me on my butt before I knew what happened. We had pine needles in our hair (and belly buttons, we later found) and worked glutes from so much high-stepping and limboing under the crisscrossed downfall.

“You can’t be human. Who looks at that and says, I think it’ll go?” John said before turning to me and Kathleen. “He must be an alien. Or superman. Or a pioneer born in the wrong era. Seriously, who bushwhacks without a shirt and doesn’t bleed?”

Our agile, superhero does have one kryptonite, which we witnessed minutes later on the most stable terrain of our trip, a recently repaired gravel road. Jeff turned from taking in a view, caught his foot on his trekking pole and fell. This stumble was dramatic enough that he gouged and drew blood from his hand and scraped his knee. His hand required the only Band-Aid of the trip.

Jeff did his best to explain. “When I’m off trail finding my way through rough terrain, there’s a heightened state of awareness that keeps me on my feet,” he said. “That single-minded focus is something I really enjoy – the rest of the world and all its problems just doesn’t exist anymore. But I guess I easily let that lapse when I’m on flat ground because I do seem to stumble a lot there (although not actually fall – that was a first there on the road to Cougar Ridge). My wife Kelle might say something like, ‘You can travel through all kinds of wilderness off-trail, but you can’t walk down a city street without stumbling on the curb.’”

The group scaling Chowder Ridge, on the north side of Mt. Baker.

After hiking and chatting up the long road and pushing along the top of Cougar Divide, we finished well after dark on the second day. We took in the sunset from a magical viewpoint, reveling in yet another vantage of our beloved mountain. From there, we had to hike with headlamps toward our goal camp spot, closer to the connection with Chowder Ridge. Dew-covered plants and tips of evergreen trees caught in the beams and reflected back, looking like the reflective trail marking ribbons I am accustomed to from ultra-race courses.

“Do you see the reflection? Am I so fatigued that I’m hallucinating?” I wondered aloud.

“No. I see it too. It’s so beautiful,” Kathleen said, just loud enough for me to hear.

Sleeping above tree line offered a true test of my gear. I’d borrowed a bivy from my boyfriend and brought my lightest sleeping bag (rated to 40 degrees). Before crawling in to the combo, I dressed in thin wool long johns, a beanie, a Buff around my ears and a down coat. My body rattled with chills for the first two hours. In desperation, my brain finally came to the brilliant idea to also wear my rain gear.

I’m pretty sure if I had a thermometer, my core temperature would have registered a degree or two lower than usual by the time I woke up (good news, I actually did sleep) to the best sunrise of my summer. Through the bivvy’s mesh netting I marveled at the 360-degree view as the skyline woke up. Loading my backpack was easy that morning as I stayed in all of my clothes as we broke camp and hiked into the sunshine. Once the rays warmed and our route climbed, my pack started to fill again. The day with the most consistently technical terrain started with a scramble up and down Chowder Ridge.

Trust, calm and balancing confidence were the prevailing traits of our foursome from day one. These were highlighted in a moment on our descent from Chowder Ridge. Jeff took a couple of easy (to him) steps down and turned around to explain the next couple hundred feet that ended up taking us over an hour. Mind you, our average for the previous two days was a not-so-blazing 3-4 miles an hour, but on this last day we didn’t even track our average pace. Instead we watched the sun, asking, will we make it out before dark?

We put our poles away and I used four if not five (my butt) points of contact to inch and scoot along a sliver of trail etched next to a few good holds on a cliff band. Jeff went first, barely touching the handholds – more like grazing his hand over a handrail on a stairway. Jeff and John, much more comfortable with exposure and challenging footing, offered tips and suggestions on where to place a foot or hand. I watched Kathleen’s movements closely, trying to mimic placement and her body position. I stayed close enough that a kicked rock wouldn’t gain too much speed and just far enough to not pressure her. Nearing the end of the most exposed section, in my own focus on hand and foot placement, I missed how she maneuvered off the cliff band to the steep grass slope below, a bigger step than I was comfortable. If I misplaced a foot or had too much momentum, the group size would be down to three.

I asked, with a bit of tension caught in my throat, “Kathleen. How … where did you put your feet?”

In an instant, the group met the stressed energy from my question with calm responses. Kathleen pointed at a grass tuft and then to a protruding rock: “those are solid.” Jeff spotted me from below and John spoke from above, all in lowered, easy tones, making the worrisome steps doable.

Our teamwork had improved throughout the trip as we got to better know each other’s strengths. Jeff’s comfort in the mountains and ability to take on seemingly impassable terrain superseded anything I’ve witnessed. When we made it to forest service roads Kathleen and I pushed just in front to offer a pull-and-reprieve to Jeff having led for so long. John excels in the technical rock fields and climbing sections, trusting his feet. Kathleen was steady and tough as ever, both in spirit and pace. Her vocal appreciation of her surroundings and love of living minimally drew out the same appreciation in each of us. Our group energy balanced, we took care of each other, found laughter, and kept it relatively even-keeled on a rather outlandish, challenging, and potentially stressful endeavor. We worked together as the terrain dictated, especially in those few moments on Chowder Ridge.

And then, we climbed a waterfall. It started out reasonable, but as the tall grass and alders ceased, we realized we were following a waterfall to the top. After resting at a small pool to refill water, Jeff pointed to our next objective. We would leave the waterfall and climb a vertical grass wall. We went up, again. These two objectives triggered countless jokes and laughter at the absurdity of the terrain Jeff deemed would “go.”

