Down and out - cheating death on Mount Marathon

At the fire hall, tension crackled. In between gleaming fire engines, volunteers in rain gear and torn flannel murmured to each other, speculating about the lost racer—where he was last seen, what he was wearing, where he might have gone off the narrow race trail and into the bush.

Standing in the back, I shifted nervously from one foot to the other as the fire crew outlined the mountain, divvied up into segments on a map. I’d never been on a search and rescue operation before, but the methodology seemed simple enough: get on the ground, spread out, and sweep the mountainside for any clue to a missing mountain runner.

Every year on July 4th, hundreds of burly mountain runners climb a punishing 3,022 ft in under a mile to Race Point on Mount Marathon and back down into Seward. The trail is slippery, almost straight up in places, and treacherous at best. The top finishers are under 45 minutes.

It’s a race where prestige, and reputations, are built and broken—among other things. Runners break ribs, sprain ankles, twist wrists and elbows hurtling down the scree and snow. But the number of casualties is remarkably low; only one person in each race was seriously injured this year. So far, no one has gone missing. Until this year, at least.

When one man didn’t finish the race on Wednesday, checking in at the summit halfway point three hours late, the search began. An Army Blackhawk was called in to scan the mountain with thermal sensors; warm rocks, bears, and hikers foiled them.

On Thursday, the Seward Volunteer Fire Department organized a foot search with dogs. All day, from my office in Petro Plaza and the apartments, I heard helicopters roaring overhead, flying over in hopes of sighting the lost racer. Despite scouring the mountain methodically, no trace of Michael LeMaitre was found. Not a scrap of clothing, footprint, or scent—just vegetation and flagging and the lonely south wind sighing over the slopes.

Temperatures dropped below freezing in the mountains, and new snow dusted the peaks that night. Murmurs about bodies and birds began to make the rounds. The search continued on Friday, with a crew of 55 volunteers and 3 dog teams.

On Friday afternoon, I sank into my office chair with a small sigh of relief. I’d been out on the Harding Icefield trail all day, helping flag it to its bitterly cold end, and was finally sitting down to do some data entry. A moment later, the park superintendent walked in.

He was asking for volunteers to join the Search and Rescue crew Saturday. It wouldn’t be easy. The mountain was steep, and it would probably entail a bushwhack through groves of devil’s club, a thorny and mildly toxic plant with spiny stems and massive rayed leaves. Hesitantly, I gave him my cell phone number.

And so it was that Saturday afternoon I was climbing into the copilot seat of an Alaska Troopers helicopter, on deployment to investigate a steep forested ravine. NPS Search Teams 2 and 3, all volunteers from Kenai Fjords, were headed out on special ops to scour a couple of areas that were too treacherous for other volunteer teams.

As the chopper lifted off with a roar, I felt buoyant—floating on air, rising above the bay and the town and the river valley. Resurrection River split and wound through the trees; the buildings in town grew tiny; the mountains loomed close, approachable, on eye level. I’d never seen Seward from this perspective before. Heck, I’d never ridden in a helicopter before.

When we’d been briefed at the hangar, I’d had no idea what to expect. We were asked to get our gear together, to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. “One word of advice: Most of Search and Rescue is standing around,” one of the interp rangers had confided with a kindly smile.

“We’ll go as far as we can—without cheating death,” our crew lead for the day admonished. “Let’s be safe out there.”

From the waterfall bench, we had a spectacular view of Resurrection River, Seward, and the Bay beyond. Whitecaps scudded over the water; gray clouds loomed on the horizon over Fox Island in the distance.

I took my place in line, spacing ten feet from Luke on my left, and called in on the radio. “Search 3, this is Search 2.”

“Search 3.”

“We’re walking.”

“Copy that. We’ll see you at the bottom.”

Going down, I used an ice axe to dig holds into the soft slippy pine needles and moss for purchase. The only way out was down—I think that was kind of how I felt once I got to the hangar. The only way out today was down, up the mountain, through the bushes looking for bodies, conscious or unconscious, and then out the other side of the woods onto the streets of Seward.

And that morning, we hadn’t gotten in a chopper like the original plan had dictated. Instead, we drove up a Jeep trail and hiked out to the waterfall, then swept a sector of dense spruce and alder down slope towards town. Scanning the shrubbery on either side, I swung from springy alders and slid over mossy trunks as we worked our way down the near-vertical slope. “It’s like a jungle gym! Oh wait, this is what jungle gyms are based off of!” Nature does it first, again.

And nature, too, had maybe claimed Michael Le Maitre. We didn’t find him at the end of the day. But we did find giant mama spruces, a porcupine, and a way down. I learned a lot about what it takes to mobilize a crew, to organize a movement of lots of different people and agencies to find a missing mountain racer—and how defeating, and disappointing, it can be when the search fails.

Down and out. We’re all headed that way, eventually, and it’s a sobering thought. Sometimes you get a lift in a chopper. Sometimes it’s a slog. Just keep going down, and dig your heels in, and you’ll be okay. And help each other out along the way, resting our knees, learning to breathe, cheating death with every step.