Just over a
year ago, Michael LeMaitre
disappeared while participating in the 2012 Mount Marathon
mountain running race.
time LeMaitre was seen was as he was nearing Race Point, the
3022 foot turnaround point of the race course. LeMaitre
was in last place in the race, struggled to reach the turnaround
point, when he met a race
official that had been manning the turnaround point. The
race official had tired of waiting for LeMaitre and decided to
head down the mountain to the post-race party. The race
official briefly talked to LeMaitre, and then he turned his back to
him and left a soaking-wet race participant alone on the
mountain in the clouds and cold drizzle.
race official’s encounter with LeMaitre, what happened next is
anyone’s guess. Much effort was put into searching for LeMaitre,
but no sign of him was ever found. The end result is that this
tragic, avoidable and inexcusable loss of a human life in Alaska’s
biggest party-race has created one of Alaska’s most perplexing
solve problems that others have struggled with has always
intrigued me. So of course, this mystery is one that I have
thought about a lot. Last year, with my wife, I looked for
LeMaitre. This year I gave it another try, as I will describe
there are many theories as to what happened to LeMaitre. It
seems like you can break the theories down into three
categories. Below, I list these three categories in
order of likelihood, based on my opinions. Here are the theory
“conspiracy theories”. With any unsolved disappearance and
presumed death, there are always
a number of “conspiracy theories” that pop up. These theories
are often good fodder for TV documentaries or bantering at
barbeques, but they are unlikely to have happened.
more conspiracy theories were spawned from this incident that
one might imagine is likely due to an action on the part of LeMaitre’s wife. His wife
apparently published an obituary just a
few days after he went missing. And while searching, especially
by their daughter, was still in progress. This action made
people wonder what was up. And as a result, theories of a life
insurance scam, using LeMaitre’s military connections to quietly
leave the country or hopping on a blue-water sailing boat to
sail off to Mexico came to life.
I wish one of these conspiracy theories were true. That would
mean LeMaitre is still alive. But the chance of any of these theories
being reality is likely very remote.
“LeMaitre reached the turnaround, headed back down, got lost and
perished” theory. This theory is probably the most widely
embraced explanation of what happened to LeMaitre.
But I don’t
think this is what happened.
focus of the search efforts were done on areas below the
turnaround. Meticulous grid searches where done all over the
lower mountain. My wife and I searched this area too. And we
could see survey tape everywhere left over from grid searches.
So in my opinion these search efforts were exhaustive. Yet no
sign of LeMaitre was found.
speculated that LeMaitre encountered a bear on the lower part of
the mountain, and this was the cause of his demise. But I doubt
this. Sure it’s possible that he happened onto a brown bear and
it attacked him, killed him and buried its “kill”. But I’ve
seen bear kill stashes before and there is no way a search team
would miss such a digging area. And encounters with an
aggressive bear protecting its kill would have undoubtedly
occurred on the lower mountain with all the people searching the
area. But no such encounters were reported.
sign of LeMaitre was found in the areas below the turnaround,
after extensive and exhaustive searching, seems to prove
something. It likely proves that LeMaitre didn’t end up on the
The “LeMaitre reached the turnaround
and kept going up the mountain” theory. I believe that this
most likely is what happened.
Before I go
on, one must realize that LeMaitre had never done the Mount
Marathon race before. So he didn’t know what
to expect. It was cloudy and there were no people at the
turnaround, not even a race official, to let him know he had
made it to the far end of the race course. Nothing would
look familiar in the clouds, especially to a man that was know
to have very poor eyesight. As a result of his exertion,
which apparently, due to his slow pace, was much more than most
competitors - he would be spent and tired at the turnaround.
And because he was spent and tired, he most likely wouldn't be
thinking as clearly as normal.
