The Last Man Up
February 21, 2013 6:13 PM   Subscribe

"Like a lot of things in Alaska, the annual Mount Marathon Race in Seward is famously brutal, even dangerous. Which is precisely why Michael LeMaitre ran it--the last day he was seen alive."
posted by vidur (32 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
My husband is a marathoner, and we talked about this article the other day, along with the hypothermia article linked on Mefi a few weeks ago. How do you know when to stop, and when to keep pushing? In hindsight, there are lots of points where the wrong decision was made. But this story could just as easily have been a cool story of overcoming adversity if he had walked down the mountain. My husband was cross country skiing this winter, took a wrong turn, and ended up lost for an extra hour and a half up in the mountains of Colorado. He was concerned about getting too exhausted and too cold, but luckily found his way home. It shook him a little at the time, but now he feels like it was always all right. It's really hard to judge.
posted by Malla at 6:31 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


In 1987 I attended the first "Iditabike," 200 miles of mountain biking in the snow on the Iditarod Trail. The motto of the race, expressed in a bumper sticker now on my wall was, "Only the brave and strong will show, and still might die."
posted by Repack Rider at 6:35 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


[...] But at the same time, there’s still a frontier attitude, and the elbow room to go with it; you can have all the rope you want to lasso your big dreams and adventures—or all you need to hang yourself. The lesson: Don’t look to anyone else for help when the grizzly charges and the rifle jams. You made your bet against this country. It’s your fault if you come up short.

There’s a brutal fairness to this sentiment, but I left these conversations feeling that it’s too easy to write off Michael LeMaitre as careless, reckless. How many of us have had near-misses—the somersault over the handlebars 10 miles from the trailhead, or the mini avalanche deep in the backcountry—and then laughed about those epics around the campfire later on when all was well? Have you ever thought how close you’ve come to disaster? We all have a strange friendship with risk. We crave its thrill—who doesn’t want to edge a little closer to the red line where the adrenal gland squeezes and the colors grow brighter? Yet we rarely understand how close we’ve skirted that line, or what’s on the other side. Accidents? Those happen to the other guy. Nobody ever laces up his shoes thinking he’ll lead off the Ten O’Clock News.
This is a very well-written article about a pretty terrible thing, and I think the author really hits the main thrust of it here. Thanks.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 7:08 PM on February 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


This writing style IS very good, isn't it? Sinewy sentences, every one of them. And, yep, I'm not a huge risk taker but I've certainly had those endos miles from the trailhead riding on my own. There but for the grace of God etc.
posted by unSane at 7:32 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


“The only way you’ll ever make the Mount Marathon Race safe,” Foldager told me, before finishing his beer, “is by not doing it.”

Indeed. And why anyone would do that to their family, their friends, themselves, it's just beyond me. There's acceptable risk, and there's nuttiness. Running up an unfamiliar mountain, in a location famed for extreme weather, by yourself, with no helpers on the course, and no E-PIRB or anything like that. Jesus.

Must be something in the blood. I love my life too much for that; you can get 99% of the thrills with 1% of the risk.
posted by smoke at 7:34 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah.... great read. As a guy who's done a lot of crazy races -- and, I might add, fell off a cliff while running and dislocated my shoulder -- there was a ton I could relate to in this piece. (It didn't stop me from descending the Grand Canyon at top speed solo in the middle of the night a year later... I'd recommend against doing that, but holy shit it's awesome.)

I know a lot of people who can never understand this scene, but it's all about the adventure. There's really no good reason to do any of this stuff... except... well... just a sublime sense of the ridiculousness and the thrill of it all. Sure, you can go through life avoiding danger, never really challenging yourself. I guess most people do that. But for some of us, just sitting on the couch watching TV is just never going to cut it.

Also... once you survive a bunch of these things, it does tend to shift your sense of what's really risky. Up until that moment where I was like, "Holy shit... I'm really hurt!" it never even occurred to me that I'd actually been in danger.

Anyway... I feel for his family and his friends -- it sucks to lose someone like that, especially without any closure. I bet that guy died happy though.
posted by ph00dz at 7:51 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I bet that guy died happy though.

I hope so.

