The Last Traverse; Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites, A Book Review

The Last Traverse Book Review

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.

Disclosure: The author purchased this book.

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9 comments

  1. I was visiting a bookstore in Portsmouth NH and got this one and his first one in one fell swoop. I don’t think I would have found it in my local bookstores here in Idaho! The wisdom that I learn will be applicable here too.

  2. Another fine work by Ty Gagne. Extraction drama is spell binding. Another example how weather is impossible to pin down in The the Presidentials. New rule-of-thumb, always shorten the weather forecasters’ anticipated time of inclement weather arrival by six hours.

    The NFS should build a simple coffin shelter on the ledge where Fredrickson and Osborne sheltered in place. Simple insulated metal box with a wooden floor to fit three anchored to the ledge. A tent would be worthless in that kind of exposure. Dedicate it to Fred.

    The recount of the occurrence gives a whole new meaning to, ‘So close. Yet so far away.’ One could feel the excruciating final steps before Fredrickson and then Osborne went down for the last time.

    • An interesting idea about a shelter, but if I understand correctly the USFS doesn’t build emergency shelters (at least in the Whites) in places they don’t want people to camp (like above treeline, for instance) because people start to use the “emergency” shelters as regular-use shelters and then the areas get way overused and run-down. If you are venturing above treeline in the winter you supposedly know what the risks are so you should be prepared for emergency and carry what you need with you. (And these guys did understand the risks, but of course the book did an excellent job of laying out how our brains are only human and can still misunderstand the level of risk in a situation they’ve had success with many times before.)

      USFS has removed some emergency above-treeline shelters for just this reason, that people started relying on them too much and trashing the areas. Which is a bummer for those of us who would respect them as emergency-only shelters, but I completely understand why they removed them.

  3. Read both, excellent reads! Incredible detail, fascinating and many lessons to be learned.

  4. Fascinating book, nice review. Better than Where You’ll find Me because in this case there was a survivor to tell the tale from the victim’s point of view. One thing I found particularly interesting, is how one of the rescuers, a F&G guy I believe (Ober), got into trouble himself on the SAR and had to be evacuated. Here was a super-experienced and strong guy, very well-equipped and with a partner, and it was fun to count up all of the errors he made that got him into trouble. Reminder to us all . . .

    • Larry, I still remember a talk you gave to WHP in 2009, I think, where you discussed an accident on Franconia Ridge and said “those who get below treeline survive.” That phrase has stuck with me ever since.

      • I always remember what one of my AMC leaders said about treeline and surviving (and I can’t remember which leader, unfortunately, but IIRC it was a very experienced one): that it’s hard to get into trouble below treeline in summer, easier to get into trouble above treeline in summer or below treeline in winter, and very very easy to get into trouble above treeline in winter. But “those who get below treeline survive” is good to remember too and now I’ll add it to my mental list of survival skills.

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