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Shock and questions in aftermath of Mount Marathon tragedies

Craig Medred

Everyone familiar with Seward's Mount Marathon knew in their gut that someday the fabled, 85-year-old race would lose a competitor, but no one ever expected it would be like this. The thinking was the "cliff" at the end of Jefferson Street would eventually claim someone's life. There have been several nasty falls there in the past. There was another this year.

Matt Kenney, from Anchorage, rag-dolled down the rock July Fourth in the small town 125 miles south of Alaska's largest city. He broke his leg, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and had to be medevaced to Anchorage. He remains hospitalized in serious condition. Friends and family over the weekend began setting up a fund to help with ever-growing medical costs, and to aid the 41-year-old runner's wife and two children through what is expected to be a long recovery.

Except for Kenney's many friends and family, his life-threatening injuries have been overshadowed by the search for 66-year-old Michael LeMaitre, also of Anchorage. LeMaitre was the last man up Mount Marathon. He was seen 200 feet below the summit by a race timer around 6 p.m. Wednesday. When he did not come down, a search began around 9 p.m. Wednesday.

Searchers found nothing that night or the next day, or on Friday or Saturday. Alaska State Troopers Saturday night called off the official search. The trooper helicopter that had been involved flew home. So, too, the sophisticated Pavehawk search helicopter of the 210th Rescue Squadron of the Alaska Air National Guard. Its FLIR system -- a ground-searching, heat-detecting device sophisticated enough to spot a denning polar bear beneath the snow on the Arctic coast, had failed to detect any human heat signature on the slopes of the 3,022 foot peak that rises above the west side of Resurrection Bay.

Some are continuing to look for LeMaitre. There is little hope he is alive, but strange things have been known to happen in Alaska.

Former Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Melanie Gould went missing along the Denali Highway on the south slope of the Alaska Range on June 4 of last year. Troopers and dozens of searchers looked for her for four days and found nothing before that search was called off. Most believed Gould, who had last been seen leaving Talkeetna in the direction of the Denali Highway on May 30, was dead.

Two days later, she emerged from the scrubby black spruce and brush along the highway.

Troopers later said she'd actively tried to avoid being found, and as it turned out there was a lot more to her story, though nobody really wanted to talk about it.

That Gould could last so long alone in the wild with almost nothing offers a glimmer of hope to friends and family of LeMaitre, but he has faced conditions far more difficult than she encountered. It has been rainy and cold in Seward for much of the time since LeMaitre went missing clad only in shorts and a t-shirt. Some days, temperatures have barely crept into the 50s. Some nights, they have threatened to drop into the 30s.

Hypothermia -- the drop in body-temperature to a deadly low -- is a danger even for the well-dressed in these sorts of conditions. The U.S. Mountain Rescue Association calls "hypothermia the most common killer of backcountry users," and it is at its most dangerous not in frigid cold, but in wet weather with the temperature between 30 and 50 degrees. Colorado's Wilderness Survival Institute calls this "the danger zone."

It is a danger zone easily overlooked. Twenty-five runners in the Los Angeles Marathon had to be taken to local hospitals for treatment of hypothermia after that March 20 race last year in California. The temperature on race day was 50 degrees, about the same is Seward for Mount Marathon. California triathlete Erin Beresini later wrote about her experience with hypothermia:

Oh my God. I’m going to pass out. I can’t feel my arms! I’m walking down San Vicente Boulevard in the pouring rain, drenched and holding my arms up to my chest. "Don’t slow down or you’ll freeze!" a runner yells to me as he passes....Too late. Another runner stops to walk with me. "You can do this!" "I’m pretty frozen. Don’t walk because of me!" I say. He jogs off.

There’s no way in hell I’ll be able to walk two more miles. I’m going to pass out. Just then a lady in scrubs signals for me to come over to her. I hobble across the newly formed river that was once the eastbound lane of San Vicente. The lady takes one look at me, then opens up the back doors to an ambulance to reveal a teenage boy covered in blankets on a gurney and two pretty EMTs. One of them strips off my shirt, socks and shoes, puts a blanket around me then tries to take my temperature with a disposable thermometer. It doesn’t register.

Beresini goes on to describe how she went from running to walking to unable to walk in the space of less than an hour. Whether that is what happened to LeMaitre nobody knows. The timer who saw him below the summit reported he appeared to be doing OK, but the Mountain Rescue Association specifically warns against taking the word of cold people.

"Believe the signs, not the victim," its website warns:

To the hypothermic victim, who is already mentally foggy, the vasodilation may produce a sense of extreme warmth. In addition, chemical changes occur in the body that can make the situation more dangerous. First, epinephrine (adrenaline) is released into the bloodstream, which increases the heart rate. This is healthy, since it increases the metabolism. Other chemical changes, however, can cause hypothermic victims to experience vivid hallucinations very similar to those reported by schizophrenics. This is believed to be caused by increased dopamine in the blood. In addition, researchers have found that spinal and cerebral neurons become hypersensitive when they are cooled just three or four degrees below normal. This can lead to neural misfiring and to seeing things that just aren't there.

LeMaitre's family has reported his eyesight was not good and that he left his glasses at the bottom of the mountain when he started the Mount Marathon race. The trail itself is not marked high on the mountain, although it is fairly obvious to most because of the packed-in path hundreds of feet have left on the ground. But to someone with poor eyesight and mind possibly fogged by hypothermia, who knows?

Beresini went hypothermic in less than three hours in the L.A. Marathon. LeMaitre had been on Mount Marathon about three hours when last seen. If he reached the top in a hypothermic state and started trying to stumble down an unmarked trail, he could have gone anywhere. There are many theories as to where. A lot of other Mount Marathon runners believe he could have fallen through a hole in a snowfield and slid out of sight into a tunnel carved by water running below. One veteran Alaska mountain man said he once saw such a hole swallow a mountain goat.

But snow holes aren't the only way to disappear. If LeMaitre managed to stumble back down to the brush line, he could have slipped out of sight anywhere. Mount Marathon is riddled with draws and ravines covered in alder bushes now dense with green leaves. Between the alder patches, the grass is waist-high or higher. A searcher on the ground sometimes can't see somebody lying down 5 feet ahead. A searcher in the air really can't see anything.

The hope of the aerial searchers was that if LeMaitre was ambulatory, he'd maneuver himself into position to be seen. That didn't happen, and the search was called off. It was a sad day for everyone, but more so for LeMaitre's family and friends who will spend a long time trying to find closure.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com