Home / White Mountains / The Wisdom of Hiking Groups: Reflections on Solo Winter Hiking in the Northern Presidential Range

The Wisdom of Hiking Groups: Reflections on Solo Winter Hiking in the Northern Presidential Range

Mt Adams, Presidential Range
Mt Adams, Presidential Range

The big story last week was the accidental death of a solo hiker, Kate Matrosova, who died from exposure between Mt Madison and Mt Adams in New Hampshire’s Northern Presidential Mountain Range. A so-called “expert hiker”, she attempted to traverse Mt Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and Washington on a day when it was 35 degrees below zero with 100 mph winds. Her body was found 24 hours after she activated a PLB distress beacon. She had neglected to bring any emergency gear, including a sleeping bag and a bivy sack, and was lacking snowshoes.

There have been many theories put forth as to why she attempted to hike this route on a day when no one in their right mind would have been above treeline in the Northern Presidentials. People have speculated that:

  • She didn’t have the latest forecast, even though the weather had been trending to the apocalyptic for days prior.
  • That she had an unrealistic expectation that rescuers would come to her assistance when she sent a distress call.
  • That not being a local, she was unfamiliar with the deadly severity of winter weather in the Northern Presidentials.

While all of those factors may have been true, few commentators have zeroed in on the glaringly obvious fact that she was hiking above-treeline alone in winter in the Northern Presidentials.

While many local hikers, myself included, consider solo winter hiking in the Northern Presidentials to be dangerous and borderline reckless, there is a cult (figuratively speaking), of winter hikers in the White Mountains who hike solo above treeline all the time. Hey, whatever. Do what you want as long as it doesn’t affect me. Hiking alone above treeline in the winter Whites doesn’t appeal to me, even when weather conditions are relatively benign. There’s too much that can go wrong.

Treeline Warning, White Mountains
Treeline Warning, White Mountains

Group Decision Making and Mutual Aid

I prefer hiking in groups in winter because I know that groups tend to make better decisions about the risks involved with winter hiking than individuals. Multiple points of view, fitness, and skill levels require group members to put aside their individual goals and consider the limitations, concerns, and safety of other people. While groups can get in trouble if they delegate authority to a single individual like a guide, having multiple guides, leaders, or individuals that feel comfortable in conferring with one another, can ameliorate the lemming effect.

Besides risk management, hiking in a group is safer in winter because there are multiple people available to carry extra emergency gear, pull you out of a spruce trap, recognize when you are showing signs of hypothermia, check your balaclava/ski mask for exposed skin, or carry you below treeline if you’re immobilized and need to curtail your hike early.

Mt Washington Forecast on President's Day
Mt Washington Forecast on President’s Day

I speculate that Kate Matrosova would still be alive today of she had been hiking in a group with other winter hikers, who would have challenged her to abort the hike before they left the parking lot or when they experienced blizzard conditions upon breaking treeline.

While we can’t know that the outcome would have been any different, I recommend hiking with groups in winter above treeline in the Northern Presidentials and the White Mountains.

I’m sorry this young woman lost her life alone and in such a terrible place. Along with others, I send my condolences to her family.

42 comments

  1. 35 below and 100MPH winds… Am I correct in calculating the wind chill at 90-somthing below zero!!! My chart maxes out at 60mph winds…. Do they even make summit attempts on Everest in those conditions? If they do, it is most certainly with the appropriate gear. I solo hike all the time (flatlander hiking in the woods), but I certainly take the appropriate gear and assess conditions – I wouldn’t be venturing outside in that weather, let alone making a summit attempt!

    • You are correct. One of the theories is that she was blown aloft like the flying nun and injured. You can’t walk in that kind of wind, you’ll be knocked down and the wind chill would have been horrendous.

      • Absolutely! When retreating back to Lion Head I was hurled 10 yards to the NE. Fully geared/clothed for summit attempt I weighed in at 225!!!

  2. Tara, no, Everest attempts aren’t made in those conditions. Often times if conditions degrade enough, hikers will retreat to camp 3, or camp 2, sometimes even basecamp. When they’re there in May its quite balmy compared to these conditions. What this hiker experienced is similar to an Everest WINTER attempt,…the time MOST don’t attempt Everest.
    Check out Lonnie Dupre who recently summited Denali this past winter. It took Lonnie years to achieve this. Patience, and respect of the mountain is paramount.
    I was up there a month ago, we experienced similar conditions to what Kate experienced on our one summit attempt day. We turned around minutes from the summit due to conditions degrading rapidly and experiencing visibility of 5-10′. It was terrifying.
    This is tragic, however, nature doesn’t care you’re ill prepared, or headstrong about making a summit.

