I plan to climb Mt. Washington this winter, and I expect to survive the attempt…but I recognize that not everybody does. New Hampshire’s White Mountains, though beautiful, can be dangerous, especially during the winter. Yesterday the hiking community received a painful reminder of this truth when we learned of the tragic death of fellow hiker and adventurer Kate Matrosova. Though I did not know Kate Matrosova we have some things in common… We are both women in our 30s that enjoy hiking and mountaineering, we’ve both climbed Kilimajaro, we’ve both gone on solo winter hikes in the White Mountains, and we both hoped to climb Mt. Washington this winter…
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
There are people that think that I am crazy… crazy for hiking, crazy for backpacking, crazy for going on solo adventures in the woods, crazy for going outside during the wintertime… When the snow begins to fall most people head home to curl up beside the hearth, drink a cup of hot cocoa, and read a book or watch a movie… some people head to the hills to ski, but a small number of us head to the mountains to hike and soak in the spectaular snow-covered views. When I learned that someone that shared my passion for the outdoors died doing the thing I love, I felt compelled to learn more about what happened… partly from a morbid sense of curiosity, partly to reassure myself that I wouldn’t end up in a similar situation, and partly to learn from the tragedy to try to avoid ending up in a similar situation.
So, What happened? Matrosova was attempting a winter traverse of the Northern Presidentials: Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Washington. This day-hike is 13.5 to 17.5 miles long and is one of the most challenging hikes in the White Mountains.* She began at 5 am on Sunday morning, but by 3:30 in afternoon she’d activated her personal locator beacon initiating rescue efforts. Even though rescuers were deployed Sunday evening, they were unable to locate Matrosova and deteriorating weather conditions forced them to postpone their search until morning. At 2 pm on Monday her body was located near Star Lake, not far from Madison Spring Hut (which is closed during the winter).
Could/would the same thing happen to me? I tried to reassure myself that the same thing wouldn’t have happened to me. After all, I’d made a different decision than Kate did when it came to attempting a Mt. Washington climb on that Sunday… I decided not to hike and she decided to hike. Despite the fact that I’ve been checking the weather and looking for a viable window of opportunity to climb Mt. Washington since my successful Mt. Lafayette ascent in January . I decided that the forecast high temperature of 0F degrees was too low for me, that the forecast low of -30F was way too low for me, the predicted wind speeds of 80 mph were too high, and the weather pattern was too unstable (tail end/after effects of the blizzaed) for me to even consider making a Mt. Washington attempt…. Brrrrrr!!!! But I have to admit that I spent most of the day Sunday and Monday looking out my window at the beautifully sunny skies wishing that I was out hiking, seriously contemplating going for a quick hike up Mt. Monadnock (which is closer to home for me), and grumbling about the cruelty of winter when it feels like you should be outside enjoying the sun, but are trapped inside.
It bothers me that the initial reaction of the hiking community to the death of an adventurer is to assume that they must have been inexperienced, cocky, or reckless. From the little information that is publicly available, it looks to me like Kate Matrosova had more mountaineering experience than I do… If I assume that she was more comfortable with winter mountaineering than I am, her decisions begin to make more sense, not less… Perhaps she felt like she was equipped to deal with those temperatures and wind speeds? It’s hard for me to imagine, but certainly possible… She probably had a number of bail out options and plans (I always do), and the fact that she used her locator beacon before it started to get dark suggests to me that she realized when she got in over her head that she needed help and called for it.
It is a classic stage of grief to try to isolate ourselves and reassure ourselves that we would have responded differently and that we would have survived, but as I watched the online forums explode with commentary about Kate’s death I found it upsetting… Was this the kind of commentary that people would make about me if, god-forbid, something happened to me on one of my solo hikes? I knew that the answer was yes because some variant of the same conversation seems to unfold every time a hiker meets an untimely death, but I didn’t like it…
As hikers, backpackpers, and mountaineers we acknowledge that risk is a part of our sport, a part of our community, and a part of our lives… and that sometimes death is the cost of living. Everyone that has done extensive hiking and backpacking has made bad decisions, has been cocky, and has been inexperienced. The thing that really makes us different from those that have perished is that we have had the privilege of living through our mistakes and learning from them… Not everyone is that lucky. I fully intend to survive my Mt. Washington attempt! But then again, I have no doubt that Kate Matrosova did as well.
*The Northern Presidentials: The typical route starts at the Appalachia parking lot off of Highway 2 (where she was dropped off at 5 am on Sunday), follows the Valley-Way trail to Madison Spring Hut, and then follows the Appalachian Trail across a beautiful and exposed ridge to Mount Washington and Lakes of the Clouds Hut (the Gulfside Trail to Crawford Path with optional side-trips to the summits of Madison, Adams, and Jefferson) before descending via the Amanoosuk Trail to the Base Road Parking lot (off of 302, where she was planning on meeting her husband later that day)