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.
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.
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 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/