  3. Dang shame about Ms. Matrosova. But yeah, I can’t imagine going out in those conditions even with a group, even carrying very specialized equipment.

    I’m with you on the group thing in winter conditions. Too much can go wrong in Winter. Your buddy might just be the one thing that keeps you alive out there.

    HJ

  4. Agreed on the groups, all my winter solo hiking is with limited above treeline travel and with improving forecasts on the horizons.

    I think a lot of the negative reactions and speculation come from people not wanting to admit they could make the same type of mistakes (underestimating worsening conditions or getting injured during a winter hike) and potentially die in the mountains. We like to reassure ourselves why it could never happen to us when we take smaller but identical risks on our own hikes. In order to life a fulfilling life I know I have to be accepting of some amount of risk and embrace the unknown.

    • Mike, you are exactly right about that. We’ve all spent the past two weeks convincing ourselves that “it could never happen to me because….”

  5. I didn’t realize that she didn’t bring emergency gear. People need to realize that having a PLB is only part of the solution; you need to be able to survive until help can reach you. It continues to amaze me that with all of the information at our fingertips people still make the same mistakes that were made over 100 years ago.

  6. People that age tend to think they are invincible. Even so, an “expert hiker” would have known to quit after the first mile let alone try to summit four peaks under those conditions. I have quit under conditions that were balmy compared to what she encountered.

    • Another blogged commented on the fact that many of her experiences were as a participant on guided trips, so it may be the fact that she had the technical know-how for hikes like this one but not the decision-making know-how. This, unfortunately, proved to be true.

  7. I certainly buy the “mutual aid” aspect of hiking in groups, but I am less convinced of the “group decision making”. All the observation I’ve ever made indicate that the larger the group, the stupider the decisions can be.

    I can’t claim to be in that club that routinely (or even ever) hikes the Northern Presis solo in winter. I wouldn’t, however, categorically rule it out.

    Partially because even though I hike solo a lot (all seasons), I am wicked careful about when and where. I’ve called off many a hike (alone), either in the driveway, at the trailhead, or even 2 hours down the trail. And I do take the “STOP” sign seriously.

    But finding a group that will/would have turned back in those same conditions is hard. I’ve certainly been on multiple group hikes where *I* would have turned back solo, but the group didn’t. In fact, I was on Cannon on the 15th. Frigging nuts.Yes, we all survived and there were no injuries, so the group was “right”. But was it really? We heard about the SAR in progress on the way home.

    The question I also ask is: are my partners with me because they are depending on my superior decision-making skills, or am I with them because I’m depending on theirs? I don’t like either option particularly well. So I choose conditions that are within my skill-set.

    • I hate large groups. The hikes that I lead never have more than 10 people and often as few as 6. Communication breaks down when groups are larger, especially while people are hiking. When I lead hikes, I always have a co-leader, because I gain a lot of satisfaction from the collaborative give and take of working together.

      • Two to three people groups may lead to better decisons in my experience. I have done solo winter hikes in the Northern Presidentials but under very “benign” conditions.

  8. It goes without being said, solo hiking is risky anytime and group mentality can go either way….it either breeds bravery or caution. There are also infamous groups that have perished (1996 Mt. Everest).
    Your words “I speculate that Kate Matrosova would still be alive today of she had been hiking in a group with other winter hikers, who would have challenged her to abort the hike before they left the parking lot or when they experienced blizzard conditions upon breaking treeline.” come off as arrogant and self serving.
    I choose to remember Ms. Matrosova as an adventurer, and learn from her last fatal adventure.

    • So what did “you” learn John?

    • I will remember her as a foolhardy young women who died, like many other foolhardy people have done throughout history. Its amazing how otherwise intelligent people, have a blind spot when it comes to their own safety. Risk management and assessment is supposed to be a Wall Street specialty. Working on Wall Street, you would have thought she would have taken that skill to the great outdoors. The risk vs. reward just wasn’t there on the day she attempted to hike it.

      • Also a lot of egomaniacs and “untouchables” working there as well. An ego = arrogance + ignorance. Time = Money. ROI from REI. Catch what I’m flippin? Not saying this fits this situation, merely an observation.

        Also its easy for a local to turn around as its easy enough to get back. Someone far away may have a harder time doing so after weeks of anticipation, telling everyone their plans, and a 15 hour round trip ride.

