The Last Traverse by Ty Gagne should be required reading by anyone who wants to hike the White Mountain 4000 footers or any other mountains in winter. Gagne, who also wrote “Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova,” does an expert job chronicling the timeline of events leading up to a miraculous rescue on Franconia Ridge, in winter conditions, from the perspective of the victims and the rescuers. It’s a riveting read that I finished in a single evening.
Franconia Ridge is one of the most scenic hiking destinations in the United States. It’s a serious climb even in mild summer weather, but it can get deadly if you’re not well-prepared and hiking it with an experienced group in winter. The ridge which includes Mt Lafayette, Mt Lincoln, Little Haystack, Mt Liberty, and Mt Flume runs north to south and faces west, putting it directly in the path of the prevailing winds and weather that sweep the White Mountains year-round. Over 5,000 feet in elevation, Mt Lafayette and Mt Lincoln experience the same ferocious weather as Mt Washington (home to the world’s worst weather) just 20 miles to the east.
Gagne’s account includes details gleaned from conversations with the victims, their friends, rescuers, helicopter pilots, and medical staff involved in the incident. Like his earlier book, “Where You’ll Find Me”, he provides an insightful account of the human factors and decision making that precipitated the incident, like:
- We have to hike the peak on Sunday because that’s the only day I have free this weekend.
- We’ll be able to finish before the storm hits.
- I didn’t want to carry a sleeping bag because I want to move fast.
- We’re behind schedule but we’ll make up the time when we reach the top of the ridge.
Many of us have made decisions like this when hiking in winter. But a book like this is useful to remind us that there are risks to winter hiking that we have the power to mitigate before we set out on a hike and while it is unfolding.
Gagne’s book also details the Search and Rescue side of the incident, including accounts from the different rescue units involved. Most of the rescue groups in the White Mountain National Forest are volunteers and it’s fascinating to delve into the motivations of these men and women and why they put their lives on the line to save others.
One of the more remarkable aspects of this boot is how Gagne structures the book around the incident timeline, providing meticulous details about what happened when, who was involved, and what they were thinking when events unfolded. It’s a masterful account that makes the book impossible to put down.
I do wish The Last Traverse was available in a Kindle or digital format, but you can only buy it in print. I suspect that’s deliberate on the part of the author and publisher which publishes high-quality Wilderness Medicine texts. The Last Traverse is available for sale on Amazon and at the Mountain Wanderer Bookstore in Lincoln, NH.
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