My dad got knocked overboard and drowned in a squall while crewing for an informal sailboat racing league up in Port Angeles. He'd always loved sailing, since I was a kid, but he didn't get to do it much until he retired. After that he was always out, no matter what the weather, whenever any of the old farts at the marina went racing. I can't get too worked up about his "horrible, preventable death," because really, should I prefer that he got fat and senile watching TV until he died of Alzheimer's or something?

I ride motorcycles, long distance and alone when I can, and although I hope to live and ride forever, if I gotta go, I'd rather it be after a long day on a bike, than at my comfy desk while I'm working on the Grübenschlitz contract.

YMMV.
posted by spacewrench at 8:20 PM on February 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Sure, you can go through life avoiding danger, never really challenging yourself. I guess most people do that. But for some of us, just sitting on the couch watching TV is just never going to cut it.

Weee-ell, I think that's a big of a false dichotomy, innit though? E.G Rock climbing is relatively safe if you take the steps to make it safe; free-climbing less so. &tc

I think the article does a little bit of this, too, but risk is not a binary; it's a continuum, small things (e.g running race by yourself) can result in significant shifts along the continuum. I think the problem is that - as humans - our risk assessment skills are often not very good and greatly subject to circumstance and cognitive bias, so that we tend to add up risk factors in an almost metric fashion, when in reality they are discrete - if we are aware of them at all, that is.

I challenge myself every day; danger does not come into it.
posted by smoke at 8:25 PM on February 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


People tend to cite rock-climbing as a risk metric, but it's not a great one because actually the risk mitigation is quite strong.

I do a lot of snowboarding and mountain biking. I'm a very risk averse person, but it's quite hard to do these activiities without exposure to pretty substantial risk. I broke my leg really badly 2 years ago just getting off a chair lift when a kid fell in front of me; a few weeks later I wrecked my wrist downhill mountain biking. I have a couple of friends who've broken their necks mountain biking on less than extreme trails.

One of the great ironies of both these activities is that the most serious injuries tend to happen at low speed... the 'parking lot' injury... either because you're not really watching what you're doing, or because you've slowed down to take something difficult. On a snowboard, the hardest crashes tend to come from catching an edge at relatively low speed on the flats. So risk is not always what it seems to be.

I've ridden in Utah and there are many MTB trails around Moab where you simply can't mitigate the risk down to anything close to zero. Yet hundreds of people ride them every day, and (for example) once you set off down the Whole Enchilada you better be prepared to get to the bottom of it because turning around really is not going to be an option.

You owe it to yourself to be properly prepared and let people know where you're going and all that. I'm renowned as the guy who has a whole extra bike in his camelback, and who carries twice as much water as he needs. Mostly for other people. But none of that guarantees you're going to be OK.

Reading about this race, it sounds hellish but not massively different from things that I've done. And I do consider myself very risk averse.
posted by unSane at 9:05 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]



I do a lot of snowboarding and mountain biking. I'm a very risk averse person, but it's quite hard to do these activiities without exposure to pretty substantial risk.


Exactly, perceived risk vs actual risk. Running - like hiking - suffers I think from low risk perception, coupled with very low barriers to entry (unlike, rock climbing, and to a lesser degree MTB).


Reading about this race, it sounds hellish but not massively different from things that I've done.

Oh me, too, but then again I'm not a 65 year old man with no experience in that area/wilderness, etc etc.

But also, since I coupled up, and especially since I had kids, I'm fair more cautious about things I didn't concern myself too much over before/
posted by smoke at 9:28 PM on February 21, 2013


People tend to cite rock-climbing as a risk metric, but it's not a great one because actually the risk mitigation is quite strong.

Yes, the misconceptions about safety in climbing somewhat baffle me. There are high-risk climbers obviously (free solo? have fun with that), but it can be and usually is incredibly safe as a sport provided you know what you're doing and are vigilant about your anchors/knots/gear/etc.

Once while climbing in a local park we actually had a group of kids wander up and ask us why we did it because it was so dangerous. One of them said he wanted to watch to see if we were going to die. This was when we were top-roping. I only managed to inform them that that's what the rope is for--to keep you from falling--before their parents came along and ushered them away.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 9:36 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


A Facebook friend is a mountaineer and alpine guide in Japan. He recently went on a hike on a low peak (800 meters) and nearly died. It started to snow, they wandered off the trail and got lost (GPS maps are apparently hard to come by in Japan), and got tired and cold, and made bad decisions that continually compounded their problems.