        Just another observation. For some people, turning back may not be an option they allow to cross their minds…

  9. Part of what made this situation so troubling for me, is that I have made poor choices in those mountains.

    That weekend, a friend and I had planned on hiking the Franconia Ridge Line. We booked a hotel, took the following day off work, bought new gear, spent weeks doing “tune up” hikes and then we watched the weather… We ended up calling it the night before the hike and I walked around disapointed the entire next day.

    I won’t judge Kate Mastrosova, because I know how hard it is to walk away from the time and financial commitment we all put into this.

    I have been in the Northern Presidentials in February and I can’t imagine how terrified she must have been. It’s a scary place when you are alone and have 0 visbility. My heart really goes out to her.

  10. I grew up hiking the Presidential Mountains and have gone up many times alone. Now older/wiser I don’t take the chances I used to. Sometimes canceling a hike or turning around is the right thing to do. The weather conditions can change so fast – it is almost hard to believe.

    You probably should have most if not all of the following for winter hiking:
    Sleeping bag & tarp/tent footprint/sleeping pad
    Good Multi-tool for emergency repairs/cutting branches
    Tinder & fire starting materials
    High visibility ribbon so people can find you

    Not sure exactly what happened but it is likely she fell and may of torn some of her clothing. I have a long list of clothing the mountains have destroyed and one pair of gloves that flew off my pack and given their trajectory – likely landed somewhere in the state of Maine.

    Hiking the Presidential Mountain range is anything but boring.

    • From what I understand they’re accurate to within a mile and then SAR uses a different frequency to track you down within that distance. The SPOT, which I believe she used, is also only rated down to 20 below zero (f), so she was using it well below it’s minimum operating temperature since it was 35 degrees below zero (f)

  11. This is a sad story. Our local sad story of a few years ago occurred on a day with freezing rain predicted, day started out dry in mid 40s, ended with freezing rain in low 30s. A father and his two sons went for a long hike in Southern Missouri Ozarks country, apparently got wet then hypothermic and confused, father refused a good Samaritan’s offer of a car ride back to base, went on hiking, and they found the three people dead the next day. Cell phones do work in most areas on high points close to paved state roads, and it seems likely that the dad had a phone and didn’t think to use it while he was still thinking straight. The point is, hypothermia makes you stupid before it kills you. (and wet cotton makes you hypothermic)

    At the Antarctic bases in the wintering-over period, whenever temperatures and winds are this bad, no-one is allowed to leave base, and the base contracts to all-people-and-vital-functions-in-one-building.

    WTF??? I solo hike. I check the weather, take a charged cell phone, and no-snow winter gear in addition to the warm-weather water, food, headlamp: silvered semi-disposable bivy, an Esbit microstove and a couple of cubes and a lighter, a cooking capable mug (single wall metal), and an instant cocoa pack or two if I hike anywhere but Trail Running Central (any of a few local trails with at least one individual or group per hour passing by in daylight hours) when night temperature falls into the mere 40s F. I know how long (several hours to all night) it would take EMS crew to arrive, even if I were giving them exact coordinates and telling them where to turn on a trail system that has obvious trail path and markers. Not only would I like to be alive, but I prefer being as comfortable as reasonably possible during the wait.

  12. It reminds me of the signs in the Grand Canyon that show a buff young man and carry the caption, “Every year 250 people are rescued from the Grand Canyon. Most look like him.”

    I’ve done some dumb things while hiking but the dumbest have been while with others. Alone, I’m not so sure of my invincibility and I change course or turn back when the safety margin gets uncomfortable. Sometimes with others there gets to be a groupthink of “Together, we can handle this”. That is true and safe to a certain extent–we can aid and assist each other do things that alone would be too risky, however, it can also lead to a certain bravado that pushes the envelope too far.

    Most disastrous situations culminate from a succession of minor errors that add up into a big problem and there are usually many points along the way where a change of course could have averted the outcome altogether.

    One of the worst predicaments I ever got into happened the first week of January this year and required a rescue. Several bad decisions on my part resulted in a hike my family will never forget (or possibly forgive). My daughter and grandkids accompanied me on a bushwhack over Casa Grande peak in Big Bend National Park. My grandson and I could have scampered over the top without much trouble but my daughter and granddaughter aren’t nearly as experienced hikers and I didn’t properly take into account the limitations of our group. The climb was much harder than I remembered from the last time I’d been up there a quarter century ago and our progress was far slower than anticipated. As evening drew nearer, I didn’t think we could safely return the way we’d come that time of day and fixated on continuing over the top to descend the easier route on the other side of the mountain rather than considering a different bail out scenario while there was enough light to do it. We got over the top but my daughter twisted her ankle and we got caught after dark on a steep slope in deteriorating weather and I had to pull an SOS on my DeLorme InReach Explorer. I made use of every item we had to keep my party as safe as possible in the elements (even wrapping my daughter’s legs with my topo map to block the wind) but I also longed for some other gear I’d left back at camp that will always accompany me on future day hikes. Other than my wife on our wedding day, the most beautiful sight I’ve ever beheld was the headlights of those two Rangers coming over the pass at 11 PM. They got our very grateful band of four back to the trailhead at 5 AM. My grandkids now think Casa Grande is much nicer from the bottom than the top.

