Channeling Grief into Positive Change

The Max LeNail Memorial Bridge Fund was established at The San Diego Foundation to support the construction of a pedestrian footbridge at Mission Trails in memory of Max LeNail. (Credit: LeNail Family)
The Max LeNail Memorial Bridge Fund was established at The San Diego Foundation to support the construction of a pedestrian footbridge at Mission Trails in memory of Max LeNail. (Credit: LeNail Family)

Whether hiking, climbing or running, Max LeNail loved nature and being in the mountains.

A serious athlete, the 21-year-old set out for a run at Mission Trails on January 29 to train for an upcoming ultra-marathon. Later that evening, he planned to leave for a climbing trip to Joshua Tree with friends.

Before completing his planned loop, his parents/investigators believe Max found himself caught in a sudden hailstorm that followed a night of heavy rain in the region. When Max approached the San Diego River Crossing on the trail that afternoon, according to his cell phone tracker, the water level was likely very high and the terrain slippery.

Rather than backtrack 5 miles to endure 2,000 feet of elevation gain in a hailstorm, Max chose the river crossing ahead for a quicker, 10-minute journey back to the parking lot.

But he never made it back to his car.

At about 2pm the next day, in what Max’s mother Laurie Yoler describes as “every parent’s worst nightmare,” Max’s body was discovered by hikers near a waterfall in the park during a search and rescue effort.

Max LeNail’s final jogging route, as recorded by his cellphone. (Credit: LeNail Family)

Remembering Max

The outpouring of love and support for the LeNail/Yoler family was immediate. In a Facebook group entitled “Remembering Max LeNail,” friends and family began posting memories and tributes for Max.

In addition to being an outdoorsman, Max was a college senior earning his degree in neurobiology while studying for the MCAT. Max planned to become a pediatrician to “help ease the fear of sickness and disease for parents and children,” said his father Ben LeNail, whose own disease forced him to walk with two canes.

Max LeNail climbing in 2019. (Credit: LeNail Family)

Max enjoyed hanging out with his pod from Brown University. They had spent the summer adventuring through the mountains of Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra.

Together, the group relocated to San Diego a few weeks prior to Max’s fatal run.

Before arriving at Max’s memorial service at the river site, Laurie assumed her son had gone off-roading or was hiking in an unnavigable area prior to his death. Upon seeing the “San Diego River Crossing” sign leading toward the crossing, however, her immediate thought was that beginner and experienced hikers would presume the route ahead was a safe part of the trail.

When Laurie arrived at Jackson Crossing, the series of stones in the San Diego River where Max slipped, the reality was the opposite.

Quickly, she became aware of just how dangerous the crossing is.

“The rocks were completely covered in green algae,” she said. “There’s just no way anyone would feel safe crossing the river. There are no warning signs. It’s treacherous.”

She used a rope, and with the help of her son, Alex, and his roommates, crossed the river. She proceeded to watch in horror as dozens more hikers tried to navigate the slippery stones.

“If Max could fall, it could happen to anyone. And it will happen again,” Ben warned.

The Max LeNail Memorial Bridge Fund

Soon after, Laurie and Ben learned that a bridge over this stretch of river is written into the Mission Trails Regional Park’s Master Plan. Reportedly, city discussions about a bridge date back a decade.

The project has failed to move forward due to a lack of funding, disagreements over whether the bridge should be for pedestrians or vehicles (or both) and potential environmental impacts, according to a statement by the city of San Diego.

That’s why Max’s parents took it upon themselves to ignite the conversation.

“We’re channeling our grief into positive change,” Ben shared.

Within days, the Palo Alto residents learned about The San Diego Foundation and set up The Max LeNail Memorial Bridge Fund to support the construction of a pedestrian footbridge at the crossing in memory of Max.

Max Lenail’s mom Laurie Yoler and his close friend Jack DiCintio visit the spot on the trail where Lenail lost his footing and drowned. (Credit: LeNail Family)

“We needed a partner that had a strong connection to San Diego,” Ben said. “The speed and efficiency of working with The San Diego Foundation has been absolutely wonderful. We have a strong infrastructure behind us. It is a perfect match.”

Their goal is to raise $2 million for the construction of the bridge to keep San Diego hikers, bikers and all who enjoy the outdoors safe for years to come.

The fund accepts public gifts of cash and non-cash assets, such as stock or charitable fund transfers. All donations are tax-deductible.

Determined to spare other families the pain of losing a loved one at the crossing, Ben and Laurie worked with KPFF Consulting Engineers on three bridge designs and cost estimates, which they recently presented to city officials.

The next step is a joint Task Force and Mission Trails Regional Park Citizens Advisory Committee meeting on May 4 to further discuss the construction of a bridge. The meeting is expected to cover details about engineering, permitting, public comments and a timeline.

(Credit: LeNail Family)

With support from friends and several community groups, including the San Diego Hiking Society, San Diego Mountain Biking Association and the Sierra Club, Max’s parents are hopeful to have the bridge opened by March 26, 2023 for what would have been Max’s 24th birthday.

“We’re in this together,” Ben shared. “The drive to honor Max and have this structure with his name on it to protect people for 50 to 100 years is an amazing concept to us.”

If you would like to learn more about Max, visit BridgeForMax.com.

Or, click here to donate to The Max LeNail Memorial Bridge Fund at The San Diego Foundation.