The mysterious life and death of Intrade's CEO

  @FortuneMagazine October 10, 2013: 12:57 PM ET
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Intrade CEO John Delaney climbing Mount Everest on May 4, 2011


Where does a man go to test himself, perhaps to cleanse himself? No ordinary soul, this man. He lives to demolish his limitations, to push himself to extremes. Run a marathon? Why not try two in the same day? To those around him, he's kind, courtly, honorable -- a gentleman. He is also pigheadedly stubborn. An autocrat in the office. Intensely private. And maybe, by this point, a bit worn down by the struggle. Frustrated by his ailing body. Wondering if he'll ever figure out the right formula for his business. In need of a big win. Where else could John Delaney go but to the highest point on earth?

They decided to try for the summit at night. The Russian-led expedition of eight climbers, eight Sherpas, and two guides reached the final camp on the north slope of Mount Everest around 2 p.m. on May 20, 2011. It was a Friday. At an altitude of 27,000 feet above sea level, the group was already more than 1,000 feet into the death zone, the extreme altitude at which oxygen levels drop to one-third of normal and aren't enough to sustain human life for more than a short time. But the mood among the climbers was one of muted excitement. The team had spent nearly six weeks waiting and preparing -- climbing from base camp to higher points and back, shocking their bodies to acclimate to the altitude. Now the weather was clear.

If they waited until morning for the final ascent, the route up would be crowded with other climbers. A traffic jam on the way could keep them from reaching the top. There was only one choice. They would rest for a short while, make their final preparations, and set out at 7 p.m. They would climb in darkness. If all went according to plan, the climbers would reach the summit in the predawn hours.

John Delaney was one of the more experienced mountaineers in the group. He was also, certainly, the only one who had been a regular presence on CNBC. Delaney, the CEO of Intrade, a Dublin-based company known for operating uncannily accurate "prediction markets" that allowed customers to place bets on the outcome of presidential elections and other geopolitical events, had previously summited several of the world's highest peaks. Five years earlier he had come to Everest and climbed to the North Col, at 23,000 feet, but hadn't attempted the summit. In the weeks since the expedition team had arrived in Kathmandu and begun preparing to climb the Tibetan side of Everest, Delaney had proved himself as one of the group's strongest climbers.

But there were plenty of reasons for him not to be there. To begin with, he hadn't bothered to inform the shareholders of his privately held company that he would be spending two months on a mountain in Asia on a potentially deadly climb. Dean LeBaron, the founder of mutual fund firm Batterymarch Financial Management and one of Intrade's major investors, had no idea that Delaney was on Everest. "I know exactly what I would have said," says LeBaron. "I'd have said, 'Listen, entrepreneurs don't have a life of their own. You know, you're captive of the company until such time as it can exist well without you.'"

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