He eventually fell over a cliff trying to retrieve a flashlight, and lost his gloves in the snow. They somehow made it off the mountain by 11pm at night.

Unbelievable, really. But it makes you think that it was the first mistake that set everything else in motion.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:38 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, running, totally. I'm not a huge runner but I do like to trail run around my house and it's not hugely less risky than mountainbiking on the trails I run. And, OK, you can run on the road, but the options from my place are (a) a busy county road with yahoos whipping past you at 100 km/h with a beer in hand after work or (b) the dirt road down into the valley, which is a 600' descent and 600' climb in about a 8km round trip. Which is fine but your heart better be in pretty good shape on the way back up!
posted by unSane at 9:38 PM on February 21, 2013


you can go through life avoiding danger, never really challenging yourself.

Um, no. That's a false choice right there, although I think it's a fairly common justification for doing dumb things. Not that I don't think it's anyone's right to do dumb things (or, for that matter, explicitly fatal things, if that's up their alley), but it's annoying when people equate "challege" with "danger" as though the two are inseparable and anyone who isn't flirting with danger is basically just flattening their ass on the couch.

One can have danger without challenge — a perfect example would be any 'close call' where you don't realize the risk you just put yourself in until it has passed — but also challenge without danger — e.g. most sports where the greatest risk is in the drive there. Sometimes, the real challenge is in finding a way of raising the difficulty level to create something sporting without raising the risk.

There is a certain type of person who seem unable to appreciate challenge without some sort of external, existential threat to themselves. To me this has always demonstrated a certain lack of imagination: it's like someone who is unable to run without an actual, live tiger chasing them. But to each their own; as long as those people kill themselves without too much mess, that's their prerogative. But I don't think it's the rest of us who can run without the hungry kitty behind us that are somehow weird.

That said, some activities are just inherently risky, but worth it for some aspect of the experience. There's something to be said for hitting terminal velocity in free-fall; that's not something that you can experience without leaving the ground, and some risk is necessarily involved. But for most people who do it, the risk isn't the goal, the risk is something to be minimized on the way there. (And recreational skydiving isn't even particularly dangerous, statistically. But that's because of really good risk mitigation and equipment; done sloppily it's probably ~100% fatal.)

Yes, the misconceptions about safety in climbing somewhat baffle me.

I've heard anecdotally that in the UK, where they keep good statistics on this sort of thing, the most dangerous sport you can participate in is salmon fishing.* People get their feet knocked out from under them in fast-moving water, get slammed around on rocks, and drown. It's not thought of as particularly dangerous, so nobody takes steps to mitigate the risks, and thus it actually becomes a source of fatalities; other sports that are recognized as dangerous, like rock climbing, are safe because of near-universally-used safety equipment.

* In fairness, sources seem to disagree on whether fishing is really "most dangerous," and it seems to depend on whether you're looking at total fatalities or trying to divide fatalities by number of participants or participant-hours or something, which is difficult.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:17 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've heard anecdotally that in the UK, where they keep good statistics on this sort of thing, the most dangerous sport you can participate in is salmon fishing.*

Rock-fishing is considered one of, if not the most deadly sports here in Australia. Averages about 10 deaths a year - which is staggering when you consider how many people participate in the sport, and compare against others.
posted by smoke at 10:43 PM on February 21, 2013


Accidents? Those happen to the other guy.

Eh, I don't think most athletes have that attitude. Just people who write about athletes maybe.

I participate in a couple of fairly high risk sports and I know damn well that accidents can happen to me because they do so pretty regularly. I think the participants in statistically "safe" sports with low frequency- high consequence errors and accidents where you tend to be fine till you're dead (like say backcountry skiing, wilderness running or climbing) might have that attitude but not people in statistically high injury sports like horseback riding, halfpipe or skateboarding. Because after your fourth or fifth concussion or the third time you break a bone in one year you kind of internalize that accidents happen and that you should be really careful but it's also somewhat out of your hands. And that's quite freeing in a way.

