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Northwest ski mountaineers tackle new Mount Baker glacier race

By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times
Published: June 9, 2024, 6:02am

MT. BAKER NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, Whatcom County — The lead skiers zipped down the Easton Glacier to a checkpoint with only handkerchief-sized red flags flapping in the stiff alpine breeze to guide them. Attached to fiberglass wands and stationed at 30-foot intervals, the course markers were among the only artificial elements at the first-ever Kulshan Randonnée, a ski mountaineering (or “skimo”) race on the flanks of Mount Baker — the latest in a legacy of adventure races on Washington’s northernmost volcano.

This unique-in-North America competition, only the third of its kind in the world, drew 21 teams of three to a remote trailhead May 18 for a chance to race far outside the controlled confines of a ski resort. While professional mountain guides and seasoned backcountry skiers and climbers made diligent safety preparations, there were no chairlifts or gondolas, no patrol huts, no snowmobiles and no marked obstacles. From crevasses to cliffs to creeks, competitors had to be self-sufficient as they crisscrossed 15 miles and 6,800 vertical feet, up and down, as fast as they could.

The racers included many passionate recreationists who relished the chance to push themselves in a competitive setting, but also a handful of amateur athletes hoping to represent the U.S. or Canada at the 2026 Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, where ski mountaineering will make its Olympic debut.

The path to the Olympics, it turns out, runs through a muddy, potholed forest road 19 miles outside of Concrete, Skagit County.

A century of Baker races

For the uninitiated, ski mountaineering consists of climbing mountains and skiing down them.

Ski mountaineers do most of their climbing on alpine touring skis, which have an adjustable binding that allows for a free heel on the way up, like a cross-country ski, and a locked heel on the way down, like an alpine ski.

For the uphill, they affix climbing skins with glue on one side and mohair or nylon on the other, providing traction to ascend moderately pitched slopes. When the mountain gets too steep for skinning, ski mountaineers attach skis to their packs and climb on foot like a mountaineer, often with crampons and ice axes.

The mountain discipline itself is nothing new in Washington — Cascades climbers have incorporated skis into their repertoire for a century. As a modern competitive sport, though, skimo racing is still nascent in the Northwest. Large races draw hundreds of competitors during winter in Colorado and Utah — and Europe boasts a World Cup circuit where thousands of fans turn out — but the PNW’s penchant for deep powder has historically been less enthusiastic about spandex and skinny skis.

That’s slowly been changing, especially since 2018, when ultrarunner Richard Kresser started SnowGoat Skimo as an umbrella for skimo races in Washington and Oregon. All along, he has dreamed of organizing a race on a glaciated Cascades volcano, the region’s defining mountain feature — something you won’t find in the Alps or the Rockies. (There are two other official glaciated team skimo races, one each in Italy and Switzerland.)

“This race has been a work in progress for the past six years,” Kresser said. “It’s the reason I started SnowGoat Skimo in the first place — to create an endurance backcountry ski mountaineering competition more akin to a 50K trail race, a true adventure.”

Racing on Koma Kulshan, as the mountain is known to the Coast Salish, has a considerable pedigree. From 1911 to 1913, the Mt. Baker Marathon pitted racers on an open course — get from Bellingham to the summit and back by whatever means necessary (essentially, either by car or train to the mountain, then on foot up and back down). The third and final iteration nearly ended in disaster when a competitor spent five hours trapped in a 40-foot crevasse due to bad weather and poor course management.

The race was deemed too dangerous to repeat, though its spirit inspired the more genteel Ski to Sea Race (launched in 1973), which starts at the Mt. Baker Ski Area rather than venturing high onto the untamed mountain. But more than a century after the demise of the marathon, a hearty group of Bellingham ultraunners sought to resurrect the fabled race.

In 2017, the Mount Baker Ultramarathon was born — 50 miles out and back from Concrete to the summit of Sherman Peak, a subpeak of Mount Baker at 10,160 feet. Kresser served as the race’s mountain director during its four successful iterations — no racers fell into crevasses — and oversaw the installation, operation and deconstruction of some 2 miles of fixed lines to the Sherman summit. Competitors clipped their harnesses to these ropes anchored in the snow to allow safe passage up and down the race’s highest reaches. The experience gave Kresser the confidence to continue the lineage of wild races on Mount Baker.

