Take Away Lessons and Questions Unanswered from Kate Matrosova’s Passing

Towards the end of Presidents Day Weekend a search was initiated for an overdue hiker. The hiker, Kate Matrosova, had triggered her personal locator beacon which triggered a call to her husband who then called 911. A bare bones search party was organized for that night. This group undoubtedly  had the worse conditions of any of the groups with a 2 hr long bushwhack that took them all of a 1/4 mile. This group and another were called back for the evening, getting back at 3:30 AM, and another few teams were organized for Monday morning. I was in a ten man team that ultimately located Kate, while 2 other teams struggled up Madison and King Ravines to check out other possible locations for her. Over the past week I’ve stewed over many thoughts inspired by this incident and wanted to share them below. Here’s the most researched article I’ve found on the incident yet: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/02/21/the-young-woman-and-mountain/SEBPucaGpA1Fun4R5uoj7K/story.html?event=event25

In the past week there have been a lot of discussions regarding this incident. Most of those espousing a certain position or feeling about the incident are filling in a lot of gaps in the story with assumptions. The general consensus from the the coffee shop quarterbacks is that she was reckless and negligent, one such individual I overheard even compared her to Guy Waterman who went out in similar conditions with the goal of committing suicide. When some one dies in an incident like this it is all to easy for the assumptions we make to be ones that explain her death, and why the one passing judgment would not have died in a similar situation. It’s part of our human complex that makes us feel invincible, and we fill in the gaps of the story in such a way that explains to ourselves why this wouldn’t happen to us. I wanted to frame her decision making process in a couple of ways that reflect how we all take risks in the mountains. In doing so I’m making the opposite assumptions of so many, that she was reasonably experienced and knew what she was getting her self into. They are still assumptions, and serve more to illustrate mountain decision making than to truly justify the decisions she made in particular.

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AVSAR carrying the litter up the Valley Way trail

The first thing that is important to understand is setting goals for a day in the mountains. So many go into the mountains with a singular goal. This leaves the margin for what one considers a successful day to be rather thin, which often pushes people past their own or the  mountain conditions limits in order to achieve that success. Any basic mountain training should teach the lesson of setting multiple goals for a given day. This way there are many levels of success. Certainly hitting the summit would be more success than hitting tree line, but if you orient your frame of reference so that hitting tree line is still some level of success, than you leave yourself more room to make the decision to turn back if conditions or your personal condition are not optimal for the summit.

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Gearing up for harsh conditions in the lee of the wind at Madison hut

On the night that Kate was out struggling to stay alive I was writing about this very lesson on the Mooney Mountain Guides blog. Not long after writing it I got the call from AVSAR to report for the search the next morning if at all possible.

This brought a good lesson back to the front of my mind. A lot of hype for mountain trips is to “summit, or bust!” This despite the fact that summits are often allusive, and when gained, are only done so at the will of the mountain. A saying that frequently comes to mind is “expectations lead to disappointment.” Of course this comes with a caveat about reasonable expectations. If you take off on the trail for Mt Washington expecting to get a great work out and enjoy the natural beauty of nature, then you will never be disappointed and you will often be rewarded with accomplishments that exceed your expectations. If you take off with the expectation of summiting with no other intermediary goals, then you are setting your self up for a very likely disappointment.

A lot of folks can’t understand Kate’s goal of doing an arduous above tree-line hike with the given forecast. A lot of us live here, have found the limit of wind speeds we find acceptable and know that there’s always next weekend to try again. Kate likely planned this day far in advanced, was on a vacation from NYC that could’ve ben a rare thing for her, and may not have had another chance to try this in a while. I think in similar situations many of us would’ve gone for it, even if deep down we knew that we would most likely be turning back. Hopefully, most of us would have had a trip plan in place that included multiple scenarios for success, short of the full traverse, that would have made it easier to bail in harsh conditions. Most of us will not know for sure if Kate took these precautions, or if she truly thought she was going all the way that day. However, her GPS indicates that she was reversing course and returning to tree line when calamity befell her. In my mind we should be giving her the benefit of the doubt, instead of assuming she was being irresponsible because she died, we should put our selves in her shoes and try to be sympathetic and reflect on our near misses.

