Tragedy in the Whites

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)

This post by a White Mountain guide gives another interesting perspective.

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12 thoughts on “Tragedy in the Whites

  1. Thank you for your well-thought out and compassionate perspective on this tragedy. There seemed to be a lot of judgement going around with out the attention to nuance. It is too bad that this happened. And thank you for your thoughtful blog.

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  2. Omg Patches this was a great read. I can’t even imagine doing the Whites in the winter. I feel like I barely survived them in August. So sad to hear about Kate. All I know is that she was one impressive hiker chick. Good luck on your summit, my dear. Rooting for you!

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  3. This is by far the most beautiful and thoughtful commentary to Kate’s death that I’ve read. Thank you. As another younger female who often heads out solo (yes, even in winter), I share many of the sentiments that you articulated so well. Last summer, I was hiking with my girlfriend on Huntington Ravine when she fell 45 feet. Long story short, she was all right, thanks to the rescuers who responded to my call. It could have ended very differently, as the commentators to the article written about the rescue effort indicated. We need to head into the mountains with both gratitude and humbleness and, even amidst tragedy, we need to remember the passions and experiences that unite us.

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  4. Brilliantly written, dignified humility. Sadly, some of a lower grade give way to criticism and know not their place. Clearly though, you possess the voice of reason, and those cynics that bark vulgarity, ignorantly miss their mark. I am glad to have met you last year on the PCT, that I see we match in sentiment. May peace be found for Kate and her family.

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  5. As I read your wonderful post, I was struck by the same thoughts… and compelled to learn more for the same variety of reasons. I too had a heck of a presidential climb in the spring, much less the middle of winter! Those are serious mountains and they take the ones they want. Such a sad tragedy, we need to remember that Kate died doing the thing she loved. Thank you for your insightful and well crafted essay.

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  6. I also appreciate your thoughts as someone who takes risks and hike solo. I try to be smart and make wise choices but I make mistakes and learn from them. I won’t be surprised if someday I either need to activate SOS or lose my life. I don’t want to and don’t plan to, but I’ve had sufficient experiences both solo and with others to know shit happens. I wish others weren’t quick to judge but it’s a fact of human character. I appreciate those like you who can take the high road. I hope I too have others who shout the voice of reason should I become a victim of circumstances.

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    • This woman was not a victim of circumstances. The weather was the weather when she started off. The Higher Summit Report available to her on Sat read:

      “As low pressure moves offshore tonight, the strengthening system will continue to produce exceptional winds ripping through New Hampshire from the north. Temperatures will be the coldest of the season thus far with wind speeds becoming sustained in the triple digits. This movement will drive the influx of cold Arctic air moving in from the northwest, producing extremely cold temperatures and producing wind chill values near 100 below.
      With severe conditions expected from summits to the valleys, hiking will be extremely risky Sunday through Monday and hiking above tree line is strongly discouraged. If search and rescue needs arise, help will be slow going or postponed until conditions improve. All SAR assistance if needed will have to come from below, as summit staff will not be able to assist in any way, shape, or form. A single injury will potentially put several lives at risk not just your own.”

      If that bleak warning is not sufficient, what is?

      She had hours to evaluate what was going on around her as she ascended Madison, and then did not get one hour past the treeline once there. That’s horrendous judgement, not victimization. She did use her beacon, and died anyway. She created the circumstances! I mean no harm, the point is that discouraging this sort of behavior is paramount.

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      • I could have better phrased my thoughts to say “victim of judgement.” I certainly have been a victim of my own poor judgement, learning experiences and opportunities, and thankfully not the death kind of victim. Life is about making mistakes and learning from them. Hopefully her experience will help others grow and learn, avoiding similar experiences.

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  7. “Instead of shaking my fist at her carelessness or defending her fearlessness, I feel more comfortable (and productive) viewing Matrosova’s death as a warning or a reminder that Mother Nature is unforgiving; that caution is an invaluable trait for a winter adventurer; that preparation is key to any outdoor excursion; and that backing away from an outing due to poor conditions is OK…” Read more: Hiker’s death in N.H. reiterates dangers of extreme cold. http://actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com/2015/02/17/recreation/hikers-death-in-n-h-reiterates-dangers-of-extreme-cold/ via @1MinHIkeGirl

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  8. Pingback: “Not Without Peril” | Living High On Life

  9. Pingback: Part 2 – A Solo Winter Mount Washington Ascent | Patches Thru

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