I think surfing is the ultimate way to learn this. almost every attempt ends in a fall eventually and you mentally learn to deal with it and not let it throw you for a loop. I can see how a runner wouldn't be as mentally prepared for a plan to go sideways so this is probably applicable to a lot of readers, but not all athletes are out there with that "I am invincible!!" attitude that Jon Krakauer and his ilk want so badly to ascribe to them.
posted by fshgrl at 11:57 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find myself most appalled at the timekeeper who left the course knowing the guy was still running - and didn't event know that he was there until he saw him. A couple of minor changes like counting the runners as they go past could surely be introduced without making all the runners feel wrapped in cotton-wool.
posted by jacalata at 12:00 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


And why anyone would do that to their family, their friends, themselves, it's just beyond me.

As one of those people who puts herself in risky situations as a lifestyle choice, I sometimes wonder why people choose more socially-acceptable lifestyle choices like high-stress careers, saddling themselves with big mortgages and horrible commutes, and other stressors that contribute to reduced quality of life, and too often, shortened/compromised lifespans. Are they not being unfair to their loved ones as well?
posted by nacho fries at 12:57 AM on February 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I find myself most appalled at the timekeeper who left the course knowing the guy was still running - and didn't event know that he was there until he saw him.

Yes, I thought the officials' defenses were very weak. Understand it's an amateur event with a "wild" kind of feel to it, but they have medical teams on standby - seems like an egregious error - well, well outside the norm for virtually any event I've ran in, or heard of.


Are they not being unfair to their loved ones as well?

When someone posts an article about them, I look forward to discussing it.
posted by smoke at 2:08 AM on February 22, 2013


I find myself most appalled at the timekeeper who left the course knowing the guy was still running

This surprised me too. Here's a guy who's seen what racing this course can do to people, right? And he leaves while someone is still on the course! But I wonder how much his familiarity with the course, and the people who run it, and the fact that no one had ever just flat-out disappeared on it before, made him underestimate the risk.

Every year around here someone has to be rescued - or their body recovered - because they climbed (scrambled) just a little way on one of the pretty low bluffs or cliffs at Rodeo Beach in Marin or Fort Funston and discovered too late that the rock is really incompetent and will crumble under you if you look at it funny. I'm not a climber at all, but I'd feel safer roped in a thousand feet up at El Cap than I would standing at bluff's edge at fort Funston.

Of course, I'm going to drive 30 miles to work today and then 30 miles back home again, and that's riskier than an awful lot of "crazy sport!" things that people do. Fingers crossed.
posted by rtha at 6:11 AM on February 22, 2013


Mount Marathon—a great green pyramid, fat at the base and tapering with geometric precision for 3,022 feet to a rocky point. (Out of sight it climbs more than 1,500 feet higher.)

I don't quite get this. If the mountain gets significantly higher, how can that not be seen?
posted by Chrysostom at 9:43 AM on February 22, 2013


If you enjoy this story and the other anecdotes in the thread, I highly recommend y'all find a copy of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. It is a good mix of adventure writing and (somewhat simplified) psychological or cognitive science links to why events unfolded the way they did. A lot of the things above could have been ripped word for word from the book:
- a series of mistakes, starting with the first one
- how can you do this to your family/loved ones/yourself?
- the parking lot incident is the one where you get seriously hurt
- whether to live a life "without risk"
Definitely worth reading. If you need to make it more atmospheric you can do as I did and read it on the treadmill!
posted by whatzit at 9:48 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't quite get this. If the mountain gets significantly higher, how can that not be seen?


Google 'false summit'. If you're standing right in front of a six foot wall you may not see the seven foot wall behind it.
posted by unSane at 10:01 AM on February 22, 2013


the fact that no one had ever just flat-out disappeared on it before, made him underestimate the risk.

well, true, but people had been impaled by branches, fallen off cliffs, broken a leg, gotten concussed or even just sprained an ankle - any of which would have caused the guy to lie out in the cold getting hypothermia until his family realised he wasn't coming down and organised a search team.

I firmly believe that if it's too much trouble for the race officials to stay on the course until the last runner is finished, they shouldn't be charging anyone an entry fee. (Do they have any kind of race insurance? I'm surprised there's no requirement for adequate race control in that).
posted by jacalata at 10:27 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, I get that, it's just that it's more like a six foot wall with a nine foot wall behind it (3,022 ft false summit, more than 1,500 more for the real one). It's seems like that would be hard not to see, and the online pictures of the mountain don't make it very clear.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:27 AM on February 22, 2013


On Google Images there are several pictures that show an extremely steep, almost cliff-like slope rising out of the town. If the second peak is a ways behind I can easily see how it could hide it.
posted by unSane at 11:49 AM on February 22, 2013


It's the race aspect of this that I'm having trouble with: Sacrificing safety for the sake of speed. Mentioned in the article, but not pictured, is Penny Assman's dramatic and near-lethal encounter with how that can go oh-so-wrong. My guess would be that LeMaitre tried to make up some time on the descent and quite literally ran into trouble.

