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No more hand grips on Mount Marathon, but safety concerns remain

Mike Nesper
Marc Lester

A few months ago, Seward city manager Jim Hunt met with someone who wanted to conduct trail maintenance on Mount Marathon.

Hunt discovered last week that clearing loose rocks and debris wasn't the intention. Hand-holds and rebar were installed near the mountain's base in an area referred to as the Cliffs or the Waterfall -- a descent route for some runners in the annual Fourth of July race up and down the mountain, and the spot where veteran racer Matt Kenney fell and suffered a broken skull and broken leg in 2012.

"We weren't aware that was being installed," Hunt said.

Soon after he learned about it, Hunt ordered the hardware be removed. It has since been taken down.

Mount Marathon is city property. To add hardware to the mountain requires a permitting process, Hunt said, which includes having an engineer-approved design.

"It had to come down despite the best of intentions," he said. "We just couldn't accept the risk."

Among the risks cited by Hunt: runners or hikers getting impaled on rebar or falling off the mountain if a hand grip comes loose.

The city of Seward initially offered a $500 reward for information about the people who installed the hardware. Hunt rescinded the offer after one of those responsible contacted him and agreed to remove everything. He said members of the Mount Marathon Trail Task Force, an ad hoc committee made up of Seward and Anchorage residents, installed the hardware.

Miscommunication on both sides led to the situation, Hunt said.

"There wasn't a lot of clarity of what was being done," he said.

Hunt said the city is open to making the race safer. That could mean properly installed hardware similar to what was removed or rerouting the race, Hunt said.

"We're not ruling it out for the future to do something," he said.

Last year, the race committee introduced several safety features following the first death in the race's long history. Two years ago, race rookie Michael LeMaitre, 65, disappeared and was never found despite extensive search efforts. It was the 85th running of the race.

"2012 changed everything for everybody," said Erin Lemas, event coordinator for the Seward Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the race.

LeMaitre's widow, Peggy, is suing the chamber for wrongful death and seeking $5 million. A trial is set to start in October.

Among the changes that debuted last year included time limits, having volunteers "sweep" the mountain after each race and requiring rookies sign a pledge saying they've completed the entire course prior to race day.

The chamber doesn't recommend Mount Marathon as a day trip, Lemas said.

It's a 3,022-foot mountain with an average incline of 38 degrees, and despite all of the safety precautions, it carries risk.

"Mount Marathon is not a day hike," Lemas said.

Sam Young knows the potential danger better than most. He's competed in more than 20 races and won his first of three consecutive Mount Marathon titles as a rookie in 1984.

"That risk has always been there," he said. "From the very first time I hiked it to today."

Mother Nature plays a major role, he said.

"It's a slippery, steep mountain at times and other days it's a walk in the park," Young said.

Lemas said weather was a factor in 2012 when LeMaitre died and Kenney and one other racer sustained serious injuries. A wet spring made for slick conditions, she said.

"That mountain is always changing," Lemas said.

But is it more dangerous now than when runners first scaled the mountain in the inaugural race in 1915? Depends who you ask.

"It's one of those events that's probably going to create a lot of opinions," Young said.

Young, who will participate in one of Alaska's largest single-day sporting events in two weeks, said he embraces changes to make the race safer. Adding hardware such as the unauthorized hand-holds would not only make Mount Marathon safer for individual climbers, he said, it would protect people from others on the mountain.

But Hunt said Mount Marathon will always pose a risk to those who seek to conquer it.

"It's a dangerous mountain," he said. "It's still gonna be rugged and brutal."

Reach Mike Nesper at mnesper@adn.com or 257-4335.

The Alaska Mountain Runners will conduct a Mount Marathon race preview Saturday from 1-3 p.m. Veteran racers will guide participants through the bottom third of the mountain and will cover the multiple descent options. The race preview is free but participants must sign a waiver. The group will meet at the picnic table near the gate on upper Lowell Canyon Road at 12:30 p.m.

The Seward Chamber of Commerce is still seeking sweepers for this year's race. Call 224-8051 or email events@seward.net.

 


By MIKE NESPER
mnesper@adn.com