Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The consequences of experience

I don't have any of my own photos of Michael Popov, only a few from the day I met him, during my first ultramarathon, the Rodeo Beach 50K in December 2010. 
One week ago, a man who is well-known in the Northern California trail-running community died from complications of heat stroke in Death Valley. Like many do in this social media age, I learned of his death through vaguely worded Facebook posts and wondered what could have possibly happened. Michael Popov was an experienced endurance athlete, a formidably built Russian with a long resume of adventure racing and self-supported fastpacking treks. When initial reports said he ran out of water during a recreational, six-mile traverse between two parallel roads, I thought "that doesn't sound right." Today, Outside Magazine published a more detailed account of what happened during a "routine run" in one of the most extreme environments in North America. The story is enough to bring pause to anyone who considers themselves an adventure athlete — the experience we take for granted, and the decisions we make every day.

Although I didn't know Michael well, his death resonated deeply. He and I were about the same age, and shared many of the same passions. He was co-director for Pacific Coast Trail Runs before that venture closed its doors earlier this summer, so my memories of him are from chats after 50K trail races. Our conversations usually centered around endurance bikepacking, and he told me he wanted to ride the Colorado Trail Race in 2013. The last time I saw Michael was at the Diablo Marathon in June. He handed me a coaster for winning the race and teased me about showing up in Banff the following week for the Tour Divide. "Who knows?" I replied. "Maybe I will. What's your next big adventure?" He just shrugged and broke into a disarming smile. "Maybe see you at Tour Divide?" he joked. From others' accounts of Michael, this seemed to be a big part of his personality — lightheartedness, but with an underlying focus and intensity.

Michael's last run was a spur-of-the-moment decision to travel cross-country between West Side and Badwater roads in Death Valley. He estimated the distance would be about ten kilometers, and likely thought the run across flat terrain would take about an hour. His partner was set to pick him up on the other side of the traverse. He packed four bottles of water, and only a cell phone as an emergency measure. It was approximately 2 p.m. and the temperature was 123 degrees. Two and a half hours later, passersby found him lying on the side of the road. He was conscious but delusional and combative. After emergency crews were summoned, he lost consciousness, and died during resuscitation efforts. The doctor who performed the autopsy speculated that Michael likely encountered subsurface moisture beneath a thin crust layer, which can make footing extremely difficult. If he had to find a way around it, his route would have been significantly lengthened. His water bottles were empty when he was found.

Those of us who don't know Michael well can only wonder what he was thinking when he decided to embark on his run, as well as what went through his mind when he realized he was in much deeper than he anticipated. Michael, who has completed the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon, probably had good reason to believe that his relatively light kit was more than enough for conditions he had dealt with before. His experience rightfully gave him confidence, and still a stark misjudgment occurred. It's a sobering lesson for anyone drawn to these extreme environments, where the margin for error is so thin.

On Monday, our friend Daniel came to visit from Colorado and we went for a run on Black Mountain. He told me he had been reading my book "Ghost Trails" and was curious about the incident during the 2008 Iditarod race when I dropped my bike in an open stream in the Dalzell Gorge at 20 below, and soaked my leg as I retrieved it. What he didn't understand, he said, is why I didn't get frostbite when that happened, but did in a similar incident the following year.

"Well, it's interesting," I replied. "I realize now how many poor decisions I made after I went through the ice on Flathorn Lake in 2009. But at the time, that incident in the Dalzell Gorge was still fresh in my mind. The year before, I completely soaked my boot in temperatures far below zero, and proceeded to push my bike to Rohn over the next eight hours with no consequences. So you see, there was that precedent that made me think I'd be okay."

Only the second time around, I wasn't as lucky. I was still lucky that I was able to walk away with moderate frostbite and not something much worse, but still, I sometimes wonder — what was so different about conditions in 2009 that my foot froze in eight hours? Was it because it was a few degrees colder? Was it because of wind? Was it because I both pedaled and pushed my bike, where in 2008 I walked the entire way? What will I do if I encounter similar conditions again? I love the frozen Alaska tundra more than any other landscape I've experienced, and I'm not going to stay away. Instead, I want to be prepared. I want to be alert. I want to make good decisions.