Chysostom, this picture shows you Mt. Marathon with the town of Seward at its base. The true summit in the background wouldn't be visible from the center of town, only the pyramid tip of the false summit.
posted by zueod at 12:11 PM on February 22, 2013


I firmly believe that if it's too much trouble for the race officials to stay on the course until the last runner is finished, they shouldn't be charging anyone an entry fee.

Agreed. Among other things, it creates a false sense of security among the race participants. A person solo'ing the course might approach the endeavor with a more heightened awareness of self and environment. (I've noticed in myself an unfortunate tendency to relax my vigilance and head-checking when I'm in organized group events vs. when I'm out alone in the wilds.)

My family used to help organize wilderness extreme sports events (before such things became a thing), and we once had a checkpoint guy decide to bail early. One of the participants ended up spending a cold night out as a result. Luckily, no injury; and amazingly, no lawsuits. (But that was a different era...)
posted by nacho fries at 12:51 PM on February 22, 2013


I firmly believe that if it's too much trouble for the race officials to stay on the course until the last runner is finished, they shouldn't be charging anyone an entry fee.

Very much that, yeah. Because even if he had "only" impaled himself on a hunk of shale, he could have died from exposure or shock or bears.
posted by rtha at 12:53 PM on February 22, 2013


I've recently moved from being a 5k runner to a 13k runner (and am working on getting to half-marathon distances). The place I train is a big park right by the ocean and, in theory, it should be a "safe" place to run. Its flat, well lit, and has lots of places to hydrate (i.e. water fountains).

In my first few weeks running there, I learned to be ready to leap over toddlers. Seriously, its like some version of Super Mario Bros where you don't want to land on the creatures in your way. Then there are the times you have to step of the sidewalk into grass and suddenly there's a grass-hidden sink-hole and you're in it up to your ankle with full forward momentum. Or the places where it switches from asphalt to cement and the seems don't quite match up. Or the crosswalks where 95% of the car will stop for you, but 5% will speed up.

I've seen runners get taken out by all of these things. When I run now, I've grown to realize that I need to be focused and vigilant for my own safety and for the safety of those around me even on one of the safest routes in the world.

However, when I first started, I thought it was going to be a cake-walk. I had to see a crying toddler and a runner with an obviously broken leg before it dawned on me that, yeah, I'd best be aware at all times. Indeed, it wasn't really truly driven home for me until I took a header into the concrete while trying to move from grass back to sidewalk and hitting a hole.

I can very easily imagine being this guy - thinking "Oh, this is my backyard and people do it all the time. No problem!" All it takes is a moment's lapse of judgement on a flat course and you'll fall ass over heels. How much worse must it be on a steep, dangerous course when you're new and feeling overconfident?

He could have kept himself safer by following the stern advice to walk the course in advance. Just doing that could well have been enough to save his life. He sounds like an intelligent guy who recognized that there were risks but figured he'd be able to handle them. His last thoughts probably weren't blaming anybody else but himself. Maybe I'm reading myself into him because when I take a risk and it bites me I usually think "well, I'm an idiot."

That all said, I'd love to be in good enough shape to be able to do a race like this. It sounds amazing. Also, everyone is correct that the race official should have stayed put. I don't blame him for what happened, but it could have sped up the search and rescue process significantly.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:55 PM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Don’t look to anyone else for help when the grizzly charges and the rifle jams. You made your bet against this country. It’s your fault if you come up short."

As an Alaskan, I guess I have a bit of a problem with this statement. It's more like there is only so much you can do to be prepared. You do what you can, trust that fate will be your friend, and just live your life. Sort of like a coward dies a thousand deaths, so, I'm going to live while I'm alive. I put a bear bell on the dog and tell someone where I am going and when I will be back but I can still get into big trouble just up the block where the street ends and the mountainside begins.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:01 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Outside also has a good article on LeMaitre's disappearance, based on interviews with a race organizer and LeMaitre's daughter.
posted by Orinda at 9:05 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


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