Bellingham to Baker and Back
During the last week of June, while I was still in South Africa, Beat flew up to Washington to join his friend, Dan Probst, and seven other runners in an attempt to run from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mount Baker and back, a 108-mile round-trip excursion that included a roped glacier climb. Daniel has ambitions to recreate a 21st-century version of the Mount Baker Marathon. Arguably one of the world's first adventure races, the Mount Baker Marathon was held from 1911 to 1913 with the objective to travel by automobile or steam engine to the base of the mountain, run up to the summit, and return the way they came. The race drew tens of thousands of spectators, as well as some major mishaps — a train derailment and two crevasse falls (this risk, along with the onset of World War I, is what shut down the race after only three years.)
As far as Dan knows, no one has traveled the entire distance on foot. He's made several attempts at this; the latest one was shut down by wet weather and avalanche risk. Eight people started the run six weeks ago and stopped when the summit was deemed unobtainable. Dan, Beat, and a young Bellingham runner named Aaron still ran all the way back to Bellingham, completing a 100-mile distance despite the failed summit attempt. Dan still wanted to make the whole thing happen, so he watched the weather all of the following weekends until a window opened on Aug. 1. Aaron, who wanted to see the summit, would return for another hundred-mile run — his second overall. Beat still wanted to be a part of the fun, so he made last-minute travel reservations for Bellingham. This time, I was able to join for crewing and tagalong fun.
I arrived at the trailhead around 9 and found two friends of Daniel's who planned to assist us with the climb. During their June attempt, Dan had recruited a few experienced friends to guide, but no one was available to guide this attempt. Of the four of us, three have never traveled in a rope team and Dan had only been up Mount Baker once before, with a guide. Dan's friends, Max and Chris, planned to ski the glacier but would remain close by in case there was a mishap. At the trailhead, I found them scouting out the river, which we'd have to cross. After several hot days the water level was high and the hydraulics were sobering. "There's no way we can cross that," I whispered, and Max and Chris assured me we'd figure "something" out. I remained awake for the next four hours, fretting about this river crossing. I know stressing does no good, but I have a difficult time controlling anxiety when it comes to my fears, and whitewater is the deepest of my fears. There I was, preparing to attempt my first-ever technical glacier climb, and I could not get the image of rushing water out of my mind.
I focused on Zen breathing as Dan led us through a bushwhack along the shoreline of the river to a log that he and others had thrown over a narrow section of the river several weeks earlier. The river was high and he wasn't sure it was still in place. It was, but it was only about a foot wide and tapered at the end, crossing about thirty feet over an especially turbulent channel, because it was so narrow. Beat and Aaron scooted over on their butts, but when it was my turn to do this, the whole world started spinning and I felt precariously close to blacking out. Panic was bubbling up and Zen breathing was not working. "I can't do it, it's too scary, I'm sorry," I called out. I believed this was the end of my Mount Baker attempt, but Daniel offered to shuttle my pack across to see if I'd feel more comfortable going over unloaded. I wasn't, actually, but logically I knew I'd be more stable, so I threw my legs over the thin trunk, pressed my feet against the wet, bald surface, and started scooting. The irrational and extremely unhelpful panic started to boil over and I needed to focus on anything else so I started mouthing the words to "Peaches" by the Presidents of the United States of America. Where that inclination came from, I have no clue, and I can't say it worked exactly ... but I did make it to the other side without falling over in a dizzy fog and slamming against rocks on my way to a painful death downstream. Daniel shuttled my pack across by walking foot-over-foot across the log. I was impressed.
Daniel was pretty shattered himself but offered to carry my pack again. I fear that he may have thought he didn't have a choice because I was crying. I actually was. I realize the silliness of being so afraid — although a fall into the river likely would have been disastrous, the log crossing was not hard. The river was flowing even higher at the end of the hot day, and spray splashed against my feet and pants as I scooted across. Nothing else was stifling the panic so I focused on Beat's face and simply counted in fast breaths — one, two, three, four ... until I lost count, and started over. I wish I could do something about this fear of water, which has been a major part of my psyche ever since I was temporarily caught by a rope and trapped beneath an overturned raft on the Colorado River in 2001. I suspect I may need hypnotherapy.