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Mt Adams

The second thing I’ve been reflecting on is her personal level of preparedness. In hiking and mountaineering the layers of protection we have are more ambiguous than in technical roped climbing.   There’s hiking solo versus with a partner, bringing enough bivy gear to be self reliant for a night, and brining the appropriate clothing layers for what ever weather you may experience. All of these add up to the greatest amount of protection, but on any given day we may weigh the risks and go up with out a partner or without bivy gear based on our own risk assessment. Finally there’s bringing communication in case all other measures fail and you need help. Kate’s kit was rather stripped down to the bare essentials. No partner, no bivy gear, and even relatively light on essential layers in my opinion. This in itself is no sin. What it means is that she was operating with no room for error. I think we can all relate to a moment where we’ve put our selves in similar situations, calculating the risks and finding them acceptable. Because she did so and paid for it, it is all to easy to say she was negligent, and not look at our own actions and feel lucky that this wasn’t us. If anything, it may be that she stripped away these layers of protection, with a false impression that her technology (Satellite phone, PLB, GPS) were building those layers of protection back up. In this terrain, that’s simply not the case. If she tried to use her SAT phone, it didn’t work, which to any one who’s used them before shouldn’t be all that surprising. Her PLB reported far more incorrect locations than it did correct, although we ultimately found her very near the first signal location. And it should’ve be realized that in these mountains rescue is hours or days away, while in those conditions death can be much more imminent.

It was relayed to us that Kate had serious mountaineering experience. Rumors included time on Elbrus, Denali and Kilimanjaro. An assumption that I jumped too quickly was that she had been guided up these mountains. In that process she would have built up the necessary technical skills to summit these mountains, without the equally as important decision making skills that goes on behind the scenes. Whether this is true or not, the thought of it has caused me serious reflection on my role as a guide. Our job is to enable our guests the greatest success we can on any given day, most of the time that means an ascent of Mt Washington. But in doing so we take on the whole load of safety precautions and decision making. Unfortunately I feel this shields our guests from the potential danger, and from the true skill that goes into climbing these mountains.

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At Kate’s final location, a few hundred feet off the Star Lake trail

On a typical intro to mountaineering weekend we talk about what our guests should bring. The conversation is heavy on their own personal safety and comfort, but short on what we bring for group safety. Last weekend a guest was hesitant to bring a large puffy jacket as she’s never needed it before. I had to explain that it provided her a margin of safety in the case that some one was injured and our pace slowed. That would’ve been a great opportunity to talk about the bivy gear, emergency shelter and extra food and drink that I brought for the overall groups safety. Moving forward I feel the need to work this into our training, while balancing it with not making our guests feel like they aren’t carrying their weight. How do we illustrate the work they need to put in in order to do this on their own (first aid, trip planning, navigation, camping skills…), while at the same time celebrating and congratulating them for what they were able to accomplish under out guidance?

All photos were taken by Mike Cherim of Androscogin Valley Search and Rescue http://mikecherim.com/portfolio/ 

The publicity generated from this incident has led many to seek ways to support those who are involved in Search and Rescue. If you feel so inclined, donations can be made to AVSAR directly https://www.facebook.com/pages/Androscoggin-Valley-Search-and-Rescue/163437667019413 

or to the New Hampshire Outdoor Council, which supports SAR teams state wide.  http://www.nhoutdoorcouncil.org

Another avenue altogether is to buy a hike safe card from NH Fish and Game. This is a rescue insurance card of sorts. Even if you don’t intend to ever use this your self, buying it supports the state agency that organizes and runs SAR missions, and is currently struggling with funding. http://wildnh.com/safe/

26 thoughts on “Take Away Lessons and Questions Unanswered from Kate Matrosova’s Passing

  1. Yury

    Hi Erik,

    You wrote “Kate’s kit was rather stripped down to the bare essentials. No partner, no bivy gear, and even relatively light on essential layers in my opinion.”

    Could you please provide more details.
    What specifically was missing in Kate’s kit?

