A Beautiful Bad Idea

 I was sprawled out yard-sale style on the Coleman Glacier, high on the slopes of Mt. Baker. One ski was broken. Blood was splattered across the snow. A quick check revealed a perfect circular puncture wound in my thigh from where I’d impaled myself with a broken pole. I was shocked and embarrassed. But mostly, I was crushed. Could I finish what I had started?

The mountains. They always have lessons.

We left the downtown Bellingham waterfront that morning before dawn on our bikes with skis, boots and climbing gear attached. Our goal was this: To travel—unsupported—via human-power from Bellingham Bay to the summit of Mt. Baker and back.

Wrangling gear. Photo by Matt Seeley

It was a project inspired in part by the original Mount Baker Marathon. In 1911, 19-year old logger Joe Galbraith was whisked out past Deming in a Model T where he hopped out into the darkness and ran to the summit. He returned to Bellingham 12 hours and 28 minutes later. I’d always been unable to wrap my head around the audacity and beauty of that first race. For years I had looked up at the mountain from town and wondered: how fast could you do the whole thing human-powered?

The adventure had all the ingredients I was looking for: Close to home and low impact, yet it still felt bold and uncertain. Best of all, it involved moving through the mountains I loved with friends.

Now here we were in the thick of it. 50 miles and almost 11,000 feet of elevation gain were behind us. Then, in the joyous excitement of finally skiing downhill I had gotten reckless and jeopardized it all.

I grew up in a small Montana town at the base of the Mission mountains, a beautiful untouched place. But the idyllic setting was eclipsed by childhood trauma—physical and sexual abuse —and one of my strongest early memories is of the town prosecutor pulling me into an empty courtroom to practice testifying against the abuser. It was overwhelming. My mom, seeing how I was suffering, marched us out of there with her head held high. There would be no trial. We didn’t really talk about it much after that. 

Later that winter things started to turn around for me. We didn’t have a lot, but my mom wrangled a few friends to teach me how to ski. I followed them everywhere that season, often out of control. I loved it. The next winter I shoveled sidewalks after school to fund a season pass. One day, when conditions were right, my mentor took me under the rope and we skied an out-of-bounds line that I had eyed on nearly every ride up the chairlift. On the traverse back out I felt something new stirring within: confidence. It turns out that you never really lose a day like that. It follows you around for decades, changes your trajectory. 

Later I discovered climbing. When I was 14, I stood on top of a peak a few miles out of town and looked out across the Flathead Valley and north to Glacier National Park. I had scrambled up the last pitch alone, breathless, a light wind in my face. That night I slept next to a mountain lake in my bivy. It felt like magic. 

I saved up all summer and bought a ragged little climbing rack and rope at an outdoor swap meet at the University of Montana. The college kid who sold me the gear looked worried about the fact that I was just a kid, but I didn’t care. I started getting out in the mountains every chance I got.

Trading leads at first light on the Mt. Baker Highway. Photo by Matt Seeley

The morning didn’t start well. Fifteen minutes after starting out, I got a flat tire on the outskirts of Bellingham, which I changed by headlamp. After this setback, we settled into the flow of the ride up the Mt. Baker Highway towards Glacier in the cool predawn air, trading leads and drafting in the moonlight.  Excitement ran high and our laughter drifted into the darkness.

The light-hearted mood evaporated after we turned off the highway onto the Glacier Creek Road and began climbing towards the Heliotrope Ridge Trailhead. The eight miles of cycling uphill with 20 pounds of extra gear were brutal. With the whole climb and ski left ahead, the day began to feel daunting.

Refilling water bottles on the Heliotrope Ridge Trail. Photo by Matt Seeley

At the trailhead we stashed the bikes and reconfigured our gear. The mood improved as we jogged up the trail through the woods in morning light. At the Hogsback we transitioned to skis and kept moving as quickly as we could, pausing occasionally to fill our hats with snow in the hot sun. The chemistry of our group was fantastic. We pushed each other but never took things too seriously. Conditions were good, allowing us to skin up the Roman Wall, but we were getting tired. The deep kind. Every kick turn seemed more challenging than the last as we approached the summit. Then there we were, looking out at Glacier Peak  and the full sweep of the North Cascades, just a little over eight hours after leaving downtown Bellingham. It felt surreal and we all savored the experience. Here was that magic again.

After a quick lunch break we clicked in to our skis and started ripping turns down the mountain. It felt incredible to be heading down, but the snow was getting progressively softer in the heat of the sun.

The project. It had been nearly ten years on the drawing board. I had always had an excuse. I didn’t have the right partners. I wasn’t fit enough. Conditions weren’t right. Now in my mid-forties, time was slipping away. Then this past spring things began to align just when I needed it most. 

It was a polarizing year. I finally started unpacking the trauma I had buried away for half a lifetime. Initially the vulnerability felt awkward, but it began to break things loose. I forged new friendships. I began re-examining my relationship with competition and started just getting out and moving fast in the mountains again. It felt exhilarating and empowering. Through dark times, my spirit stayed anchored to those places, those experiences. Something else was happening too. The painful childhood experiences were slowly filtering out of my body. I felt competent and free out there. 

