Every year on the 4th of July, hundreds of people descend on the town of Seward, Alaska for the Mount Marathon race.
The race is short, only three miles long. But according to OutsideOnline, it’s tough: ‘The race, which has been run as an organized event since 1915, is a beast, with a 3,022-foot vertical gain and loss over icy and treacherous mountain terrain, where runners pick their own way up—and down—the average 38-degree slope.’
The 2012 race saw broken bones and lacerations for some competitors. And even though the race was short and the trail packed with people, there was a disappearance. Michael LeMaitre (66) disappeared on his way up the mountain and remains missing to this day.
Michael was said to be adventurous and believed he had ‘won the lottery’ by getting entry into the Mount Marathon race. Michael’s daughter, MaryAnne said “My dad—he has always had an adventurous spirit: He did the Iditaski several times; he had a lot of exciting adventures on the water. He was definitely physically fit. But he hadn’t been on the mountain before.”
It rained the night before the 2012 race and the trail was slick and muddy. Michael’s eyesight was failing but he thought he was capable enough to finish the race. He was plodding along and was in last place. While he was still heading up the mountain, the officials at checkpoints along the way were packing up. He was last seen at about 6pm by an official who was heading down the mountain. There was plenty of daylight left and Michael asked if he could continue on to finish the race. He had already navigated the most dangerous parts of the course.
Officials took a photo of Michael at the halfway point and he was smiling and seemed happy to continue.
He wasn’t carrying any water. There were checkpoints with water along the way, but Michael was seemingly unaware that due to his slower pace, they had all been packed up.
Once competitors have reached the summit, the faster ones can make it back down to the ground in under ten minutes.
One of the organisers of the race, Karol Fink, said that in the months before the big day, there had been unusual amounts of snow “We had a little more snow than usual. Since all the snow hadn’t melted out from the creek bed, there were some snow bridges that you had to cross that were really creepy. A few minutes down, there’s Denali Falls; it has a 10-foot drop. Then you pop out back out and have to decide whether to take the junior trail, the cliffs, or the waterfall, which is 20 feet out, 70 feet down. Usually by the time of race day, the water hasn’t dried up, so you have to know what you’re doing because it’s very steep and you can fall off. It’s a bad idea to come down that way, but people do it. The junior trail is probably the safest of the three—but it’s dangerous as well, just cut into the side of the mountain, very steep and narrow—trees, roots to negotiate, and it gets very slick. I chose to come down the cliffs in a crabwalk it’s so steep—hand, hand, foot, foot.“
When MaryAnne did not hear from her father after the race started on July 4, she knew something was wrong. She flew to Seward on July 5.
Firefighters and police, state troopers, National Guard helicopter crews armed with infrared technology, mountaineering experts and search dogs scoured the mountain for days in torrential rain, but found no sign of Michael.
MaryAnne walked the mountain for weeks, looking for her dad. “The biggest factor was the record snow—the trail conditions were unlike anything they had seen before—ice underneath. The chutes had snow bridges on them that have been collapsing all summer. If my dad had fallen in one of those chutes and a snow bridge had collapsed over him, the infrared helicopters wouldn’t have been able to find him.“
Michael was declared dead in August 2012 after a presumptive death hearing. In 2014, Michael’s family settled a lawsuit with the Seward Chamber of Commerce. His wife Peggy claimed negligence by race officials. During the court case, Chamber officials obtained access to the LaMaitre’s financial records in an effort to prove that Michael had staged his own disappearance and that he was alive. They found no proof or sign of life. Peggy originally asked for $5 million in a settlement but both parties agreed to a $20,000 payout. Race organisers take no responsibility for Michael’s disappearance: “Race volunteers spoke with Mr. LeMaitre as he was approaching the turnaround point and let him know the race was over,” the statement said. “Numerous witnesses, including one medical doctor, would have testified at trial that Mr. LeMaitre requested no assistance, appeared to be in no distress, and wished to continue to the top of the mountain.”
Following Michael’s disappearance, officials made changes to the race. Competitors must now meet specified time milestones or they will be forced to drop out, a rule designed to avoid risks to stragglers. Rookies must attest to having scouted the mountain ahead of time. Signs posted on the lower mountain, site of the most dangerous cliffs, point out alternate descent routes and rate their difficulty. A team of hikers will “sweep” the mountain after the competition to look for potential laggards.
As of August 2019, no trace of Michael has been found. No clothing has been spotted and no human remains have been discovered .