    Reply
    1. ethatcher89 Post author

      Hi Yury. I provide this with a caveat. I really don’t want it to be seen as being overly critical, and they are pieces of gear often left behind by novices or those perhaps unfamiliar with the Whites in Winter. The first is Mittens. She had regular gloves which in my experience just doesn’t cut it. Many of our guests are blown away by how huge of a difference mitts make in cold weather. I don’t go on Washington without them. The second is a neoprene ski mask. This does a far superior job of cutting the wind then a simple balaclava or buff, and allows your breath to vent to it doesn’t condense on your goggles and freeze. Another thing we always make our guests bring for washington trips. IME even just posted on the Facebook wall today that thy had them for sale, in response to cold weather on washington. Again, this is just my opinion, and neither would’ve been the cause of her death.

      Reply
  2. Yury

    Thank you Erik,
    My interpretation of impact of missing mittens is that by 3:30 PM she almost lost dexterity in her fingers, barely was able to activate her beacon and was not able to hold trekking poles.
    By the way, were her trekking poles found near her or away from her?
    Has she brought an ice-axe by any chance? Do you believe that an ice-axe may have been useful for moving under such conditions?
    Yury

    Reply
    1. ethatcher89 Post author

      No tracking poles and no ice axe that I recall seeing, but those things could’ve been lost before we found her. I found a mountaineering axe to be crucial. Just to clarify, the picture that has been circulated of her dressed in red with a heavy pack at the start of a trail was not from this day, but a former hike.

      Reply
  3. Bob N Geri

    Snowshoes?? Have seen it reported that she did not have them. Was she still in crampons when found? Can’t envision going up the Star Lake trail without them since it is a giant snowfield this time of year. The trails above treeline on the northern Presi’s can be hard windpacked, but we’ve found we needed to use snowshoes up there on most of our trips People don’t seem to realize that if they need to bail off trail to get below treeline how important they are.

    We always use PL150 liner gloves covered with an OR Gortex Mitt Shell – and keep taking the shell off/putting on to keep our hands from sweating. Also carry a spare set of PL100, 150, and 400 liner gloves as well to keep sweat at bay. And carry a set of OR Alti Mitts for hanging out on the summit. Sadly we see people even hiking in work gloves in the winter, or in heavy duty mitts that get very wet from the inside out from sweating too much.

    Reply
    1. ethatcher89 Post author

      Hi bob, no snow shoes, no crampons were on when she was found. I traveled the above tree line portion with out any source of traction and was fine, but I agree with your point about ending up off trail and need the snow shoes regardless.

      Reply
  4. Yury

    Thank you Erik for this information.
    Do you believe that her GPS track could be shared?
    I would like to understand when her speed of travel diminished.
    Has she moved OK up and down Mt. Adams or already lost her speed up there?
    Essentially these are questions about when exactly she has crossed a point of no return.
    Yury

    Reply
    1. ethatcher89 Post author

      That decision isn’t up to me and it was only relayed to me what her route was, not travel time. Sorry I can’t provide more, and not sure that fish and game will release that or not.

      Reply
  5. Lisa

    Erik, this is a very good post that nicely complements the other reporting and blogging on this story. In particular, your thoughts toward the end having to do with educating hikers are compelling. I think that this tragedy has already led so many of us to have a heightened awareness about so many different aspects of hiking. In the long run, that will be good.

    I just wanted to mention that the FB link to AVSAR wasn’t working, for me at least. But it is good of you to try to establish that connection, as many people are finding that donations feel like a way to do *something* at this time.

    Reply
    1. ethatcher89 Post author

      Thanks Lisa. Sorry the link didn’t work. If you search Androscogin Valley Search And Rescue on Facebook than you should be able to find it. If you are looking to donate or help, the NH Outdoor Council is another great avenue, and distributes support to all SAT teams in NH, including Mountain Rescue Service which was also part of the most recent Incident.

      Reply
  6. Paul

    I am surprised to see an exposed hand in the first photo. How long was that exposed? I find my exposed fingers loose all feeling in those conditions in under a minute and it takes quite awhile to get it back.

    Reply
    1. ethatcher89 Post author

      Here were in the lee of the wind. In sure the hand was out for no more than a minute, and with the right mittens feeling can come back rather quick. As guides we often have to do this to hell adjust our clients crampons, goggles, work a gps etc… And then rely on the safety of our mitts to recover that warmth, which they do.