One weekday in May I walked outside with my morning coffee to have a look at the mountain. It was perfectly clear. I called in to work, grabbed my gear, and embarked on a quick spontaneous ski up the Coleman-Deming route. It was quiet and windless on the summit and I had it all to myself. It felt spiritual in a way that I can’t describe, like something deep within was shifting.

 A few weeks later the project came together. I had known Matt Seeley for a long time, our friendship sealed while competing head-to-head in one of the early winter triathlons in Montana nearly 20 years ago. Neither of us was getting any younger. He was an incredibly accomplished athlete, but his motivation seemed completely internalized, a trait that I admired. The stars aligned. He and his brother Lane had a few free days and the forecast was excellent. They headed north to Bellingham with a van full of gear and a head for beautiful bad ideas. 

When the brothers arrived I halfheartedly suggested that we could just do a regular ski of Baker instead of the ambitious human powered plan, but they were having none of it. We got to work and spent the evening in a strange revelry of attaching gear to our bikes, testing it out by riding down the street, then re-configuring. There were a lot of laughs and a few beers. Then we set the alarm for 3:30 AM and tried to sleep.

On the summit

 

After clearing the Roman Wall on the way down I felt like I was twelve years old again. I started skiing way too fast for the light gear. My ski tip caught in some soft snow and that was it. Boom. Matt and Lane quickly caught up to the scene. There was a lot of blood but the puncture had missed any major arteries. We applied a compression dressing of gauze and duct tape and decided to work our way down to the trailhead and re-assess. I skied carefully back down to the trail on one good ski. I assumed that the guys would finish without me and I’d get a ride home from the trailhead.

I had so much emotional energy wrapped up in this adventure that I was near tears. But when I put on my running shoes, a strange thing happened: I could run. The bleeding had slowed and the pain was manageable. I loved mountain running so much and banging down the trail with two friends bouncing off rocks with skis on our backs after so much had happened that day felt so ridiculous and simply great. I started to believe again.

On the trail. Photo by Matt Seeley

At the trailhead, we loaded our bikes and started down. It was awkward with the gear weighing down the bikes, but we enjoyed a sweeping descent into Glacier. We stopped at Grahams for ice cream and Coke and sat under a tree. My stomach shut down after the crash and the lack of calories and fluids had caught up with me. I left a few minutes ahead of the guys and had a long talk with myself on the Mt. Baker Highway. I knew I could just coast all the way back to town, but I didn’t want to let the guys down. Though I had done a lot of work trying to identify why I felt such a need to push my limits in the mountains, part of me just really loved effort. Going fast still mattered.

After a few miles the brothers caught up and we started trading pulls again. It was brutally hot and multiple times we were stopped along long lines of cars for road construction. It felt like a punch to the gut after the long day, but there was nothing we could do. We got some awfully strange looks standing next to the flaggers with our bikes and gear.

Almost home. Photo by Matt Seeley

I always envisioned being a hero on this journey, riding strongly all the way back to town. It didn’t work out that way. But my friends carefully nursing me back the last 20 miles really stirred my soul. In the end, we arrived at Wayfair park and jumped in the bay. In total we cycled 90 miles, ran four, and skied nine, with a combined elevation gain of 12,700 feet. The trip took just over 14 hours. My body was destroyed. I sat down on the shady side of the Granary building and emptied the contents of my stomach a few times.

We had done it. I was proud of both the effort and the style. The connection I had with my partners and with the mountain that day is something that I won’t forget. That night, after getting my injuries properly cleaned up and absorbing some fluids, I laid down amidst a pile of gear and felt something else: Release.

And then, I slept.

A Day to Remember

 

04:00 AM: Left the Bellingham waterfront on gravel bikes loaded with skis and climbing gear.

04:15 AM: Stopped to change a flat tire in the dark just outside of town.

07:45 AM: Arrived at the Heliotrope trailhead. The 8 miles up Glacier Creek Road was one of the most challenging stretches of the day.

08:00 AM: After stashing the bikes and re-configuring gear, we started jogging up the trail.

12:35 PM: Arrived at the summit after skinning up from snowline.

12:50 PM: Started the descent on skis.

01:10 PM: Broke a ski and pole in a strange high-speed crash below the Colfax icefall.

02:30 PM: Arrived back at the trailhead and loaded up bikes. A climber gave us a bag of potato chips.

03:10 PM: Stopped for Coke and ice cream at Graham’s in Glacier and relaxed in the shade.

04:45 PM: The first of many road construction delays where we sat exhausted on the side of the road in the hot sun waiting to be released.

06:03 PM: Arrived back at the waterfront, jumped into Bellingham Bay.

Jake Hartsoch is a Bellingham-based runner, climber, skier, sailor, poet, and cookie dough aficionado. He loves dirtbag-style adventures to wild places with his two young boys and moving fast in the mountains.

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