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.
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.
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.