Mount Baker Ultra Race Report: A Real Mountain for Real Mountain Runners

Aid station six was high on the mountain. The volunteers had carved a spot out of the snow big enough for a tent and a little place to sit. Within the last mile on the glacier I had moved into the first place. I didn’t want to lose momentum, so I greeted the crew, gave them my number and let them know I was going to push through to the top. “We have had some rocks come down this morning - be careful,” one of them warns as I continue my march toward the summit.

Though I was now less than a mile from the summit, I knew the steepest section was yet to come, followed by a treacherously narrow ridge walk to the summit. I was the first runner to the summit. I stopped for just a moment to catch my breath, take in the view, and snap a quick photo. I had about a 10 minute lead on second place, but at the Mount Baker Ultra, reaching the summit is certainly cause for celebration, but the summit is only halfway to the finish line.

I have done longer races, and races with more elevation change, but Mount Baker Ultra is something a little different. For weeks leading up to Mount Baker Ultra, I was a little scared. Good goals should scary. That is why we do these things. We don’t climb mountains to conquer mountains. We climb mountains to conquers ourselves.

About Mount Baker Ultra

One of the things I love about Mount Baker Ultra is that it has roots in a Historic Race. Devised originally as a PR stunt where amateur athletes would compete on an open course race using whatever means of transportation they could muster, and race from the town of Bellingham, Washington to the top of nearby Mount Baker, and back down.

The original Mount Baker race was ended in 1913 after a series of near fatal accidents, but was recently revived by Race Director Dan Probst.

The modern course is not an open course. Though the mountain still remains dangerous to those without mountain knowledge, Dan and his army of hardcore volunteers, have managed to mitigate much of the risk by affixing 1.5 miles of rope across the most dangerous sections.

Today’s course follows approximately 20 miles of logging roads to the base of the mountain, where athletes switch out their running packs for mountain packs and begin ascending 7000 snow covered feet over six miles, including 1.5 miles across a Squak Glacier. Once past the glacier the route steepens, but it is only a short distance to the summit. Once at the summit you only have about 27 miles to go till the finish line in the town of Concrete.

Participants are expected to have ample mountain experience, and the required gear list is extensive.

Read up on the history and revival of this historic race in this Trail Runner magazine article.

54 Miles of Adventure

The race started at midnight. 23 mountain runners would start, 15 would summit, 12 would finish, but only the first place finishers would take home the Golden Ice Axe. Today, one of those axes is hanging on my wall, the other is held by Erin Good, 2019’s only female finisher.

Concrete to Mount Baker

I started out at a pace that was comfortable, which put me immediately into second place. By mile 5, two more runners had joined me and we chatted while still maintaining a solid pace.

At mile six I had a daring encounter with a cable bridge. Nobody else seemed to have trouble with this bridge, but when I made it to the middle, the bridge started shaking, and I somehow found myself underneath the bridge hanging on by my foot which I managed to loop under a cable as I was falling. Some awkward acrobatics and I managed to right myself and the bridge. I was a little shaken, but not wet, and not dead.

By mile 13 the other runner who had joined me had slowed in anticipation of much more race to come, but I was feeling strong on the relatively flat course so I maintained my pace. About 3-4 miles from Aid station 3 I started catching glimpses of the headlamp of the leader Jeremy Anderson.

Climbing Mount Baker

Jeremy and I made it into and out of aid station 3 at about the 3am. Close enough that we had an opportunity to chat for the first mile before popping out above the tree line. Jeremy and I would pass each other 3 or 4 times on the way up to aid station 5, which is where I at last took the lead after switching from my snowshoes to my crampons.

Leaving my snowshoes at aid station 5 I felt light and rejuvenated and made excellent time to the summit arriving just after 7am.

The down climb followed the same fixed rope as the ascent which was awesome because I got to greet all of the other runners as we stopped to unclip from the lines so we could pass each other. I made excellent time on the down climb, but I could tell that it would not be as easy for everyone behind me. I could feel the snow getting soft already, and as the day went on I knew it would become a real slogg for anyone still on the mountain in an hour or so.

Mount baker to Concrete

Back at Aid station 3 the lovely volunteers helped me switch out my mountain pack for my running pack, a fresh coat of sunscreen and a hot pancake and I was ready to hit the road.

Happy to be back on level ground and without a heavy mountain pack, I covered the first 5 miles back to concrete pretty swiftly. With about 13 miles to go I got a little off course but luckily, in all my preparation, I had loaded a map of the course onto the navigation feature of my Suunto 9, and was able to correct quickly losing only a minute or two.

My pace slowed during the final miles but not to the point I was walking. With six miles to go I again encountered my old nemesis the Bridge of shakiness. This time I took no chances and I crossed on my hands and knees.

The Finish

I crossed the finish in a time of 11:50, immediately sat down and inquired if there was anywhere in Concrete where I could order a pizza.

Second place finisher Jeremy Anderson strolled in 12:53 and third place David Huss in 13:39. The First and only female finisher Erin Good finished in 16:10.

What I Learned

Putting together a race like Mount Baker Ultra is a daunting feat. What at first I thought was a steep entry fee, in retrospect seems like quite a bargain. The logistics are mind boggling, and it requires at least as many volunteers as participants. Some of these volunteers work for days moving gear up and down the mountain. Make sure you high five all the volunteers, and the race director, for making such an impossible race possible.

Also, I found one of the trickiest parts of this race is deciding what to pack. What you will need on the mountain depends on what the conditions are, and what the conditions are on a mountain can change very quickly. I fretted for days over which pack is best, which shoes, harness, helmet, gaiters, crampons I should use. I even added snowshoes to my pack less about 30 minutes before the start.  Ultimately I ended up bring everything, and needing very little.

Because I made it off the mountain so early I think I could have picked up a little extra time had I not brought snowshoes, these made my pack twice as heavy, and though I did use them, I think I probably could have made better time and saved some energy just with crampons.

My Recommendations for Racers Toeing the Line.

Train both for running and for climbing. The climbing section only covers about 12 miles of the course, but if you are not accustomed to off trail travel in the snow it will eat up huge amounts of time. Don’t forget to practice with your gear. No reason to lose half an hour trying to figure out how to get your crampons on and off.

Get on and off the mountain as quickly as possible. The race starts at midnight for a reason, and that reason is because the snow is much easier to travel on while it is frozen. As the day goes on it turns into more and more of a slog. If you spend the extra energy getting quickly to the frozen mountain, you will save energy slogging through knee deep snow.

Mount Baker Ultra is not your average 50 miler. If you have questions about what my training looked like, let me know in the comments, on instagram, or better yet, join the Pinnacle Running Team, and if you let us know you are doing Mount Baker Ultra, and I have availability, I will coach you myself.

Ultra Gear:

Shoes - Altra Lone Peak RSM

Socks - Injinji

Gear Pack - Naked Belt

Shorts - Patagonia Strider 5”

Singlet - Pinnacle Running Team

Watch - Suunto 9

Mountain Gear:

Harness - Black Diamond Alpine Bod

Crampons - Katoohla KTS

Helmet - Black Diamond Half Dome

Ice Axe - Grivel