“So Cascadian”

The first Kulshan Randonnée should have been last year. A string of bad weather scuttled that plan, which meant some racers had been waiting a year for their chance.

Even then, an incoming May storm compelled Kresser and his team, which included course designer and certified guide Phil Straub, to adjust on the fly and set a foul weather course lower on the mountain that topped out at 6,900 feet in elevation. Competitors glided through snow flurries in the alpine, and at times the course experienced near-whiteout conditions. Mount Baker’s summit never came into view, but Kresser’s ambition is for the race to eventually scale as high as Sherman Peak, weather permitting.

Clouds and drizzle didn’t dampen spirits in Concrete, an 800-person hamlet along the North Cascades Highway, as a parade of campervans rolled into town the day before the race. They were carrying teams from British Columbia, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Modern safety protocols mean that a race of this adventure quotient requires participants to pass a skills assessment: Competitors donned harnesses in a gravel parking lot to demonstrate their competence at roping up for glacier travel and rigging a haul system with ropes and anchors to pull a victim out of a crevasse.

On race day, dozens of vehicles caravanned up a winding forest road until mud gave way to snow. Shortly after 8 a.m., a range of spry 20-something athletes and seasoned, over-the-hill backcountry enthusiasts assembled in harnesses and helmets. Wearing packs laden with ice axes, climbing ropes, carabiners, ice screws and ascender devices, they clipped into their skis and waited for the starting gun — a Frankenstein half-ski, half-chainsaw wielded by Kresser.

By the time the 63 racers set off, 20 volunteers had already climbed high on the mountain — most had gone up the night before and camped — to erect tents and staff checkpoints. A mix of guides from Cascade Mountain Ascents, local mountaineers and trail runners familiar with the crewing culture of ultraraces, they melted snow to wash down the 10 pounds of food they had carried up for the racers. They hauled some 1,400 wands and flags to mark the course.

But climbing glaciers to reach ridgetop checkpoints required another Northwest rite of passage for the racers: the approach. Nearly every spring journey into the alpine requires thrashing through slide alder and pushing back evergreen boughs. The Kulshan Randonnée was no different, with slushy trails, muddy patches and creek crossings that required taking off skis and fording a raging torrent where a misstep could mean sopping-wet feet.

“The whole thing is so Cascadian,” said Wallingford resident Brad Lipovsky (team name: Last Minute Locomotives), a University of Washington glaciologist who credited the challenging course for keeping his mind entirely off glacier science for the first time while on a glacier.

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For the out-of-towners, it was an introduction to the pleasures and perils of ski mountaineering in the Cascades. For the local competitors, the drizzly bushwhacking followed by superb glacier skiing was just another spring day in the mountains.

Olympic dreams

A swift trio from lower mainland B.C. (team name: The Bad Dogs) made quick work of the course in a blistering 2 hours, 59 minutes and 20 seconds. Peter Nowicki, Akio Kato and Jessie McAuley averaged 5 mph on skis while carrying packs, most of it uphill. All three are members of the Canadian national ski mountaineering team with Olympic aspirations.

The course’s fastest women — Alyssa Wendt, Christina Volken and Emmiliese von Avis (team name: Chix on Skinny Stix) — finished in 3 hours, 59 minutes and 17 seconds. Bozeman, Montana-based von Avis is likewise an Olympic hopeful currently on the U.S. national team.

At the finish line — a collection of pop-up tents and fire pits in the middle of a forest — the 100-odd racers, volunteers, family and friends sipped Kulshan Brewing beers and noshed on canned chili cooked over a camping stove.

The scene was a marked contrast for the elite racers who spend much of the winter competing on the World Cup circuit.

Races there are marquee events for mountain towns in the Alps and Pyrenees, bringing cheering crowds, camera crews and athlete entourages. With the sport’s history in military mountain maneuvers, the most prestigious ski mountaineering race is organized by the Swiss army, not a motley crew of volunteers and a race director who arrives in the back seat of a Subaru Forrester.

What’s more, skimo’s Olympic debut will be highly contrived — a series of sprints and relays on a short course of just 262 vertical feet. Races will be over in three to eight minutes. TV-friendly, but a far cry from a grueling competition across a wild, untamed volcano where hazards lurk.

“This type of event is the heart of skimo,” von Avis said of the inaugural Kulshan Randonnée. “The origins of the sport are very much about being in the big mountains as a team.”