Still, I recognize that I can gather all the experience and knowledge possible, and still make a disastrous mistake in a relatively routine situation. It's even more likely to happen if experience gives my mind precedent to believe that a particular situation is okay. But of course, situations can change stunningly fast. And when conditions shift outside one's experience, even small miscalculations can turn deadly. Michael's final run has been a sobering reminder of that reality.


  1. A very powerful lesson about how vulnerable we can be in a harsh environment no matter what our experience level may be. Sorry to hear of the loss of your friend Jill.

  2. :-( Such a loss for the running community as well as his family and friends. Thanks for sharing the experiences you had with him.

  3. I think there are so many things we do where one misstep could be fatal. When they normally aren't it's easy to forget the risk. Which isn't to say Micheal was unaware of the risk, but the real in your face mortality isn't normally front and center. It's sort of like despite knowing better, we pay lip service to the risks we take. But for most of us it's the way we choose to live life and is worthwhile.

  4. I think there is a large amount of LUCK involved, and our decisions are only partly accountable for the outcome. You can make all the right choices and still things can come out bad when the unforseeable happen.

    Our judgment and decisions are based on what we know (or think we know), and we prepare for those eventuallities. It would seem Michael was well prepared for what he expected to encounter based on tons of experience. Mother nature can throw a knuckleball at you any moment, tossing totally unanticipated conditions your way.

    When this happens the final outcome may may be beyond your control no matter what decisions you make.

    It just reminds us to take life one day at a time and enjoy the ride, cuz you never know when it will be over.

  5. Many, many years ago, a climbing magazine published an excellent article on that exact topic - how years of experience sometimes tends to cloud our judgement. A skier or climber may go into the backcountry, doing marginally dangerous things where they know they taking a risk, but they "get away with it". The magazine specifically targeted travelling in high avalanche conditions, where scientific knowledge should be applied when trying to decide if a slope was safe or not. But the skier or climber has "experience" that tells him or her that they traveled over that same slope in similar conditions and nothing happened, leading them to believe the slope is safe, even when all the facts tell them it is not. Then one day something does happen and they are killed. I suppose the same might be said for your friend, although it's really impossible to tell. I'm sorry for your loss.

  6. I'm old enough to have seen the icons of a number risky sports either die of get seriously injured (and a buch of regular Joe's too). It's good to stay humble and remind yourself to pay attention to the details even in the most trivial of expeditions. I feel very bad for his partner.

  7. Beautiful and thoughtful commentary, Jill. I am sure it must make you really think about the times you "just headed out for a short run/ride/hike" and ending up short of water, bonked, or hurt and limping. I see this in your writing of your experiences frequently and wonder why you and others feel so compelled to take such needless risks. What drives you and Michael (running at 123 degrees? That really is not sound judgement IMHO.) and others to not only push the boundaries of your physical and emotional exertions, but to risk your lives in this pursuit? Is it a modern phenomenon, now that we First Worlders can no longer take much credit for our daily survival?
    I am so sorry to hear that Michael came to such a terrible end in the desert. It is shocking and sobering. It is of course the unspoken context of your pursuits and your writing. Thank you for writing this.

  8. And that's exactly why I am not nearly as excited as everyone who comments on Killian, Tony K. or Joe's Alpine adventures. One day things go wrong. The price is too high to pay.
    You wrote beautifully.

  9. Thanks for weighing in. Olga, I presume you mean the adventures where those guys are often photographed making Class 5 climbing moves without ropes and major mountaineering ascents without helmets, food, or even what most would consider proper shoes. I appreciate the simplicity and "purity" they espouse, but I fall are your side of the line of questioning, wondering how much minimalism is too much. In this era of Alex Honnold and ultra-ultra-light backpacking, even advocates like Andrew Skurkra are questioning "stupid light" and the trend toward trading security for simplicity, often only for the sake of simplicity (in situations where speed doesn't necessarily matter) and with the side effect of exponentially larger risk. It's an interesting phenomenon to consider.

