My reason for the ride, was to take another step towards returning to a level of fitness that I “useta” have, but have not enjoyed for the last couple of decades or so. My aim was to use riding the Tour de Whatcom(TDW) as an annual fitness goal, but when my wife shared a Facebook thing about this ride up to Artist Point, I signed up immediately.
It was what I would consider grueling, but not too grueling, just enough grueling to get that satisfaction of the accomplishment, but not so grueling that I would never do it again. In fact, I am thinking that the Tour de Whatcom and this Mt. Baker Hill Climb could make a nice matched set each year.
The Mt. Baker Hill Climb is described as, Ascend 4,098 feet from Chair 9 in Glacier to Artist’s Point (5,140 feet elevation) in approximately 22 miles. The Mt. Baker Highway (SR542) is one of the most scenic paved roads in the world and rarely is the highway closed to motorized vehicles from Glacier to Artist Point. With steep elevation and several switchbacks, this ride is not for the faint of heart but the views are stunning.
Whatcom Events picked up the Mt. Baker Hill Climb after it had been abandon by previous organizers in 2013. I can’t imagine the time and effort that they put into logistics and planning needed to pull this event off. Having never done the ride before, I didn’t know what to expect, but finished the up and down without incident or too much confusion. The only confusion came in trying to coordinate with my wife about picking me up at Heather Meadows. Between the two of us I think we heard that she would be allowed on the uphill side of the road beginning at 10:30am, 11:00am and 12:00am, but when I arrived back at Glacier around 11:30am she was still parked in a lineup of cars who thought they’d be on their way up by then. No harm, no foul, just a bit of confusion. Next time we will know, but next time it might be good for planners and event workers to all be on the same page, as well as getting that page out to riders in writing. A solid locked down and up road schedule would have helped us plan better, it’s tough to wing it when cell service is mostly nil. Still amazed with the whole thing they put together, especially the closed road.
Going into this ride I had no experience whatsoever riding up to Artist Point. I’ve driven there several times and knew it was a lot of uphill. I’ve passed cyclists from time to time and figured they must be some sort of super athletic masochist type people. Who knows, maybe they were, but maybe so was I now? My real reason was not some sort of pleasure from pain deal, my reason was fitness and another experience.
The ride itself started in Glacier near the Chair 9 restaurant. My wife got up with me a couple of hours before dawn so that we could arrive at the start line, an hours drive from home, by 6:30am. They started us non-turbo racer types early so we would have the best chance of huffing and puffing our way to the top before they closed the course at noon. We were all let go a few minutes after 7:00am. The first section of the ride is ~12 miles and follows the North Fork Nooksack up the river valley to where you cross the river to head in earnest up to Heather Meadows. You do steadily gain about 1000 feet of elevation in this first section along the river, but it never feels steep, and it even has a couple of flat or down hill spots, but not more than a couple. The first section is a good warm up.
There is a rest area with snacks and a restroom just after crossing the river and just before the climb gets serious. It also happened, that it is where the freshly chip sealed section of road began. If there were one thing that I could say made this ride more unpleasant than all the uphill riding, it would be that fresh chip seal. The chip sealed road was oily, smelly, extremely rough and 8 miles in length, just in the section where I really started going slowly and breathing “hardly.” Nothing quite like the nauseating smell of fresh asphalt. But enough complaining, I made it to Heather Meadows and the end of the chip seal. I did realize in this section, that others had a gearing advantage over me. I’ve got a triple chainring up front, but my rear cassette is super road small, so I spent almost the entire second half of the ride in my bottom gear. I noticed others traveling at about the same speed as I, were spinning a bit faster and some even had one more gear to help them through the steepest part of the switchbacks. I made a mental note to come up with a bit larger rear cassette, if I ride this same bike next year.
I can’t tell you how good it felt to pedal past The Firs and past the Picture Lake area. It wasn’t that the chip seal was gone, or that Heather Meadows is particularly flat, because it isn’t. Reaching this point felt good because it meant that there was just the last steep push up to Artist Point left to ride. And it also felt good because at this point I was riding alpine, so without the forest, I could see everything ahead of me nearly up to the finish line, still some 3 miles away. Alpine also meant that everywhere I looked, there was another amazing view.
On up to Artist Point was steep, but not as steep as I was thinking it might be, pretty much seemed the same steepness as the section from the valley up to Heather Meadows. Other riders had also said it was steeper, like I was thinking it was, who knows? Maybe it was steeper, or perhaps the lack of chip seal and the addition of panoramic mountain views made it not seem so bad? So I just kept slowly pedaling and eventually got there, rode through the finish line, took a couple of pictures, put on my jacket, switched to my long finger gloves and headed straight back down because I was sweaty and it was cold and windy up there.
Adventures are never fun while you’re having them.
The ride down to the ski area and by Picture lake was amazing, nice roads, great view and effortless. Then there was the chip seal, 8 miles of the roughest “paved” road that I think I’ve ever ridden. Ride it slow and it was bone jarring, ride it fast and your hands and feet were buzzed into numbness almost immediately. My road bike’s rearview mirror had remained affixed to this bike for hundreds and hundreds of miles but lasted only a few minutes before being ejected. A little further along I stopped to check my bike for anything else that might be shaking loose, luckily nothing had. I eventually reached the valley floor and left the chip seal behind, but I did notice more people had stopped for repairs in that one downhill section than in the whole rest of the ride. Hopefully they were safe. The last 10 or so miles along the river were pretty sweet. Smooth roads, mostly long gentle downhills, cool shady, smelled like trees, not asphalt. I had already figured out what gear upgrades I’d need for 2019 by the time I reached Glacier, where my wife was still patiently waiting for the road to open, so she could drive up and get me.