“This one is stout,” he said as he placed his trekking poles at shoulder height and pulled himself straight up a four-foot ledge. I blurted a laugh, “If Jeff is calling something ‘stout’ I’m intimidated as hell.” Turns out my intimidation was validated. The slope required leaning forward to counter the weight of my backpack, which would have pulled me off the slope. Putting my nose over my toes, as I learned in my earlier rock climbing days, and depending heavily on my poles and the traction of my Vasque Trailbender shoes to cling to the hillside, much like a cat to curtains, I clawed, the steepest steps of my life. Once again, I found Jeff sitting perched on a stump, this time in the shade.

He was looking over his shoulder at two grassy ridgelines – they might as well have been twins – separated by a ravine that was steep, even by Jeff’s standards. And then he apologized: “I’m sorry guys. We are supposed to be over there.” We all looked down the cliff face that dropped off between us and the desired ridge. “But why don’t you sit here for a sec. I’ll run up and see if this one goes.” Our bodies spoke the words our mouths could not; our backpacks were on the ground before our arms had slipped from the straps and our backs leaned up against the sweaty fabric. Before we could get too comfortable we heard faintly over the roll of the hill, “I think it’ll go.”

Gravity against us, our threesome hoisted our packs and leaned into our poles to meet Jeff on what appeared to be a painted runway. The perfect link up – a connection to the next bowl and the ridgeline that we wanted to be on.

Call it another miracle.

We skipped through the high alpine, John and Kathleen clasping and swinging hands in a playful gesture, celebrating the easy footing. We paused to look across the next bowl, picking out our line and objective. “The top of the final descent is right … there,” Jeff pointed and squinted in the late afternoon sun, the three of us peering down the line of his arm.

I tried to convince myself that I would get better at bouncing over unstable china plates and loose marbles, but even at the end of day three, when we were chasing the sun to the trailhead, my feet would not trust the wobbly terrain. This final bowl had markers of history, old debris from a 1950s plane crash, as well as an angel. Kathy appeared from nowhere with insight to the bowl from having hiked in the previous morning to camp and explore. Her confidence and guidance to the final ridge saved us valuable time as we raced the sun, desperately wanting to be out before midnight. I’d told my boyfriend I’d be home for dinner Sunday night. It was after dinner when we met Kathy.

It seems the closer I get to the summit, the slower my pace. Convincing my feet and legs to spring across Volkswagen bug and watermelon sized boulders, push through overgrown brush where I can’t see my shoes and wade through murky glacial waters requires more brain power, nimbleness, trust and concentration than striding along the buttery single track trails I’ve raced on all over the world. I get frustrated with my slow progress, wanting to bound like a mountain goat, or maybe a marmot, but instead I fall behind and have to focus on one step at a time.

I heard Kathleen talking to Jeff about the Hardrock 100, an infamous 100-mile-long race in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

“Jeff, how many times have you run Hardrock 100?”

“Eight.”

“And your time for this Mt. Baker circumnavigation was faster than your fastest Hardrock, right? What was your Hardrock time?”

“Yes. My best at Hardrock is 38 hours and 46 minutes.”

“What was your time for this?”

“38 hours and 13 minutes.”

Holding great respect for the Hardrock 100, my ears perked up at this. Hearing his times, my brain stumbled through the tired fog of exhaustion trying to do the math. Day one took us 14 hours. Day two: 16. Day three: we still weren’t done and we were well over 10 already. His single push of the route was hours faster than our three-day accumulative running time so far, not counting our recovery of 6-7 hours of sleep each night. Yet, my fastest Hardrock time was 29.5 hours. How can that be? How can there be a 9-hour gap in our Hardrock times, but Jeff has been waiting on me this entire trip?

Countless times I would look ahead to scout the white of his ball cap and silver hair and if he wasn’t out of sight, eight of 10 times he’d be perched on a rock soaking in the sun or checking his GPS, meters ahead. This man, a retired U.S. Geological Survey oceanographer, has a gift for moving through serious off-trail terrain.

Finally, our headlamps illuminated a ‘T’ in the road. We veered left and I looked over my shoulder to add light to Kathleen’s dimming bulb. “Kathleen, we’re here!” She’d stopped for what turned out to be a final pee and skipped to catch up.

“We are? We’re done?”

“I see the van!”

The rain drops spattered on my windshield within minutes of starting the drive home. The storm that landed over 1,200 lightning strikes in Whatcom County that night started less than an hour after we finished. Other than the chilly night on Cougar Ridge, our gear matched the weather perfectly. We lucked out with three clear, sunny days. Sunscreen was more of a need than Gore-Tex. Miracle weather. Miracle Route.

Trip Itinerary:

Day 1: Ridley Creek Trailhead to low on the Swift Creek Trail (next to Rainbow Creek). 24.5 miles, 5,877′ gain.

Day 2: Swift Creek Trail camp to high on the Cougar Ridge Trail at a climber’s camp near a stream. 27.5 miles with 9,753′ gain.

Day 3: Cougar Ridge camp to Ridley Creek Trailhead. 19.6 miles with 6,536′ gain.    x

Krissy Moehl lives and runs with her mini-Aussie pup, PD, out of their Sprinter van, claiming Bellingham home. She coaches athletes and directs the Chuckanut 50K out of her office at Prime Sports Institute.