Sunday, February 22, 2015

Another Death in the Whites...

With every Winter comes a similar story here in New Hampshire.  The death(s) of hikers/climbers attempting to tackle various summits in the White Mountains.  While big events like losses of entire climbing parties on mountains like Rainier, Hood, and others typically make the evening news, the constant drips and drabs of hiker deaths in the Whites is rarely noticed though on a gross number basis, the Whites are likely the deadliest mountain range in the States.

This past week however the death of Kate Matrasova made it as far as being covered in the NY Post, NY Daily News, Bloomberg, and various blogs/websites that cover finance and technology and general gossip due to Matrasova's daytime job as a trader for BNP Paribas, her husband's job as a VP (one of thousands) at JP Morgan Chase and their (reported) million dollar mid-town Manhattan apartment.

Matrasova was attempting a Northern Presidential Range traverse.  She was not attempting the entire traverse but sought to top out on the peaks of Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Washington followed by a descent to the base of the cog railway.  A challenging effort no doubt, especially in Winter but not one that was beyond her skills.  What has not been generally reported on her is her extensive climbing/mountaineering background that includes summits of McKinley, Elbrus, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro amongst others and was an avid marathoner leaving her in peak shape.  With her extensive income she also had top of the line gear with her.  Bottom line is that she was more than qualified and competent to make the attempt.

Many will question her choice to make a solo attempt, I generally don't.  I don't have near the experience that she had but I have completed solo winter summits of Washington (NH), Marcy (NY), Greylock (MA), Bear (CT) and Mansfield (VT) as the highest peaks in each of these northeastern states.  I certainly understand the thought of doing these things solo.  No one else to rely on, go at your own pace, no one to irritate you, good or bad its all on your shoulders, etc., etc.  There is something about accomplishing something hard on your own that interests a good number of people, Matrasova was evidently one of them and attempting the Northern Traverse was not outside her capabilities as a solo mountaineer.

Her chosen route was generally conservative.  Taking the Valley Way Trail up to a col in between Madison and Adams was about the easiest route she could have chosen.  If she was trying to bite off more than she could chew she would have chosen the much steeper Kings Ravine Trail or more exposed Howker Ridge Trail.  The path she chose would be amongst the most protected ways to get to the ridgeline.

So that pretty much leaves us with the weather.  Going into the hike weather reports disclosed that peak conditions had temperatures of about -6 F and winds of about 40mph.  Pretty brutal for those used to living in the valleys and plains but near balmy (no joke) for the Presidential Peaks in Winter.  During my Winter climb of Washington the conditions were similar though in my case the sun was shining and no significant changes in weather were forecast.  Encased in a standard mountaineer's bubble of down, Gore-tex, mountaineering boots, crampons, goggles, etc., Matrasova would have been quite comfortable in that weather--likely sweating profusely in fact when faced with strenuous exertions required of climbing in deep snow.  Unfortunately, the forecast was wrong and conditions deteriorated to levels where no one could survive.

Matrasova would have KNOWN that deteriorating conditions were predicted for the area and was likely pressed to complete her climb and return to work (this was a Sunday afterall).  She wouldn't be getting a second chance to do this a day later (though being young, wealthy and having a supportive husband she could certainly have returned in a week or two...)  By the time Mastrova set off her emergency beacon around 3PM the temps had dropped to -21 and the winds increased to 77mph.  She had succeeded in summiting both Madison and Adams but turned back after reaching Adams peak in an attempt to get lower.  She missed her bailout opportunity some 2 hours earlier.  After sumitting Madison she would have had to pass both the Madison Spring Hut AND the Valley Way Trail she had come in on as the direction she chose required retracing the path up to Mt. Madison before continuing on to Adams.  At this point the temps would have already been dropping and the wind picking up.  It would also have been obvious at this point (about 1PM) that there was NO way she was going to complete her traverse.  She had started out at 6AM and some 7+ hours later she had only completed a single peak with an uphill climb the rest of the way (Madison being the lowest of the four peaks she had intended on completing that day).  With the Sun going down around 5PM or so and no mountaineering tent or overnight supplies with her (at least as has been reported) she stood ZERO shot at getting to Washington and down even in the BEST of conditions.  There should have been a single choice on her way back down from Mt. Madison towards the trail she already knew and had traversed earlier that day.  Bail and head down.  She'd have been back on tarmac before the Sun set with ease.

Instead, here is my speculation.  Matrasova was obviously experienced and driven and had succeeded in nearly everything in life having been born in (literally) Siberia and having made it to the top of her profession and the rest of the globe.  If she wasn't going to complete what she had set out for, she'd at least put in a good faith effort, challenge herself and grab one more peak before heading down.  This would, after all, make for good training for the rigors to be demanded of her in her future attempts at Everest and Vinson (looking at her list of summits, completing the 7 Summits was definitely a goal of hers).  At only 1 in the afternoon, she couldn't imagine herself bailing out NOW...that would have been a waste of a day.  So her intent was to push herself a little bit, bag Adams and THEN head down.  Which she completed.

Unfortunately the winds picked up beyond what she had ever experienced and literally blew her off the ridge.  Sometime after she initiated her distress signal the peak winds were recorded to exceed 140 mph.  Well above what it would take to sweep a fit girl of at best, 150 lbs. off her feet and down the mountain.  Her body would be recovered a few hundred feet off the trail, still above treeline but on the lee side of the ridge.  Given the scrapes on her face and removal of her pack she was either blown there or tumbled there, came to a rest and expired after having lost the will or ability to fight.  After having traveled the world, summited peaks in the most remote locations some three or four and five times the height of the Whites where only pressurized jet liners play, pushing on to summit Adams looked like a simple one dies in mountaineering accidents five hours or less from NYC in little podunk New Hampshire right?

It was a simple mistake of hubris.  She shouldn't be vilified or made fun of nor her husband chastised for letting her go alone.  She could have made a better decision and turned back earlier (such is the story of 50% of mountaineering accidents) the other 50% being morons who don't belong up there in the first place.  But she didn't.

My only question here is--what was the delay in getting up Madison in the first place?  Someone so fit, and so experienced, should have FLOWN up her chosen path and gotten there much earlier.  Was the snow deeper than she expected?  Did she have snowshoes?  Did she get lost in the woods BEFORE ever reaching the ridge?  Something slowed her down early on and may have been the driving force behind why she was pushing to summit Adams, despite the deteriorating conditions, blaming herself for a silly error earlier in the day that eliminated any chance of the stated goal of the Northern Presidential Traverse.

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