Sunday morning Kate Matrosova was dropped off by her husband with plans to hike four peaks in the Presidential Range: Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and Washington. With a 5:30 am start, this hiking enthusiast began her trek. During the holiday weekend conditions in the White Mountains were unforgiving. Neighboring peak Mount Washington tied for the second coldest spot in the world at -35 degrees Fahrenheit. The South Pole was the only place in the world that was colder. Washington also had sustained winds of 100 mph- as strong as a Category 2 hurricane and gusts as high as 141-mph – the highest recorded on the summit since March 2008. So why did Kate hike this weekend?
32-year-old Kate Matrosova was a New York City resident, born in Russia. Her Facebook page includes an assortment of photos of her on Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Elbrus, and an assortment of other winter treks. For those who don’t hike during the winter, ascending a mountain in single digit temperatures may seem irresponsible, even reckless.
I had planned to hike the same peaks as Kate the following day. Closely tracking the weather, I decided to reschedule.
The Mount Washington Observatory’s forecast for Sunday was the following:
In the clouds with snow and blowing snow. White out conditions. High temps dropping to -20F. Winds NE shifting NW 45-60mph rapidly increasing mid-morning to 80-100mph with gusts up to 125mph. Wind chills 65-75 below zero.
I was leading a hike and had to inform the eight participants as well as the people on the waiting list that the hike would not happen on Monday. Was Kate unprepared? David Lottman, an Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School Guide, explains that wind direction is a bigger factor when hiking above treeline.
“I have summited Washington with clients in conditions similar to these. The difference here is careful use of terrain to “block” yourself from these debilitating winds. In this case she most likely ascended “Valley Way” and once she broke tree-line had a 80+ mph wind at her back.”
Reversing in those conditions, especially paired with the amount of snow the area has received, could be just about impossible.
At 3:30 pm, Kate activated her Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Mountain Rescue Service members began to head up the mountain that evening, but with worsening weather, the crew was forced to hike down and suspend the search. The following morning National Guard flew over the area in a helicopter, but because of blowing snow, searchers couldn’t see anything. Fish and Game officers, Mountain Rescue Services members and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue members returned to search for Kate in sub zero temperatures and winds of up to 108 mph.
Video courtesy of Matt Bowman- Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue
The Search and Rescue crew found Kate, lifeless, as she had succumb to the elements.
This story is a sobering one, especially to the local hiking community. Many have taken time to share their thoughts on the tragedy and ways to educate others to prevent another incident. I personally hope Kate’s story serves as a constant reminder to those who hike these unforgiving giants that we must be proactive and prepared. I urge my fellow hikers to take the following actions:
- Take a Wilderness First Aid course
- Participate in other local courses to refine or add skills to your repertoire. AMC and REI both host courses on topics including snowshoe basics, navigation, and leadership.
- Think realistically about your skills and goals. Do you have the knowledge and experience to complete your hike? Not Without Peril is a great book to keep you grounded. It details 150 years of mishaps on the Presidential Range. It is a must read for anyone planning to hike these peaks, no matter the season.
- New in 2017, Where You’ll Find Me, is a book about that day, the risks Kate took and decisions you should reflect on with your own hiking.
Before Each Hike:
Check the weather- look at numerous sources and check often. I check the Mount Washington Summit Forecast, the Higher Summits Forecast, Mountain Forecast, and National Weather Service Forecast. In my mind, I that Kate must have known the forecasted temperatures and was confident in her ability to complete this hike. Because of early start Sunday morning, I assume she didn’t see the change in the Higher Summits Forecast that changed from the wind direction being from the Southeast on Saturday night to Northwest Sunday Morning making it nearly impossible to turn back once above treeline. This is only a thought and I doubt we will ever know what really happened up there, but responding to a situation like this should show people how important research is to a hike. It’s not just putting one foot in front of the other.
Research where you plan to hike and what you’ll need. What will the terrain be like? What about the weather? Are there technical climbs, exposed ridgelines, water crossings, or other potential hazards? What gear will I need to bring to help me be successful? Do I know what conditions call for snowshoes vs microspikes vs crampons? An incident like Kate’s should not lead you to over pack. Having a pack full of gear you don’t need or know how to use is equally as dangerous as being unprepared. If you bring an ice axe with you, learn how to use one. Your best piece of gear is your own knowledge. Pounds of equipment won’t serve you any purpose if you don’t have the knowledge to use it properly. This goes for technology as well. A PLB could be a lifesaver, but it does not mean someone is coming right away. In Kate’s case it took SAR 20 hours to reach her because of the severe weather. Bring an emergency bivouac to take shelter. A Wilderness First Aid course is beneficial here as well. Learn how to identify dehydration, hypothermia, or other conditions. Learn how to assess a situation to determine your next step.
Go through your pack after each hike and double check before a hike. Replenish your first aid kit if needed. Identify items you used, what you didn’t use, and what you wish you had. Find a solution to these problems before your next hike.
Leave your itinerary with someone at home. If you’re hiking in the White Mountains, create a map with wmgonline.org and print it as well. This way you can easily show your route, direction of travel, and mileage. Add your estimated completion time and create a plan if you do not return within that time. Note that you may not have cell phone service in the area.
Decide on a non-negotiable turnaround time. For example, this means if your turnaround time is 1:00 pm and you are not descending to your car, you must do so anyway. Whatever is causing you to not make your time will likely not change. You will not suddenly be faster and stronger, the weather will likely not improve, and the terrain will not get easier. As they say, the mountains will always be there.
Carry identification on your hikes. Have a photo ID on you as well as your emergency contact and medical information that may be helpful in case you become injured.
Wear high visibility colors. I find bright colors fun and they make for great photos. I also know that if I needed to be found I need to be easy to spot.
This incident really hit home for me. Does this means I won’t hike in the winter? Solo hike? Test my endurance? Absolutely not. It does force me to reflect on my own decisions in the mountains and learn from what didn’t work as well as decisions that I am proud of making; Decisions to turn around or arm myself with knowledge so I can be more self reliant. I relate hiking to driving a car. You can be the best driver, but outside factors will still put you at risk. Understand how to handle those influences that are out of your control.
Please join the conversation and share what you plan to do to differently for your next hike.
If you would like to learn more or donate to the Search and Rescue crews, you can find them on Facebook:
Last modified: December 31, 2017