Last Saturday night Jon and I had the good fortune to go to a showing of the movie The Mountain Runners. It is a film about a crazy marathon event held for a couple of years after the turn of the last century here in Bellingham. It was the crazy dream of the Mount Baker Club, a club dedicated to promoting outdoor activities. The Mount Baker Club was in its infancy in 1911, having just been formed, when they decided to hold an event that they hoped would promote tourism to Mount Baker, the 10,781 foot peak in the backyard of Bellingham. As the crow flies, Mount Baker is just over 30 miles from Bellingham. On today’s road, with switchbacks for the ascent, the distance is about 60 miles.
The film was showing at Mount Vernon’s Lincoln Theatre, which is an independent historic theatre built in 1926. It is neat to take a step back in time, and see the fully restored beauty. The Lincoln was built as a vaudeville and silent movie house with a Spanish motif. It has beautiful and simple wrought iron light fixtures and wall coverings in what’s known as a travertine finish. It makes large use of reds, yellows and blues. It’s a bit plain on the outside, but if you appreciate historic architecture and design, you won’t be disappointed by the interior!
So, back to the movie. If you are planning to watch it, stop reading now! Spoilers! Although it is a documentary about an event that occurred 100 years ago, so really, maybe you already know what happens…
So here was the plan. The Mount Baker Club would host a race, where men would depart from Bellingham, make their way to the summit of Mt. Baker and back to Bellingham, all within 24 hours. There would be two routes to choose from, one where you made the initial 44 miles (one way) of the trip by train to the small town of Glacier, and then ran the remaining portion of the trip to the summit (about 28 miles round trip on foot). Or you could opt for route two, where you were driven from Bellingham 26 miles (one way) to another small town, Deming, where you began your journey on foot to the summit from the other side of the mountain. This route’s round trip run was about 32 miles (but supposedly the trails were a little better in this direction). Once you arrived back at your vehicle (either car or train) after your run, the vehicle took you back the other way into Bellingham. The first man to arrive won. Simple right!?
Except that even in the height of summer, the highest portions of Mount Baker still have about 20 feet of snow pack. And the temperature at the summit is generally 35 degrees colder at that altitude. So, even if we are having a pleasant 70 degree day in town, it will be about 35 degrees at the top of the mountain. That’s if it isn’t storming… And these men, in their race to be the fastest, didn’t want to stop and put on mountaineering gear. Nope, they were making the summit climb in simple cleated logging boots. Yikes!
In 1911, the first year of the race, Joe Galbraith took the win with the Deming route in 12 hours and twelve minutes. But only because Harvey Haggard’s train, while speeding back to town, collided with a bull and derailed! Up until the derailment Harvey Haggard was in the lead. Newspapers of the day sensationalized the story quite a bit and announced that 3 men died in the crash, but in fact, there were only minor injuries. I think Harvey Haggard should have gotten a special prize, for continuing his journey in a horse drawn buggy, then on horseback, and then in a car. In fact his horse spooked when it saw the waiting car and stopped short, sending Harvey sailing over his front end. Even after fainting twice on the car ride back to town, Harvey Haggard still finished second. The bull didn’t fare as well. He was killed by the train wreck, and BBQ’d up by the townspeople to celebrate the race.
In 1912, Joe Galbraith was going to defend his title, but ended up breaking his arm a few weeks before the race and having to withdraw. Harvey Haggard won this time, without the high drama experience of the year before. In 1913, race organizers had come to understand that barring any train derailments, the Glacier route was faster, so they switched things up a bit. If you took the train up the mountain, you had to take the car down, and vice versa, to even the odds. But 1913 barely averted tragedy again. One of the racers, Victor Galbraith, cousin of Joe, fell into a crevasse on his way down from the summit. Miraculously, he survived the fall, but almost died of hypothermia (remember they aren’t wearing mountaineering gear) as he waited 5 hours at the bottom of the crevasse to be rescued.
After the 1913 race, organizers realized that it was only a matter of time before something went horribly wrong. There were other issues of mismanagement on the part of the race organizers too, but I won’t go into them here. The race was ended for good. Or so you thought! In 1973, the Mount Baker Marathon was reborn as the Ski to Sea Race. I’ve blogged about it here, earlier this year, when Jon participated in the running leg of the race.
It’s nice to see a local independent film make its way in the world. If you can, it is worth seeing – and if you aren’t from the area, check out the website, because it is getting some national and international viewings!