The Toughest Race You've Never Heard Of - Page 3
Joe Galbraith, winner of the first Mount Baker Marathon, and his driver, Hugh Diehl, with "Betsy," Diehl's Model T. Photo courtesy of GOA To It Films/Whatcom Museum Photo Archives.
Into the Tempest
The next year, the Mount Baker Club increased the purse to $500, a chunk of change in 1912. When race day arrived, thousands of excited onlookers, including the governor, filled Bellingham’s streets.
On the mountain, though, things were less festive. A storm was raging, snow was blowing sideways and visibility was practically zero. The judges that had been sent to the summit turned back, barely able to descend to timberline. Some of them were hypothermic. One, Nathan Davis, intent on stopping the race, arrived in Bellingham just a few hours before the starting gun was to be fired. Davis told the race organizers that to “start men up the mountain on the Deming Trail would be to send them to their deaths, or at least to face hardships that could not be withstood.”
New President of the Mount Baker Club, Henry Engberg, was furious, but agreed to postpone the race for a week. He warned, however, that no matter what the conditions were then, the race would go on.
And so it did. Paul Westerlund, a marathon runner from San Francisco, was the first to reach the summit. But he was nearly delirious. His clothes were literally frozen to his body. He’d become disoriented on the glacier and had fallen, breaking a rib. The judges gave him a warm drink before sending him back down.
Harvey Haggard and several others passed him. Ultimately, Haggard finished first, shaving over two and a half hours off of Joe Galbraith’s time from the preceding year. Despite the delayed start, the Mount Baker Club leaders agreed, the second Marathon had been a success. The Herald, as usual not prone to understatement, reported, “This year’s marathon will go down in history as one of the greatest athletic feats the world has ever seen.”
The next year’s race-day weather was again miserable. The judges descended from the summit on the Deming Route and, using specially strung telephone lines, called down to the race officials in Bellingham, telling them to postpone the race due to the perilous conditions. On their way down through the woods they were astonished to encounter runners heading up the trail.
Race officials had ignored their advice and decided to start the race anyway. The alarmed judges advised the racers not to attempt the summit—certain death, they said. When the runners refused to be dissuaded, race judge Nathan Davis offered a compromise and instructed then to go over the high saddle beneath the Roman Wall instead. Confusion ensued. Only the runners on the Deming route received the judge’s warning. The runners on the Glacier Trail pushed on for the summit, into the teeth of the storm.
Descending the Deming Glacier in whiteout conditions, Victor Galbraith (Joe’s cousin) broke through the fresh snow, falling 40 feet into a crevasse. Only a small ledge kept him from dropping to his death. Miraculously, after five hours on the ice ledge, he was rescued by his cousin Joe and eventually carried down the mountain on a stretcher. Another contestant, Jimmie Hayes from Boston, also fell into a crevasse but was able to claw his way out.
The race ended in chaos, confusion and recrimination. Westerlund (who had gone only to the saddle) and Johnny Magnusson (who had reached the summit) were declared co-winners but neither was happy about sharing the victory (and the purse).
Even the most gung-ho civic boosters had to admit that it was only a matter of time until someone died on the mountain. After three years, the Mount Baker Marathon died.
A scene from the filming of The Mountain Runners. Courtesy of GOA To It Films.
The Mountain Runners
Todd Warger, a historian living in Bellingham, discovered a passion for filmmaking in mid-life. His first film, Shipyard, a documentary about the Bellingham shipyards of the World War II era, was well received, screening at film festivals around the country and winning several awards.
In the spring of 2009, he was looking for a new project. He had long been fascinated with the incredible story of the Mount Baker Marathon. A runner himself, Warger was convinced it had all the ingredients to make an excellent documentary. He decided that for the film to work, he would need to stage accurate re-enactments of some of the pivotal moments of the Marathon, including the scenes that unfolded near the top of the mountain.
“We needed to be able to film from airplanes and helicopters and shoot runners on the glaciers of Mount Baker,” Warger says. “We also needed a train and automobiles from 1911. Logistically, it was overwhelming.”
Despite a meager budget, Warger plunged ahead. He was determined, and he had an elevator speech that intrigued people. The story of the Mount Baker Marathon was truly stranger than fiction, Warger told anyone that would listen, and had all the elements of a great movie: death-defying adventure, political intrigue, heroism and tragedy. Set in a volatile time in the history of the Great Northwest, the race was run during a period when the frontier days were passing into memory and a new age was dawning; an age of machines and encroaching civilization.