  13. We’ve all made bad decisions in the mountains. It’s just a matter of degree really.
    We’ve all learned a lot from our good and bad decisions as well as the decisions of others. Maybe she was lucky and unlucky to never previously make bad ones and never learn their lessons. Maybe her death serves as a lesson to a group of kids that turns around when they think of her when they wouldn’t have other wise. Maybe everything happens for a reason. Maybe it does not.

    Regardless, the mountains don’t care about mortals.

  14. Are avalanches much of a problem in the Northeast mountains? Because I would add “dig you out of an avalanche” to your list of group benefits.

  15. This is a sad story. Philip, your use of the story to prove how smart you are and how dumb she was is tasteless. Your contempt for her is palpable in just about every sentence of this post. Show some tact and class. Not everything is about showing how you know what the “right way” is and someone else doesn’t, particularly when that “someone else” just died.

    • I assure you my intention was honorable. I lead hikes and teach hiking in these mountains. I pray others dont make the same mistakes. This was a pointless death and a
      tragedy.

    • I see nothing comtemptuous in what Phillip wrote. Ms. Matrosova took unnecessary risks and yet was described in the media as an “expert hiker”–i.e., someone with the experience to pack gear for unexpected conditions or know when to turn back.

  16. While I agree hiking in groups is a safer route. I do hike alone above treeline because I enjoy being alone from time to time. However I bring the right gear and I take every precaution I can to do it safely. If weather is not ideal I’ll opt for a more protected hike. It’s unfortunate what happend to Kate. But sadly it was her poor judgment that lead to this situation. I believe she underestimated the presi’s given her past on higher peaks. Let’s hope her stories deters others from making the same mistakes.

  17. Kate tested the limits and learned with her untimely death that there are limits.

  18. Not sure a group would have helped. Seen plenty of groups making poor decisions including ignoring park rangers. People don’t understand the extreme wind/weather conditions are what make the Presidential mountain range so difficult. I can’t count the number of times I have encountered winds over 100mph. You aren’t so much as climbing a mountain as climbing a living and breathing dragon – determined to throw you off.

      • Jay, I read this Bloomberg article several months ago and had sent it along to my adventure-seeking, hiking granddaughter, in the hopes that it would serve as a cautionary tale. Thanks for posting it here. I hope others read it, too.
        What I get from both the Bloomberg and the Globe articles is a portrait of someone who is driven, and often seeking what is called external validation – a desire to be seen as worthy by others through extreme accomplishments. You will recall that in the Bloomberg article that Matrosova’s husband Charlie had insisted that she bring a PBL – she had laughed it off initially because she thought she didn’t need it. Add that to the fact that as an intelligent thirty-something, she knew very well how to check the weather conditions, forecast, etc., prior to stepping foot on the trail. She just HAD to do the presidentials on Presidents Day weekend. It was in her plan, so it had to be, in spite of no snow shoes, no winter bivy sack, no climbing partner. She was going to do it all in one day. So why wouldn’t the Presidential Range yield to Kate Matrosova?
        One characteristic of highly driven people is hubris – the sense that what they had planned WILL happen, no matter what. Many of us like to feel this way at times, but usually not to the point of ignoring BASIC winter hiking skills and tenets, which includes assessing the natural environment , being prepared for it and having the MATURITY to change our plans and not put others at risk, be they other hikers or potential rescuers.
        I agree with Philip that Matrasova would be alive today if she had been with a WELL-LED group, especially a group that took everyone’s safety as the point of reference in decision making. It is not arrogant to say that she would be alive today when you have had AMC leadership training in high country hiking, among other types of wilderness training, and have led several trips over many years.

  19. I backpack mostly by myself, all 4 seasons.
    If anything it reduces the chances you’ll take. Every action is metered, look at wildlife, look at how they move, everything is cautious. I like the feeling of deep wilderness it’s hard for me to feel that with a party of buddies yakking it up along the trail.

    Poor lady, she made a horrible misjudgment at some point she ran out of options, hope no one ever has to experience that.

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