  10. "Stupid light". That is a well coined term, indeed. After all, Killian's best friend and a better cross-mountain skier died out there. When I see videos done by Joe and Tony, my heart skips. I don't even notice a beauty out there. Mentally, I realize since the video is posted, they came back alive and un-scanted. Emotionally, I keep waiting for the rock to fall or the foot to slip. I just hate it. My ex-husband is a mountain climber, rock climber and a mountaineer. I've been close to see some folks going the edge. First of, you always have to think about many people you may inspire, who are even less prepared than you are when you do stunts (and those things are stunts, nothing else). Secondly, as you wrote here, sometimes even experience exists, pure dumb luck may take a hike to another direction. There are miscalculations. I am all for living life "adventurous", and "on the edge", but we need to really see the difference between edges. And lastly, real mountaineers are very respectful of the mountains. Really respectful. Because they know.

  11. Olga and I have discussed this subject amongst ourselves ad nauseum.

    There's an old aviation saying... "There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots. But, there are no old, bold pilots".

  12. Actually I think that the shock here comes from a different direction. Ultrarunners exactly see themselves as almost invincible because we're usually in a fairly controlled and safe environment. Compares to mountaineering ultrarunning seems quite safe. Together with an abundance of fitness and the ability to cope with "difficult" situations I think many of us think we're safer than in a car out there (and to be honest whenever I see someone in front of me swerving all over the place texting while driving maybe we are). I actually do think a lot of our adventures are safer than what most hikers do, because we're usually better prepared.
    I still think we're usually safer than road cyclists or many other athletes out there. I'm torn about it - I tend to be in more and more rugged and remote terrain and try to make up with lots of overpreparedness (I had a sat phone AND an emergency beacon in the Iditarod. Which, of course, only helps if you can still activate those ...).
    Kilian, Tony, Jared ... they're taking things into a different direction, something I don't think most of us will. And that's not what happened to Michael I think. He probably really thought he had plenty of margin. And ultimately he really got unlucky.
    I wouldn't necessarily discount those guys as ruthless or performing only stunts. For example Ueli Steck seems to be a control freak. I think they know the risks. Often they know those routes very well. I also think they need to be free to take them. It's a whole lot better than smoking, motorcycling or eating McD every day ... and probably still less dangerous. I don't think they make for bad role models. People who are into this sort of thing need to be far above such influences.

    Also mountaineers usually go far beyond those levels of risk - even the ones who ae "real". There's a reason a lot of them are dead. There's a massive number of variables you simply cannot control that can turn out to be deadly. Much more so than in ultrarunning.

    Real problems occur when there's a partner or family involved and not everyone is on the same page. THere's a lot of possibility to hurt people.

    Not sure where I'm going with this. I guess the ultimate question is if me and my loved ones would be ok if something like this happened. No easy answer.

  13. Beat, great thoughts. Especially about when loved ones involved. And yes, the risks are what moves the progress in adventures forward, and somebody's got to do that. I just hope it's nobody close to my heart. And yes, Misha's faith was miscalculated due to the stroke of bad luck. The things are unrelated. I am just really sad for him. For the fact I never got to know him very well - there aren't many Russians in this sport in US, we should have been closer than acquaintances, you would think. How 'bout you keep over-preparing, ok? And may be indulge in McD once in a while instead of something crazy:)

  14. Jill you have such a way with words. You did an excellent job on this write up. This whole article reminds me of one of your trips through the desert. I can't remember if it was the kokopelli trail before the GDR or if it was a much more recent trip but I remember you talking about how you were out of water and wanted to drink from a very polluted body of water. I also recall how you were debating whether or not you should eat out of a bag of Doritos found along the roadside. My point is to let this be a lesson to us all to be safe out there. Thanks

  15. Beat, I agree with a lot of what you said. However, I also think the rise of ultrarunning's visibility at exactly the time when a lot of the big names in the sport are moving heavily into the minimal camp may be sending a misleading message to folks taking up trailrunning. Folks like Anton K (as one example) may make a calculated decision to make the treks that he does with next to no gear, based on the experience that he's racked up over several years. Others following his example may not have that experience, and may not conciously be making those calculations...and may not therefore be prepared for how to handle themselves when things go wrong.
    Michael Popov also evidently had quite a bit of outdoor experience, but experience doesn't necessarily translate to different habitats/conditions. Re the 'bad luck' referred to here, it may sound harsh, it certainly feels harsh to say it, but this wasn't bad luck, this was a lack of preparedness for _standard_ conditions on playas with subsurface water, even without factoring in the heat of Death Valley. It's just a terrible shame.

    Thanks for the thoughtful article, Jill,


Feedback is always appreciated!