The Perfect Race
By Willie McBride
To enter wilderness is to court risk, and risk favors the senses, enabling one to live well. —Terry Tempest Williams
My adventure on the Bailey Traverse in Olympic National Park began with disillusionment and wildfire.
As an endurance coach for athletes of all levels, it’s been unsettling to witness an increasingly comparative culture, born from social media, and how we portray our lives and accomplishments. Instead of enjoying the beauty of nature or how good it feels (or how lucky we are) to be out there, people seem more often to be lamenting how long it took them versus someone else. Folks fixate on comparing numbers when time is just one, extremely limited metric in which to measure an experience. That's the disillusionment part.
I can fall prey to it sometimes too of course, and I think it’s crazy. I mean, what are we really doing these things for?
After training all summer for a race, it was cancelled due to fire danger—that’s the wildfire part. I was left to make alternate plans so I pulled out my stack of maps to brainstorm a non-race adventure.
I remembered hearing tales of the Bailey Traverse in Olympic National Park over the years but didn’t know details, so I began digging and found an old blog post by Rainshadow Running director James Varner outlining the route. The Bailey was exactly what I was looking for: a truly wild, remote adventure that would test all facets of my outdoor expertise. I found additional information on Herb Crisler, the pioneer of the route, and a few backpackers’ trip reports, but little else. James mentioned wanting to try the route in a single push, but after contacting him he said he’d never given it a shot. To his knowledge no one ever had.
Here’s what I found: “The Bailey” is a mostly off-trail point-to-point traverse of the Bailey Range in the center of the Olympic wilderness. It requires a wide range of mountain skills—route finding, bushwhacking, sketchy 3rd class scrambling, glacier travel, and serious isolation. Wildlife is abundant.
For such a demanding challenge, I called Brian Donnelly, a truly exceptional athlete and the most well-rounded mountain traveler I know. I enlisted my friend Matt Smoot to shuttle the car from start to finish, luring him with the tease of a detour to the Olympic coast’s exceptional surf. Our plan was to begin at Sol Duc Hot Springs at 2:30 am and end on the southwest corner of the park at North Fork, some 55 miles later, estimating a best-case scenario of 20-24 hours. Having never been on the route before, the most pressing goal was to be off the major cross-country section and back on established trail by nightfall. I clung to the comfort of knowing I’d traveled 16 of our final 20 miles a couple times before, on the North Quinault-Skyline Loop.
We arrived at Sol Duc on Friday night later than hoped and threw our sleeping bags out in the grass beside the parking lot. Not even three hours later we awoke, finished packing and activated our SPOT tracker. Matt wished us well as we set off into the darkness with high fives and coyote yips of excitement. It was about 12 miles of gentle ascending along the river through lush, moss laden rainforest and up to the High Divide and the Catwalk to where the maintained trails stopped. Beyond that, for as far as our eyes could see, was a world of animals, devoid of human interruption—true freedom.
The trees thinned and we stood with ridiculous grins as the bright fire glow of sunrise lit the glacier-strewn sides of Mt. Olympus, the centerpiece of the park across the Hoh River valley from our vantage. Animal trails lead the way from there, threads of wild hoof-worn dirt navigating the features, weaving and branching at will. We were soon in full cross country mode following these primal paths, heading straight across the steep mountain face below Cat Peak for hours. We tiptoed in and out of frightening loose gullies that dropped like elevator shafts for thousands of feet, underlying the fact that this was far from any sort of “trail run.” Our paced slowed to ~1 mile an hour. I watched as Brian made climbing moves across one particularly exposed gully—his hands gripping the rock face, feet trying to find safe purchase—and then glanced up to see a pair of mountain goats surveying us from above. Their white coats and stark, coal black eyes were an arresting and appreciated sight, but we yelled warnings and tried keep our space as best we could. A man was once killed by a goat on the Bailey—a singular, freak occurrence but one we kept in mind nonetheless.
Traveling cross country changes everything. A single track trail, even in its blessed minimalism, is a constant reminder of the front country, a tether to civilization, a lifeline to safety if something goes wrong. Without it you are truly cut off, like an astronaut drifting away from their spacecraft into the great unknown. That freedom is both deeply liberating and frightening to our domesticated minds; it’s both a precious gift and a great responsibility. We knew we were committed and we weren’t turning back, though what lay ahead remained a mystery, only to be unlocked peak by peak. There were no clocks, no finishing place to consider; only the sun tracking across a perfect late-summer sky, wild blueberries as edible course-markers. A “perfect race” was making it out alive and uninjured.
We finally made it through the painstaking side-hilling of Mt. Carrie and Stephen Peak and into the Cream Lake Basin, though a mental and physical toll had been taken; we knew now just how serious an objective we’d undertaken and felt the gravity of our position with every step. After dropping into the basin we refilled water and began our climb up to the saddle between Mt. Ferry and Mt. Pulitzer—the highpoint of the route—hopping boulders and scree above turquoise lakes. Atop the saddle we basked in the view of peaks in all directions, layer upon layer, feeling our insignificance. Our route ahead was impossible to decipher at a distance, a looming, intimidating puzzle with no clear solution until we were right upon it. Because of this constant uncertainty we had to exercise faith; faith in ourselves, faith that somehow we would make it through despite the myriad difficulties and dangers. We exercised it when stepping across crevasses on the glacier near Lone Tree Pass and when jumping the moat back to the rock on the far side.
As we made our way along the range and looked down into deep, trail less valleys filled with some of the biggest trees on earth my mind drifted to Herb Crisler—the pioneer of the Bailey—and his fascinating life devoted to celebrating these wild places. How must he have felt traversing those mountains for the very first time, unlocking a route through a wild labyrinth likely no one had ever traveled before? The thought of it gave me goosebumps.
