Death on the Mountain – Don't Let It Be Yours

Trail runners, this is a warning – if you are headed out of civilization and might encounter severe conditions, be prepared, not complacent. If you don’t, your decision could kill you. Seriously! Just this weekend, two runners died when cold and wet conditions descended on the Zugspitz Extrem-Berglauf, a trail race up Germany’s tallest mountain. Read on for details.

My TransRockies Run teammate, Martin Gaffuri, was at the race and let me know what went down. He reported that is was about 60 F and raining when the race started. By about 4k to go in this roughly 16 kilometer race (nearly 7,000′ of total climb) the runners entered a snow storm. Fortunately, Martin was prepared with a rain jacket, arm warmers, and gore-tex hat, but many other runners many only in shorts and tee shirts and did not bring additional layers. The folly of some was surely compounded by the race’s difficult finished. Despite finishing 12 out of 183 finishers, it took Martin 26 minutes to cover the final 1000 meters during which runners climb 400 meters (!) to nearly 10,000′.

In end the weather or rather folks lack of preparation for the weather left 2 dead and landed another 6 or 7 runners in the hospital. (CNN article; a German article)

While I previuosly believed it unnecessary for TransRockies to require all participants to carry a slew of clothing (gloves, hat, rain jacket and pants, fleece) during each stage, the tragedy of this weekend reminds us that the mountains and their weather can take out runners quickly. The folks that died were in an orgainzed race, but help still could not come in time. Perhaps as Martin wisely suggested to me, the race should have made a rain jacket mandatory gear – I’m glad that TransRockies has.

Zugspitz… on a nicer day

The warning these dead runners provide should be even more closely heeded by those trekking into the wilderness alone or in small groups where help is many hours away. Having personally been on a run in the mountains where my runner partner was immobilized, we had only minimal clothing some of which was used as a bandage, and a cold rain storm hit, I should know better. I should have learned this lesson. (My report on the above noted run in the Tetons)

Sometimes we are fortunate in that we are given the chance to relearn the lessons we should already have learned, but next time we might not have that chance. So PLEASE be prepared when you trail run, especially when in the high country. The extra weight of a hat, jacket, or even a garage bag will not ruin your run. Now go out there run to the sky….safely!

Discussion

  • Have any of your been in a situation where you were put in seriuos jepardy by bad mountain weather? Were you adequately prepared?
  • For those of you who often venture out in to the high mountains for runs, what extra gear do you bring with you?

There are 7 comments

  1. Ian

    The first time i ran the canadian death race, i carried goretex jacket, gloves, pants, etc. on top of Mt. Hamel, we hit rain, 4 degrees C, and a 70km wind. I was ok, but there were a couple of dozen runners huddled in the fire lookout cabin on top of the mountain.after that year, CDR came up with a minimum gear list.any time you are going above treeline, you should have water/wind proof clothes, and some emergency gear. to do otherwise is to confirm Darwin's theory…..

  2. CharlieM

    I think it's a bit too soon after the death of two people to make the Darwin jokes….give it a couple of weeks at least. My heart goes out to their families for their tragic loss.My initial thought was, if the storm hit at 4K into the race, why didn't some of the people turn around? From the CNN news account, it seemed to indicate they perished near the end at the top of the mountain. So it seems likely if that was the case that the push to get up the mountain contributed to loss of body temperature, etc. But that is one of the problems with races, and in particular mountain trail races. The push for P.R.'s, the feeling that you are being protected because it is a "race", being surrounded by other runners, all of it makes one easily forget about the elements (much like triathletes probably think they are safe from sharks during a race because of the safety in numbers).I still don't believe that races should issue mandatory gear requirements. There are many risks, and runners should assume full responsibility for all of them.

  3. ian

    No joke intended, nature is a harsh mistress, but thanks for reminding me that there are people on the other end of my comments.I apologize if what I wrote hurt or offended anyone….

  4. I am a runner. &quot

    Having just run Hardrock (a race that averages above 11,oooft elevation). I have to say how much it sucked to be carrying so much gear. at times my packed weighed 8lbs. but, I at all times beleived I needed a long sleeve, a windbreaker pullover, rain jacket, rain pants,gloves,water proof mittens, course map, electrolyte tablets, 2 bottles, and light. For 60 miles I also carried yak tracks. but after not having had the need for them I finally ditched them and their weight.More than anything I wanted to ditch all the stuff in my pack, but the just in case factor HAS to be there. Like the boy scouts…be prepared!

  5. Trail Goat

    While passing out "Darwin Awards" might be a bit premature at this point, if these folks were still of child producing age…. their tragedy favors the selection of less-risk taking individuals. Surely all societies need a mix of risk takers and non-risk takers (there are certainly evolutionary advantages to both)… it was the risk takers that lost out this time.I'd say that in many cases it's would be foolish to mandate gear – all most all lowland races and highland races where due to prevailing climate, the race distance (short), or timing of storms (race in am, t-storms in afternoon). However, at a short race where bravado seems to be a hallmark (such as this one), you may need to remind competitors of need for safety. Same goes for race like TRR at which many of the competitors will not be from high mountain areas. Folks like me very well might not have any notion of how shit can hit the fan in a real hurry in the mountains. I think mountain 100s are a bit different in that competitors tend to be (a) experienced, (b) locals familiar with the mountain weather, or (c) newbies who research the hell out of an event. That said, it's only a matter of time before someone dies from hypothermia at Hardrock, Leadville, Wasatch, or similar race. There is danger in how superhuman ultras make us feel… we forget just how fragile out bodies are.

  6. Trail Goat

    Iaar (aka loomdog),You may have been a bit OVER prepared… but that can't hurt. If I was running hardrock, I'd likely carry a rain jacket and emergency blanket at all times. IF the weather looked iffy or I might still be out at night (add a couple HOURS to that projected aid station split), I'd certainly add gloves, long sleeve, knit hat. I'd also have to remember my Petzl E-lite under that second scenario.

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