New England College- Avalanche Awareness.

Mooney Mountain Guides teaching for New England college continued this past weekend. Earlier in the winter I ran a 2 day into to Ice Climbing course for the college that was a 1 credit course for Outdoor Leadership majors. This past weekend Alex and built upon that with a 1 credit Avalanche Awareness course. We spent the weekend talking about how to assess avalanche potential based on observations of terrain, past history and current weather patterns. We then got hands on with practicing beacon searches and digging pits to look at stability issues and snow layers up close and personal. The west side of Washington turned out to be a great venue for this course, as many on the east side got a far to close education in avalanche dangers with 6 avalanches, mostly human triggered, being set off in a day.

Glorious Summit

Kelly Joined us last year for an intro to mountaineering course. The original plan followed our usual weekend set up, intro day saturday, summit day sunday. Unfortunately that weekend we saw a huge storm that made an attempt on Washington foolhardy, so we ended up on Lafayette instead. After a year of travel and more mountain forays abroad she came back to moan her training again in the white mountains, hoping for a successful bid on Rainer.

On Tuesday we kicked off her 3 day stint with an ascent of Mt Washington in the most hospitable conditions I’ve yet seen on the old rock pile. The winds whispered at a maximum 15 mph gusts, with temps rising to the 20’s and the abundant sun turning my face a crisp tomato red. On top of the incredible weather we had awesome summit guests, from a dog sled team, to an 80 year old couple who had also hike the mountain that day!

Intro To Ski Mountaineering

Alex and I just had what may have been the trip of our winter. Ski guiding is a relatively small segment of our business, and that of the NH guiding business in general, so when we get a day of this work, let alone a long weekend of it we’re excited. We’re currently trying to expand our ski programming to get more folks introduced to the world of back country skiing. The skiing and techniques required is not overly burdensome, but getting instruction for your first day out will greatly quicken the learning curve. As you get into the world of Ski Mountaineering their is a a slew of technical skills that need to be refined in order to participate safely.

This group of three was curious about getting into the world of back country and ski mountaineering, so we designed a three day curriculum to introduce them to the techniques and skills required. On day one we went over gear and clothing requirements for being in the backcountry. We practiced transitions ( moving up hill to downhill, which requires a slew of equipment changes) and beacon searches in case of an avalanche burial. On day two we practiced moving as a rope team, dug a snow pit and experimented with a number of stability tests, and what these testes tell us about the relative avalanche safety. On day three we combined many of the formerly learned skills to ski Hillmans Highway in Tuckermans Ravine! The weather kept us from covering all that we wanted, but that in its self is a great learning experience, and gave us ample opportunity to address not only surviving but thriving in those conditions.

Mt Washington Observatory Overnight

This past Friday-Saturday I got to guide an overnight trip for 10 guests, hiking up the lions head trail on Washington Friday, staying overnight in the observatory, and heading back down the same route Saturday. In the Obs we were treated to great home cooked meals and even better home made deserts and treats, a tour of the observatory and museum, and some great stories of life on top of Washington. Big thanks to the 10 folks who joined for this! Was a great group.

The Hummit

Where ever you go, there you are, and wherever you make it too, there’s your summit. I hope that we all agree that a day in the mountains is more about company, good exercise and experiencing the  mountain conditions, with the summit being cherry on top. This sunday we made it to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut and turned back. That day it was our summit, or perhaps for those who like word play, our hummit

A Clear View Summit

This past weekend we had incredible weather for an intro to mountaineering course. Day one was on Welch and Dicky in the sun. We had a gorgeous hike through the trees to a slab where we practiced crampon use and self arrest with a gorgeous backdrop. Day two was the summit attempt and we were blessed with the best weather I’ve seen up there yet. We could easily pick out Camels Hump in VT, 80 miles away, and peaks beyond it.

Click on an image to scroll through the pictures in gallery mode.

Full write up here

Hunting Season

After an 11 day stretch of work I have a handful of week days off. I was hoping to spend them mostly vegging out and regaining some of the weight i lost over the last stretch to help stay warm for the next one! After one day of doing so I got restless and started getting out on skis with my friend Alex. Since all the good snow came while we were working we were forced to go out on some hunting missions, finding the last pockets of untracked snow where we could. Here’s some pictures form our two days out recently. Doing the Grand tour at cardigan, with a couple of runs down the summit slabs, and a day in the trees on the side of Moosilauke.

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:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 

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 

or to the New Hampshire Outdoor Council, which supports SAR teams state wide.

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.

More Reb’s on Ice

I had two awesome couples this past weekend for two days of intro to ice. They were ironically coming from opposite entry paths to ice climbing, one couple was rather experienced in mountaineering, and the other couple rock climbing. It seems to be a trend for me this winter that I have groups from the southern states. These couples were from Texas and Virginia. In the past month or so I’ve had another group from Virginia and one from South Carolina. I’m starting to think I might have to keep my 1861 springfield handy incase any of the Johnny Reb’s get sentimental about the war of Northern Aggression while they’re up!


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