The Lost Runner 

How a runner's obsession left him missing in the wilderness.

Page 2 of 7

John Mintz set out for Snow Mountain Wilderness on July 18, shortly after eating lunch with his wife, Melanie, at Genova Delicatessen in Walnut Creek. The two had recently separated but still saw each other frequently. It was a precarious relationship. Their divorce was supposed to be finalized the following Thursday, the day of John's 43rd birthday. Still, they had what Melanie described as "a very romantic lunch." Yet John was clearly preoccupied.

He had told his family he would be driving to Mount Lassen and began heading that way up Interstate 5. Then Mintz changed plans on a lark. He took the exit at Maxwell Road, and began heading toward Stonyford, then spent about an hour winding up dirt roads to get into the Mendocino National Forest. Mintz parked at a four-way intersection about a mile from the Summit Springs Trailhead into the Snow Mountain Wilderness. He planned to scale the two peaks of Snow Mountain, which were roughly five miles and 3,000 feet from his starting point. By then, it was about 4 p.m., and Mintz thought he had another four hours of daylight in which to complete a rather treacherous ten-mile hike. The sun was scorchingly hot — a typical July day reaches about 90 degrees at Snow Mountain — and Mintz was wearing running shorts, a T-shirt, a hat, and sneakers. He carried a map, two granola bars, a Garmin sport watch to keep track of his mileage, a description of the Snow Mountain trail cribbed from Garry Suttle's book California County Summits, and no water. He wore a Garmin device that measured distance and pace, and apparently had a rudimentary GPS feature that Mintz didn't know about.

Mintz is a small, bespectacled, soft-spoken man with a perfect runner's build: beanpole legs and long, stringy muscles. He punctuates most of his sentences with a high, tremulous laugh. He works in a mail room at the Contra Costa County Department of Employment and Human Services and runs just about every night, usually for a full hour. He's seemingly indefatigable and very insular. "It's typical of him to get so focused on things that he blocks out everything else," his wife said. She cited, for example, the video they had bought of John running the Boston Marathon. Runners who purchased a video were guaranteed to appear in it at least ten times, but the first time John and Melanie watched it together, they couldn't spot John even once. "He was so hard to find because he was looking down while he was running," Melanie said. "The minute he crossed finishing, he stops, looks down, puts his hand to his forehead, and starts figuring out his time. I said, 'John, that's you!' I immediately knew because that's a mannerism he does all the time."

Having grown up in suburban Santa Clara, John didn't have a ton experience hiking or backpacking. He'd never been to Snow Mountain Wilderness before. In fact, he'd only been introduced to the outdoors about six years ago, shortly before he started running races. What he did have was an obsessive personality and utter determination. Since he began running competitively in 2002, Mintz had completed more than 200 races total, including six marathons, eighteen thirty-mile runs, three fifty-mile endurance runs, and a twelve-hour distance run during which he ran 74 miles. He had planned to run the San Francisco Marathon on July 26, the day after Jacobs' party found him.

Long-distance runners are a notoriously self-disciplined breed, and Mintz goes to greater extremes than most. After completing a race, he'll never repeat it, although he will go back and redo a race if he didn't manage to finish the first time. He's hiked 300 to 400 parks, all within a few hours of the Bay Area, usually taking the trails one by one and finding a new place to hike once he's conquered all of them. He's compiled an alphabetical list of 3,000 completed trails with their respective counties, and saved it on his computer. Every time he hikes a new one, it gets added to the list. He prefers to take one route in and a different route back so he can cover more ground. He sometimes gets caught trying to finish trails after dark, and a couple of times he's even been fined by park rangers. Nonetheless, Mintz remains poised and steadfast. He always hikes alone. His obsessions are what propel him. They're also his undoing.

A few years ago, Mintz set himself the project of climbing the tallest peak in every county in California: 58 counties, 56 peaks (a couple of counties share peaks). This goal presented all sorts of challenges, given that a few of the peaks lie on private property. Mintz found that out the hard way back in 2006 when he ducked under an electric fence to jog the Long Ridge peak in San Mateo. When he got to the top, he spied a house roughly thirty feet away. A man emerged from the house with a shotgun and began shooting at Mintz. Then he forced Mintz into the house and telephoned the local sheriffs, saying he'd caught a trespasser on his property. The man said that if law enforcement didn't arrive soon, things could get ugly. For half an hour Mintz cowered on the floor with a gun pointed at his head, waiting for the sheriffs to arrive. Mintz escaped charges. John and Melanie later wrote a letter to the San Mateo police department to complain about the man's behavior, but nothing ever came of it.

But Mintz soldiered on with his project, and by time he reached Snow Mountain on July 18, he'd already bagged sixteen peaks. Snow Mountain is the high point of both Colusa and Lake Counties, and tackling it meant another checkmark on John's list.

Mintz started the journey up Snow Mountain in late afternoon, passed a campground and a meadow, and eventually reached a marshy area. "I had a little hesitation there about where the trail was going," he said. Mintz slogged up one side of the marsh toward what he thought was a small, narrow trail. Then he heard a hissing sound. "That was one of the first omens of the trip," he said. "I see this snake. It could have been a rattler. It had its tongue out."

So Mintz turned around and went the other way, which was apparently the right way, since he quickly found a trail sign. Down the trail a ways, he came to a weathered signpost, which appeared to be pointing to the peak in two different directions. (According to Jacobs, this sign originally pointed one way to the peak and the other way to Angel Springs.) Mintz was confused. "First I went on one side, and it didn't seem to go where I wanted to go ... it seemed to kind of fade out," he said. "Then I went on the other side, and that one seemed a little more clear. I just kind of followed it up." By then, Mintz figured he was within a mile of the peak. Eventually the trail got rocky and Mintz scrambled up to the top. He eventually came to a point with two mounds — the east and west peaks — and figured he'd gone close enough to check it off his list. "I never found a piece of paper that said 'peak' or anything, but I went to the top of a couple places."

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