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 organizations 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 a 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 to 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 a 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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18 comments

  1. Ty Gagne’s telling about the tragedy of Kate Matrosova and about the multiple teams involved in the SAR missions is an outstanding read.

    Matrosova was a “super-achiever.” The book and accounts by others (such as Chip Brown) never denoted once where Matrosova experienced failure in her many lifetime achievements.

    Ty Gagne denotes, “… Kate was driven to succeed at whatever she attempted.” Chip Brown writes about a super-achiever who possessed a “never surrender” ethos. Matrosova’s judo instructor describes that ethos: “… Kate invariably refused to tap the mat or the winner’s forearm while in a chokehold, preferring unconsciousness to submission.” Even as the chokehold diminished the blood flow to Kate’s face resulting in her passing out, in her mind, Kate prevailed; because she never “capitulated.” Therein, lay her Achilles heel.

    In the absence of personal failures, Kate Matrosova took on a mindset that she could accomplish anything which she set her my mind to achieve. This mindset infuses a feeling of invincibility.

    In the absence of personal failures Kate Matrosova never developed fully needed skills associated with situational awareness. She was cognizant fully that she was one hour and 37 minutes off-pace as she started her descent down Mt. Madison. Her selfie at Madison hut mirrored eyelashes covered in thick frost with frostbitten cheeks and a neck gaiter covered in frost (or perhaps frozen solid). Turn right Kate! Head back down the Valley Way! As Ed Viesturs says, “…. The mountain’s always going to be there. You can always go back.” Unfortunately, Kate Matrosova is a woman who doesn’t acknowledge failure; only an innate will to succeed at anything she tries.

    Failure strengthens us, it humbles us, it allows us to feel humility compelling us to revisit analytically the sequence of events that led us to fail and how to strengthen ourselves and learn in the process so as to make judicious judgment calls in the future.

    The loss of Kate Matrosova is a human tragedy, but it also teaches us how valuable a lesson failure can be to succeeding later.

  2. Looking forward to reading this. I read Deep Survival:who lives, who dies and why a king time ago and bet there will be some parallels. As a trauma/ICU nurse and an outdoorsman I’m constantly aware of my limitations, especially as I age. I climbed Mt Washington in March many years ago. It’s not something I’m eager to repeat. Those days are over. Put a fly rod in my hand and I’ll be satisfied!

  3. I thought this book was excellent. Actually think it should be a must read for highschoolers since it gives an excellent example of proper planning and experience, but also how things still can go wrong and how difficult but critical it can be to decide to turn around when you are in the thick of it. Very tankful that the details of her story were shared with us. Will likely read it again.

  4. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a few years. I couldn’t agree more with Cavallaro’s comments above, regarding making this book a must read. I’ve already done just that for my daughter and her boyfriend.

    This is definitely a book that I will read again.

  5. I just finished it.

    Honestly, it’s frustrating reading accounts like this because it’s so obvious within the first few pages to anyone who has spent any significant time in the mountains how batshit crazy this plan was, and misguided she was. I have never once ventured into the mountains without the ability to safely spend the night, and communicate effectively for help if needed.

    The idea that she was “experienced” is dubious. No experienced mountaineer would have gone out on the cusp of conditions like that. Much less without shelter. Nor would they have proceeded when it became so obvious conditions were deteriorating. Going on professionally guided trips with the clear goal of notching achievements on your belt doesn’t make you experienced. It makes you an adrenaline junkie.

    Mostly, it makes me angry because of how selfish decisions like this are. The SAR community has lost too many people because of foolish decisions like this. It’s sad that society rewards unbridled, often inexperienced ambition like the kind she clearly possessed.

    I would also highly recommend “Deep Survival”. Fantastic study in heuristic traps. Essential for any adventurer.

    • We seem to have lost the ability to “delay gratification” as a culture/country. The associated lack of “impulse control” explains a lot about the pandemic situation we find ourselves in.

  6. No, I am not the great gray man but I did borrow his handle for a pseudonym when I submitted “Spruce Traps”, a first person account that was published in the December 1979 Appalachia Journal.
    I was young in those days and stronger than most of my companions so it followed that I did many ambitious things solo. That includes , at least two, attempts at a winter traverse. The difference between my approach and hers was that I employed retreat as a corner stone of my plan. I had a lot of bivouac experience and was familiar with the route in summer. My plan was always to be in position to seize an opportunity. The Randolph side of the northern peaks offers better bail outs than Madison Adam’s col or the Valley Way, so that was always my choice. Even though my plan was, I believe, more prudent, it was still though to be reckless by my piers at the time. Solo…..ANYTHING….requires a special attitude. People who embark on solo adventures need to be ultra careful. Robert Redford’s character in “Out of Africa” says; “It’s OK to take a chance, if only you will pay,”.
    Perhaps that says it best as long as we keep that in mind. Make no mistake, the rescue teams are there by choice. They want to participate, regardless of anything that the say to the contrary BUT that is no excuse to put them in that role.

