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:
Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue
You may also want to consider purchasing a Hike Safe Card. More details can be found on the Hike Safe website.
Last modified: December 31, 2017
Beautifully written. Thank you for doing this.
My heart is heavy after hearing of this tragic death. I cannot thank SAR teams enough for all they do.
Really appreciate this story. Definitive information on what took place has been hard to come by. Just a whole of comments from people in the safety of their homes beating their chests about why she was “dumb’ or “selfish” for putting rescuers at risk.
In this case, a young woman who appeared to have a fair amount of experience under her belt, succumbed in a terrible way. Alone on a mountain. That’s all I need to know.
I agree that there has been way to much speculation and rumors spread by folks online. No one will ever know exactly what happened, but the lessons we can learn from this tragic event is all we should need.
My wife and I were on Mt Washington on Saturday (Feb 14th). Turned around at Lions Head because our goggles had frozen completely. Decided the the slow cooker of beef stew and a few bottles of wine waiting at home sounded better than risking exposure. Wasn’t our first attempt and won’t be our last. The mountains will always be there, not worth the risk.
Having turned around at 17,000 feet on Denali I know the sting of losing a summit bid.
On another note, the forecast for the Presidentials and Mt Washington specifically were varying degrees of bad from Friday to Sunday. Sunday was the worst day by far. Do your research, you’ll be safer for it.
Some direct links for good weather info in the White Mountains:
Thank you Eric for sharing your story. The weather definitely wasn’t something to mess with even though it can be difficult to make the decision to turn back. Thanks for sharing those additional links as well. I’m sure others will find them very useful! Happy (and safe) trails!
As a member of AVSAR and part of the recovery effort, I thank you for this post. By far, the best response I have read yet. I feel a strong responsibility as a steward for our sport, our mountains and our passions to learn from this tragedy, celebrate the life and accomplishments of Kate and move forward to better our hiking community. It is important to proceed with a positive light to promote the wonders of climbing instead of the fearing the unknown. There is so much to learn from this tragic event. Thank you for touching on many of those lessons. May Kate rest easy and her family and friends find peace in the memories of pleasant times past.
Thank YOU! I have a lot of respect for SAR members, volunteering their time and risking their lives to assist those in need. I can only hope that others learn from this tragedy.
Any word on what brand and model plb she was using?
Wondering the same thing…
I have not heard what PLB she was using. I did find out recently though, that she was not wearing snowshoes… just had crampons.
I would really like to learn this fact as not all beacons are the same. However, after reading this blurb :
“With help from a Civil Air Patrol aircraft, the signal from Matrosova’s PLB was determined to be coming from the area of Star Lake and Pelchat’s AVSAR team was directed to go there. ”
PLBs also transmit a signal on 121.5mhz that is independent of the 406mhz signal used to talk with the satellites . The CAP normally has equipment to home in on this signal. SPOT does not transmit a separate homing signal on 121.5.
However, it would be outstanding to know what beacon she was using and how it was deployed.
Thank you for taken the time to write this!. Its greatly appreciated! I believe, as some have said, that its truly sad to hear all the rumors and speculation. This is something she wanted to do and I believe she thought she was perfectly prepared to do it. Aside from the weather she may have been perfectly prepared. Its truly unfortunate the beautiful whites took another life. and I believe when you hike, you take that risk willingly.and I think she she knew what she was embarking on aside from the weather. So wheres the pride for this girl and ohhh wow! what a strong soul she must have been! ? With that said Im sure it was as peaceful as I hope but I do hope she went with a happy feeling in her heart. Just to have the courage she did to make it as far as she did by herself, hopefully was rewarding in the end in some way. May she rest in peace and her family and friends be proud of her journey during this difficult time.
Great point to always review after each hike to improve or add to your gear. Follow your gut is # 1. There are a lot of escape routes on Mt. Washington, I would like to know where she was found. We all push the limit a bit, Kate deserves respect for her courage of adventure. Sometimes we get away with it – sometimes we don’t. Well thought out article.
I’ve been following this troubling story, and feel more settled now that I know more about what Kate’s decision-making process must have been. She was experienced, intelligent, strong and obviously brave, but made some mistakes that others have made. So sorry that she lost her life.
I’m sorry to hear of the loss of life. Such a foolish decision that know one wants to say. To put herself and and all the rescuers at such risk for a day’s “hike” is just not reasonable under such conditions.
Sorry.. Not much to evaluate in my opinion.