Crisler grew up in Georgia and fell in love with the Pacific Northwest during his time working in the U.S. Army Signal Corps Spruce Production Division. He relocated to Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula after that and opened a photography business there, which led him to eventually buy a newsreel camera and begin filming the wildlife he witnessed during his explorations of the little-visited park. By 1934, he’d become a full-fledged wildlife photographer and was joined by his new wife, University of Washington English professor and Seattle mountaineer Lois Brown. Together, the Crislers began tirelessly recording Olympic habitat and wildlife, often living in modest accommodations deep in the mountains, producing several films and screening them in national lectures they gave. Their most widely recognized work was a 1952 Walt Disney nature film entitled The Olympic Elk, filmed on foot in the midst of the vast wilderness.
I imagined the immense love Herb and Lois Crisler had for the park and the connection with it they cultivated over time; I felt like I was getting a taste. Brian and I paused regularly to stare in disbelief, often speechless at the scale and power of our surroundings. We pushed on as the sun lowered, breathing sighs of relief at each difficulty we overcame, hoping it would be the last. From Bear Pass it was an enjoyable cruise to Dodwell-Rixon Pass and then down the giant, tilted basin over waves of rock and scree to the narrow slice of what becomes the Elwah River. This valley often holds snow late into the season in a thin strip along (and mostly covering) the river at the bottom—the “Elwah Snow Finger”—and often times it’s the most dangerous part of the traverse. A ranger told us the snow finger was totally clear so we thought we were home free as we dropped down into the valley. We rounded a bend in the river and with distinct horror saw a 30 ft. high, 100 yard long blue-white fortress of ice guarding the valley from wall to wall.
Brian looked downright scared for a moment (a sight I’d never seen) but I quickly reassured him we’d find a way. There was a large tunnel, carved by the river that led straight through the monstrosity but the 20 ft high rubble heap of fallen ice blocks at the entrance made us decide against that option—we didn’t want to risk getting crushed if any more ice decided to part ways. Instead we climbed up steep dirt and scree up onto the behemoth of ice and then had to walk the length of it, knowing at points there was nothing but air beneath the frozen bridge.
At the far end we stepped back onto dirt with relative relief but were still kept at full attention, knowing any slip could mean disaster. Using a mix of climbing, skiing, daredevilry and parkour we made it back down to the river, feeling a weight lifted as we paused to fill our bottles in the fading light. A moment later an elk herd thundered through the forest, an earth-shaking train of flesh, bone and blood, leaving broken trees branches and churned dirt in its wake. We weren’t back to the front country yet.
The terrain continued to claw at us all the way to the trail out of the Elwah and up to Low Divide. We climbed over and through endless snags and tangled logs jams in the river bed, over huge, slick boulders, leaping rock to rock, wrestling thickening brush, slipping and twisting and sliding. I thought about risk and vulnerability, seeing the light of the SPOT tracker blink, reminding me of family and friends at home watching our progress on the computer. Those complex topics often occupy my thoughts. It can be an uncomfortable truth but I do believe, as Terry Tempest Williams puts it, risk enables us to live well. It’s just a matter of how you balance that with people who love you and want you to live long, not just well. Another quote—by Brene Brown—entered my mind as I stumbled toward delirium,. She says:
Vulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is the birthplace of…creativity, and change. It’s also the birthplace of joy, faith, and connection. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.
Brian and I were creating something, an experience, a modern day vision-quest in the form of the first non-stop traverse of the Bailey. We were focused and scared and alone, with heightened senses from the moment we’d left Matt in the dark at Sol Duc that morning. Finding and cultivating deep love and connection with another human being requires great risk and vulnerability; finding and cultivating deep love and connection with nature and in the mountains requires the same. Safety is not guaranteed, though the rewards are unequaled.
There were a few flags tied to bushes marking the beginning of the trail that would lead us out of the Elwah and back to eventual civilization. When we finally had a defined tread beneath our feet there was relief and the comfort of familiarity and perceived safety. Present too though—as always—was the unpleasant twinge of leaving those beyond-human places behind, at returning to the madness of the man-made. Part of me always wants to stay there forever.
The trail grew more defined until we were finally back on fully maintained, properly signed National Park Service trails. The single-minded, zombie-like death march then began, just 20 miles to the end where Matt would be waiting. I was fading fast and starting to fall asleep on my feet, struggling to navigate the never ending roots and rocks along the North Quinault River, while Brian charged on ahead.
We hit 24 hours and couldn’t care less, the clock was meaningless, all we knew was finishing, moving our feet over the ground until pavement appeared. We were swimming in an endless ocean of sleep depravity and constant movement, adrift in the universe of the wilderness, part of the constellations. The trail passed tents with inhabitants fast asleep, reminding us that we hadn’t seen a single human since we left Matt a day before.
Then it was done, and like a dream Brian and I stood beside each other looking at the fogged windows of my white Toyota Forerunner, with Matt asleep inside, curled up next to his surfboard. The exhausted, elated relief of survival and accomplishment washed over our beaten bodies; that was our finish line prize. Our traverse was measured based on the risks we took, the wild and deep vulnerability we felt because of them, the feelings of living well, and the connection with a good friend.
The light on the SPOT tracker blinked its last blinks before we shut it off, threw our sleeping bags onto the earth, and crawled in.
When Brian and I talk about our experience on the Bailey now, there is an unspoken knowledge and understanding between us. We can reminisce about how gnarly and difficult and remote it was, talk about the beauty of the scenery, the animals, but those are just the obvious details. We felt something different out there that neither of us had before, in our bones, something nearly impossible to put words to.
I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.