  7. Sad but true. I was appalled that her husband and friends apparently did so little to dissuade her from such an ill conceived plan. Although she identified bailout points, the prevailing conditions in advance of her start should have deterred her husband from assisting her.

    There were also abundant sources of information on weather hazards and accounts of injuries and deaths in the Whites that were easily available to Matrosova and her husband. They were negligent if they did not avail themselves of these and more so if they ignored them.

  8. First book I’ve ever read in one sitting. 3:45 PM to 12:10 AM. Read, thought, placed myself in Kate’s head and said to myself, what would I have done. I would of ended like Kate. Her fate and path were created one month before when she overnighted on Mt. Madison with her husband. Not making the hike to Adams like she requested of her husband is akin to a stillbirth..
    Every mountain anyone ever climbs provides a unique experience, a birth of a spiritual essence that will be different than all other mountain. It’s like having kids. They are all human, but each is unique unto itself. Kate had stillborn event with Mt. Adams once (she was so close and that was the one time she should have soloed to Adams).
    When she was 1.5 hrs off her time at the first return to the Madison Hut she was in the labor pains of the birth of the experience called Mt. Adams. She was still stinging from the regret of January.
    Kate knew she was going to snort the trip and had every intention of returning back to the Appalachia parking lot. First she had to ensure the birth of the experience and essence of Mt. Adams. She was tiring, waning, and cold, but believed she had the stamina to complete the delivery of Mt. Adams. She even took the short-cut up the steep slope to shorten the time. At 157 ft from the summit only then did she fully realize it was another still-born and that she was bleeding out. That is when the mindset changed from delivering a new life to the survival mode. It was too little too late.
    We (anyone with a modicum of adventurous spirit) have all had moments of creative expectations that we have risked much for to make that expectation a reality. Most times it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.

  9. There is a distinct danger associated with “equipment intensive activities”. Mountaineering and cave diving are two that come to mind because I am familiar with both but there are others and you can make your own comparisons. The bottom line is that you can never count on your equipment to make you better. State of the art gadgets are no substitute for experience and sound judgement. This woman was young and strong and had enjoyed some easy victories and she was in a bubble of her own creation. There is no one right way to get to real confidence but we need to be more honest with ourselves about when we are ready.Having a beacon or cell phone may be prudent but to those of us who did stuff in the 1950s & 60s it looks a bit like the tail is wagging the dog.

  10. I’m a little baffled by the lack of discussion of the apparent failures of her PRD. Undoubtedly she made personal miscalculations but why is there not more discussion around the $350 device she carried designed for one critical function and one function only: Send out accurate coordinates when the button is pressed. As it stands is seems her PRD put her in at least 5 different places upwards of 3-4 miles apart.

    In no way am I suggesting that we should be permitted to be foolish then simply rely on a PRD but gosh darnit if my PRD shouldn’t give reliable GPS coordinates on par with modern and broadly accepted standards e.g. within 10 yards!! Otherwise, in my estimate, its just a piece of $350 dollar dead weight in my pack.

    And yes, I also understand the conditions and operating limitations of the device. But the idea that her device could be sending out what ultimately amounted to random, wildly inaccurate coordinates is dumbfounding to me.

    • It’s not clear that she had stopped moving when she activated it. We’ll never know.

    • She had to take the device out of her pack to activate it. It then reported an accurate position. However, the unit was found in her backpack. Once she put it there it wasn’t being used in spec (antenna pointed up with a clear view of the sky) so unfortunately no surprise about the bad positions.

  11. I, too, was unable to put this book down and read it in one sitting. As someone who frequently hikes and camps alone in the neighboring state of Vermont, I was struck by two sets of information: 1) The unwavering willingness (and skill) of so many rescuers to go out in those horrible conditions to look for someone who essentially broke almost every rule related to solo hiking, alpine traverse, and common sense. The behind-the-scenes look at extreme SAR left me grateful such people exist. 2) The stark details of what happens to your mind and body as you develop and progress through the stages of hypothermia. At first I admired Kate’s perseverance as a general character trait, but I became unimpressed as she chose not to bail out when she was so far behind schedule within the first couple of hours. And, why did she not drink ANY of her water? Friends kid me that I over-plan and propose multiple what-ifs; in a sad way, this book is my response to them.

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