LeMaitre kept going past the turnaround point. And
continued up the ridge to the west.
it obvious the trail looped around the Race Point rock and
headed back down?
only “obvious” trail, especially when you are in the clouds and
have never been to this place before, is the trail that
goes past the turnaround rock and continues UP the ridge.
clear weather you can make the mistake of going past the race
point turnaround rock. I remember the first time I went up the
Mount Marathon race trail. It was back in 1981 (yeah, a long
time ago). I was new to Alaska and was training with a few
cross country ski racing friends. I got to the Race Point rock
and kept running on the well-defined trail that went past the
rock. My friends yelled at me that I had passed the
turnaround. I was confused. Didn’t my friends tell me that we
were going to "the top”?
Point turnaround rock. Behind the rock is the well
defined trail that heads west towards the summit of
above shows the trail that continues uphill, just past the race
course turn-around rock. You can see how well defined the trail
is. This trail could easily convince a tired race newbie, alone
in the clouds, that it is the “main” trail to the “top”.
point I’d like to make about the above picture is that this
trail beyond the turnaround rock is gaining elevation. The
trail is still going UP. And this leads me to an issue of
cultural ignorance that has forever surrounded the Mount
Marathon race. And that is the knowledge of what the “top of
the mountain” actually is.
endless, the numbers of times you hear people say, or even
journalists write, that the Mount Marathon race goes to the “top
of the mountain” and back down. Such statements are very
ignorant and completely false. The summit of Mount Marathon
(actually “Marathon Mountain” on USGS maps) is 2 miles west and
about 1800 feet higher than Race Point, a location on the east
ridge of Mount Marathon where the race course turns around.
The race doesn't even go close to the top of a mountain. It goes to a
random point on a ridge. This highpoint was chosen a long time
ago merely because you could see it from a downtown Seward bar.
Not because it was the "top of a mountain".
So, say you
are Michael LeMaitre. You have never hiked to the turnaround
point of the Mount Marathon race course before. And even
if you had been to the top of the course, it is very likely you
weren't there in weather as socked in and crappy as this day,
which makes everything look unfamiliar. But you have
read about people racing to “the top of the mountain”. And you
have heard countless Alaskans talk about racing to “the top of
barrage of misinformation, it would be easy for LeMaitre to
think: “I turn around when I reach the ‘top’”. But when he gets
to the Race Point rock, in thick clouds and when no one is
there, and he sees a defined trail going UP and continuing west,
he says to himself: “I’m not at the top yet, I’ve got to keep
going up.” It is no stretch of imagination that this
never-dying ignorance about what the top of a mountain is - could
have been a factor in LeMaitre's demise.
As often is
the case with outdoor tragedies in Alaska, deaths are can be
attributed to not just one mistake, but a series of mistakes.
And often with such tragedies, people don’t realize they are
making a series of mistakes. Such was possibly the situation
LeMaitre ended up in.
Point Lemaitre could have made his third mistake. The first
mistake was to trust that the Seward Chamber of Commerce had the
even management competence to put on a safe race for slow
competitors like himself. The second mistake was to assume that
people he talked to had a clue as to what the term “top of the
mountain” meant. So as a result of these previous mistakes,
alone and unmonitored, he continued up and westward towards
precarious terrain. His third mistake.
Race Point the trail along the ridge heading west does something
that would have endangered LeMaitre. And that is – it gets easy
for a while.
point LeMaitre, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, was no doubt
soaking wet from sweat and the cold drizzle of the day. As the
terrain eased, LeMaitre’s heart rate would have gone down. He
would have been generating less body heat and wouldn’t have been able
to offset the chilling effects of temps in the 50’s and light
rain. And if there was a breeze on this exposed ridge,
that would have increased his rate of heat loss even more.
from two hours of exertion without drinking anything, would also
start playing a factor. You get colder faster when you are wet
and dehydrated. And when you get cold and your body temperature
starts declining, your thinking is often impaired as you
approach the realm of hypothermia.
a mile past Race Point the goat trail vanishes and the ridge narrows and starts getting
steep and sketchy. I used to peak bag mountains a lot with Bill
Spencer, and in areas like this we would talk about our
“sketch-o-meters”. Often the person climbing in front would
encounter problem terrain and make a comment like: “Hmm. Looks
like my sketch-o-meter is getting close to 10.” That would mean
the terrain is getting really gnarly and exposed and its passage is
going to require roping up. In this area my sketch-o-meter
was is in the 4 to 5
range. But it would have been in the 7 range if it was a
wet day like the day LeMaitre was on the mountain.