      Reply
  7. CaverKid

    Investigating authorities haven’t reached hasty conclusions and I commend you for the same. Even so, rescuers are left with memories and emotions. Seeking answers is a natural step for all involved. Lethal hypothermia is what shocks many of us outdoor enthusiasts and knowledge can be preventative. Until authorities release their findings in this case, we shouldn’t speculate as to the manner of death, yet questioning the cause is helpful. Hypothermia isn’t one-size-fits-all. Dry hypothermia is different from submersion hypothermia. Extremely cold conditions yield observable behavioral distinctions from moderately cold ones (ex: terminal burrowing, paradoxical undressing.) The Globe report of facial scratches may be consistent with terminal hypothermic crawling posture, indicating pain-free lower brain activity, a possible source of comfort to witnesses at the scene. This is in the public domain now and lethal hypothermia is preventable, so let’s talk about it. Thanks for opening the door, Erik.

    Reply
  8. Bob Jones

    Erik,

    I appreciate the thoughtful reflection on this tragedy so that lessons may be learned without demonizing Kate. I have a question related to the PLB and the false coordinates and how it might affect future rescue attempts. I have read that the PLB that Kate used was not rated for the encountered temperature so there is a thought that the reason why the first coordinates received were the accurate coordinates is because the weather had not yet impacted the device. What type of AAR is done after a search and rescue and how do you think this situation would affect a future similar situation? In particular where multiple coordinates were given, would the first coordinate be seen as likely more accurate?

    Reply
  9. 7ewalt

    Im still confused why not descend to TStorm le-ward wind to Crag? I guess she thought wind wasnt terrible till a gust swept her and beat her up which took air outa sails.

    Reply
  10. 7ewalt

    The weather charts i saw from NOAA that day confirms heavy wind 77-80 during 11am so im guessing that puts her near Adams, man she had a real fight to stand up?! Any task, even as easy as getting gear situated or getting into pack very hard and loosing something to the wind very possible. I could also see how a big gust could travel up ravines and blow someone off feet at starlake.
    Also i dont know how you guys stood up tuesday as well?!

    Reply
  11. 7ewalt

    Hi Erik,
    Ive spent many trips up there in winter, her trip still haunts me with alot of questions. Its good to have a place to talk about this.

    Reply
  12. 7ewalt

    Still cant shake the struggle that went on, possibly freezing fog and bad visibility,mind playing tricks on distance and accuracy,gear choice not good enough or badly situated,maybe frozen water, in disbelief winds could be this horrific. Reaching for PLB instead of phone shows thoughts werent in healthy order. Time line shows alot of will power to correct any unplanned underestimations. Poor girl. I wish she had a core group of people that she climbed in Whites with that could have discussed outcomes or questioned her enthusiasm (quality accountability that we all need).
    This particular trip of hers haunts many because we find a little of ourselves in her OR in a close scenario that somehow turned to good or just never unfolded because of a particular circumstance that changed itinerary that saved our lives. Maybe even luck. We all push as adventurers, but some acquire less experience or planning to close gap for error. We are responsible to narrow possibility of death by education, experience and wisdom. I never look down on Kate, this coulda been me along the way.

    Reply
  13. 7ewalt

    And could still be one day, im human. As in my career i face death every day, practicing safety only minimizes fatality but never eradicates it.
    Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than out right exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Helen Kellar.

    Reply
  14. 7ewalt

    If only we could, like Kate, look at insurmountable obstacles in our life like she looked at the forecast as backround noise to her march forward?! She was an engineer of credit default swaps.. She was aware of risk, its her career. She saw a chance while we all saw suicide. I find this interesting

    Reply
  15. 7ewalt

    I think her death wasnt complicated, it was exposure and being pinned down in high winds. There is more that should be learned from this. A will to live greater than fear of death, for starters…

    Reply
  16. 7ewalt

    She expressed that shadowing people at work showed her how much amazement there was in continuing knowledge, people that commit suicide stop learning and having hope, they are convinced “ive reached the end and im doomed to repeat this box”. I dont believe she was like this.

    Reply
    1. Paul

      Yes, that was also mentioned in the Boston Globe article. What seems plausible is that she had called off the traverse by the time she took the selfie at the Madison Hut given how far behind her schedule she was but she wanted to summit Adams before going back down. Adams had been part of the plan on the January 17 climb to Madison but had been scratched on that occasion due to her husband’s desire to get back down.

      Reply

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