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Death in the Presidential Range: The Kate Matrosova Incident

Kate Matrosova - Ty Gagne Book Review

Mountain climbers from around the world come to Mt Washington and the White Mountain’s Presidential Range to train for major expeditions to the great mountain ranges of the world. The steep terrain, cold temperatures, high winds, and abundant snowfall provide climbers with a perfect environment to test their skills.

Climbing these peaks is not without peril, however, and there have been numerous injuries and fatalities in the Presidentials that have required the activation of professional and volunteer search and rescue teams to assist missing hikers and climbers. There are many state and local organization that staff these rescues and it’s pretty amazing how well they work together. Unfortunately, they get plenty of deployment opportunities all year-long.

Ty Gagne’s book “Where You’ll Find Me: Risks, Decisions, and the Last Decisions of Kate Matrosova” has quickly become a mountaineering and hiking classic that’s well worth reading if you like to climb and play in the mountains or you have a loved one who does. While it’s written about a mountaineering accident that occurred in New Hampshire, it could have happened anywhere. The reason this book has proved so influential is that it transcends the place and the particular accident it examines, delving deeply into the emotional and logical pitfalls that can drive expedition decision-making.

Mt Washington Forecast on President's Day
Mt Washington Forecast on President’s Day, 2015

Gagne’s book also provides a behind-the-scenes account of how search and rescue is organized in the White Mountain National Forest, which is largely volunteer-based, and works hand-in-hand with New Hampshire’s state agencies. Gagne is a wilderness first responder and board member of one of the search and rescue organizations that attempted to rescue Kate Matrosova. He provides a deeply personal account of the rescue attempt and how it affected all of the people involved. This book provides a unique look into the heart of search and rescue personnel that I’ve never seen in any other mountaineering accident analysis. It’s a different perspective than you’ll find anywhere else.

Incident Summary

Kate Matrosova had the goal of climbing the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. She came to the winter White Mountains to train by hiking a Northern Presidential Traverse. This is an 15 mile route with 8700′ of elevation gain over the five tallest mountains in the Presidential Range: Mts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay, and Mt Washington. She’d tried to recruit hiking partners from her circle of friends. But none were interested, so she decided hike to the route solo.

These five mountains lie on a common ridge and encircle a deep glacial cirque called The Great Gulf. The ridge is completely exposed to the wind and the cold and looks like a moonscape in winter, barren, and devoid of landmarks. While she planned her route carefully, she was not familiar with the trail system and would need to rely on her GPS to find her way across the featureless winter moonscape. She also opted to hike it in a fast and light alpine style without any survival gear, like a sleeping bag or bivy sack, instead planning to race through the route and get down below treeline before any adverse weather could arise.

he area near where Matrosova was likely recovered - south-southeast slope of John Quincy Adams, a sub-peak of Mt Adams.
The area near where Matrosova was likely recovered – south-southeast slope of John Quincy Adams, a sub-peak of Mt Adams.

Things did go wrong however. Matrosova had hoped to finish her hike before a vicious storm descended on the Northern Presidentials. After she’d summited the first peak, Mt Madison, she started working her way to nearby Mt Adams. Her pace began to slow. The wind speed on nearby Mt Washington had increased to 96 mph with a temperature of -17F and wind chill of -64F. Weighing just 125 pounds, Matrosova was likely knocked down by the wind, which would have made walking extremely difficult. Visibility would have been near zero as the wind whipped up the snow. Realizing she was in trouble, she initiated a Search and Rescue request with her SPOT. Rescuers believe she succumbed to hypothermia, and her body was discovered the next day frozen solid.

Here’s a video of the actual search and rescue team effort to try and locate her to give you a sense of what 100 mph winds are like in the Presidential Range. Note the rescuers in the video who are blown to the ground by the wind. These are big strapping mountain guides carrying 80 lb backpacks and not a 125 lb waif like Kate Matrosova. We can only imagine how the wind speeds and cold affected her.

Human Factors in Adventure Decision Making

There are three elements to individual and group decision-making in extreme environments: physical, environmental, and human factors.

  • Physical factors include the terrain we hope to cross and the equipment we bring, such as snowshoes, ice axes, maps, and GPS units.
  • Environmental factors include wind speed, temperature, snow depth and the way it affects us.
  • Human factors are behavioral and include our experiences in similar circumstances, training, and emotional biases, such as goals or ambitions.

The interplay of these factors often determines how and what decisions we make as circumstances change in the field.

Gagne’s analyzes Matrosova’s route and the decisions she made before she perished with this lens. His analysis isn’t judgmental, but an artful examination of the factors that could have led to her behavior as hypothermia in the adverse conditions set in. This type of analysis is the norm when analyzing many kinds of winter accidents, but Gagne’s makes it accessible to a broader audience.

This book is a page-turner because many of us can identify with the circumstances that Matrosova found herself in. We’ve all made sketchy decisions outdoors at one point or another, and learning from them is an inextricable part of the outdoor experience. It doesn’t matter where you hike, climb, or ski, Gagne’s Where You’ll Find Me, has lessons for us all.

Disclosure: The author purchased this book.

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17 comments

  1. Interesting post. I’ll have to pick up the book.

    HJ

  2. An interesting post, though sad as it is. I enjoy your book review and look forward to more.

  3. It’s really well written and informative. The physical and mental effects in regards to hypothermia were eye-opening. The story as also told from the view of the SAR team and what they suffered in recovering her body was sobering.

    It ranks up there with Nicholas Howes “Not Without Peril”

  4. A great read for anyone who does winter hiking in the Whites.

    Picked the book up and couldn’t put it down. I have way more respect for the Mount Washington Observatory weather report.

  5. Still no Kindle version. How is that possible in this day and age?

  6. The day Kate went up my buddy Ben and i had plans to peak bag Maddison and Adams. It was one of those situations where we planned for it, took time off work, paid for a hotel in advance, bought new gear and then the weather took a turn.
    We waited until the very last minute to cancel the hike. Kate had far more experience mountaineering than we did, but her story really shook us and is something we still talk about frequently.
    It’s a sobering reminder of just how dangerous those mountains can be.

  7. This is an excellent book. Unlike some that just report the clinical details of an accident , Gagne provides a detailed account of what the rescuers had to endure. Truly astounding. There is also information about Kate’s mountaineering background, trip planning and decision making that we can learn from.

  8. Going to have to add this to my reading list. Related, but obviously a completely different set of circumstances: Does anyone know of a similarly detailed, competent book on the Geraldine Largay (“Inchworm”) case? I’ve read a few online reports, and some of the newspaper stories have been fairly detailed, but i’m wondering if anyone has written a comprehensive, long-form report yet.

  9. Thanks for the post. Just ordered the book.
    Anyone who likes these kind of stories might be interested to read The Last Season by Eric Blehm.

    “The Last Season examines the extraordinary life of legendary backcountry ranger Randy Morgenson and his mysterious disappearance in California’s unforgiving Sierra Nevada – mountains as perilous as they are beautiful.”

  10. Sounds like a good read. Where was this woman from?

  11. We all held our breath when we heard there was a hiker above treeline that weekend – we couldn’t believe it. This book helped me to understand the event, particularly what motivated Kate and why she felt equipped for the weather and the experience. The search and recovery brought us closer to all SAR folks.

    Do you plan on reviewing Stott’s “Critical Hours?” I couldn’t put it down but then again I’m kind of an “Appalachia” “Accidents” junkie.

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