Approaching the "sketchy" section of the east ridge that
leads up to Mount Marathon.
got to this point, I can’t believe that he would have continued
on. If he did, he probably soon figured out he was off-track
and turned back. But being in such climbing terrain has
you are cold and tired. The required slow and careful climbing
in this terrain will cause you to get even colder.
this was the case if LeMaitre was at this point. If he was here
and he finally figured out that he had gone too far up the
ridge, he knew he was in trouble. He knew he was getting too
cold. And he knew he had to get down off the ridge.
have been the case, he could have easily made his next mistake.
And that was to not retrace his route, and to descend down one
of the gullies to the north.
expert on mountain running. But this part of Mount Marathon,
beyond the mountain runners’ realm, is the terrain where Alaskan
peak baggers like me spend a lot of time. So one thing I have a
lot of experience with is making BAD route decisions high in the
mountains. And I know how easy it is to be lured into making
bad route decisions.
was at this point and getting hypothermic, he would look to both
sides of the ridge for an escape route. There are snowfields in
the valley to the north, steep tundra and cliffs to the south.
In my opinion he would have dropped down to the north. He would
have been lured by the “snow field sirens”, as I call them.
always look inviting. They are easy to travel on and seem to
always have the illusion of being “not that far” below you. And
when you are in the clouds, the side of the ridge that has snow
always seems brighter and more inviting than the dark and
foreboding snow-less side.
conceivable that LeMatitre, if he was in this predicament, would
have tried to descend one of the several gullies in this area to
the snowfield at the base of the valley to the north. He might
have thought that once he got down to the snowfields he could
start running again and get warmed up. Maybe he remembered
the race director telling everyone to "go right" (i.e. north)
once you reach "the top", to get on the descent trail. So
perhaps this directive was a factor in him deciding to descend
down a gully to the snowfield (glacier) below. It
looks like it would be easy to drop down. But it's
gullies are tougher than they look from up on top of the ridge.
While in this area, I hiked down into a few gullies from the top and
then hiked around and up into the same gullies from below. Even
though these were “logical” gullies one might descend, you could
see that they would be challenging to descend on wet rock like
the conditions were on July 4th, 2012.
descents like these get sketchy, due to wet rocks or unexpected
cliffs, you can end up spending a lot of time slowly working
your way around problem spots. And if you are hypothermic, you
are likely not able to be make good route decisions or balance
up into a gully from the snowfields. Note the dust
being whipped up. Winds causes a lot of erosion
and rock fall here.
for signs of LeMaitre in snow wells in a gully next to
cliffs. It would be hard to spot someone in these
places from a helicopter.
this area is where LeMaitre’s Mount Marathon run ended. From
what I have learned from sources close to the search efforts,
this area was not a focus of ground searches as much as the
lower sections of the mountain were. There is a lot of extreme
terrain here that could hide a body. And this is unstable,
“active terrain” where frequent rock fall could cover a body.
Like I said
before, trying to solve problems that are tough to solve has
always intrigued me. As I searched the gullies on the north
side of this ridge I hoped that my logic would lead me to solve
the LeMaitre disappearance mystery. But it didn’t. I, along
with many others, would like to see this mystery solved one
day. Hopefully this account will spur others that like to solve
real life mysteries to come up with their own scenarios as to
what happened. And then go out and look for Michael LeMaitre.
|I wish I
could speak mountain goat, because these Mount Marathon
residents I met might know what happened to LeMaitre.
inscription on the Race Point turnaround rock, made by LeMaitre's daughter
at the end of her month-long search effort for her
father last summer.