Midwinter in the Whites

Larry Meyer

Wooden Canoes are in the Blood
Amidst all the epic snow blues of Boston, there was a story on the news that when I first heard it seemed so improbable that it didn’t penetrate my brain. But it is true. A young NYC woman attempted on Sunday, the 15th, a solo mid-winter Presidential traverse (from north to south) in the White Mountains. And of course died in the attempt.

Here’s what can be learned. Her name is Kate Matrosova and she was Russian born, well educated in American universities, had lived in West Palm Beach, and recently moved with her husband to New York City, where they were bankers. She and her husband had conceived some ambition to be known as “extreme hikers;” their qualifications being having “summited” Kilimanjaro and Erebus (Antarctica), these being presumably guided trips that their wealth had paid for.

On Sunday at 5 am (this was the day a noreaster was taking dead aim at the coast of New England, with high winds, artic temps and much snow forecast) she was dropped off by her husband at a trailhead north of Mt. Madison, the plan being that she was do a Presidential traverse to Mt. Washington where her husband, after having driven up the auto road to the Mt. Washington summit, would pick her up.
That afternoon her rescue beacon went off, the locations given were imprecise, conditions were so bad SAR could not make a viable attempt. On Monday her body was found near Star Lake, which is near the peak of Mt. Madison.

There is so much that is suicidal in this story, it is tedious to tell. This was so improbable when I heard it I thought it was a joke, a hoax, or a publicity stunt. Blizzard conditions with 100 mph winds could have killed experienced mountaineers on Mt. Everest. Conditions above the tree line in the White Mountains in the summer can be a handful. Back in the 80s I hiked the Whites a good bit and did 6 presidential traverses. In summer, I doubt she would have been able to do that mileage and climbing in a single day. Had she ever been in the White Mountains? Did they, for her husband was complicit, just pick this trip off the Internet?

I post this here because outside the Northeast, this story is likely to get little attention. Travelers to the White Mountains beware; they deserve their reputation.
Laarry -- Thanks for posting. Even in the northeast, the story isn't getting much play (neither the NY Times nor the Wall street Journal have carried stories, notwithstanding the fact that she was employed in the financial world of NYC).

It is good to keep in mind that Mother Nature is not a kindly mother, and has no special regard for those who venture out in dangerous places, even those with experience and hi-tech equipment (her emergency beacon only placed her within a one mile circle).

Not being as high or as imposing as mountains such as the Rockies, the White Mountains and other parts of the Appalachians do not always get the respect they deserve -- though if paying any attention at all, anyone would be aware of the reputation of the Presidential peaks for weather that is pleasant one moment, but changing rapidly to treacherous and deadly with little notice. To actually set out on a traverse to Mt. Washington under the conditions of last Sunday was incredibly foolhardy.
Wonderful how people like to second guess others after something goes wrong, when the same would have celebrated success! There's so much speculation in these posts that it's not funny - "incredibly foolhardy", "these being presumably guided trips that their wealth had paid for", "so much that is suicidal in this story", etc., etc. People make treks up Mt. Everest, and people lose their lives there and elsewhere year after year, yet no one writes here about the foolhardiness of those ill-fated expeditions. I guess when it's in their own backyard, some people feel compelled to be a part of the story by re-telling it with their opinions attached (like they say, "everyone's got one"). Whatever, sharing such opinions here isn't likely to save too many lives.

Then again, I could be wrong. Perhaps hoards of wooden canoe lovers were poised just now to set out on the northern AT with a juice box and half of a pimento cheese sandwich...
I don’t know why this sticks in my craw so much. If they had talked to almost anyone with experience hiking in the Presidentials, they would have been told not to do this trip. If they had stopped at Pinkham Notch (Joe Dodge Lodge) and talked with AMC folks, the advice would have been that this was a foolish idea. If they had had to register with a Park Service or Forest Service officer, (which must be done in some places) they would have been denied permission.

3-4 groups were at Pinkham Notch that weekend considering just ascents of Mt Washington. The weather balked them all.
Perhaps hoards of wooden canoe lovers were poised just now to set out on the northern AT with a juice box and half of a pimento cheese sandwich...

This forum and wooden canoe paddlers in general have been fortunate in not having too many debates about people making errors with potentially fatal results. A quick search of the wooden boat forum at http://forum.woodenboat.com/ for Raw Faith, Bounty, Hot Rod, Flyin' Hawaiian, or Australians Rescued southeast of Nantucket will show that they have had much more to discuss in this regard. It is probably safe to say that we have all had at least one experience with a personal mistake that could have had fatal consequences. There is an old joke about everyone wanting people to have good judgment and experience but the reality is that experience comes from bad judgment. Fortunately, most of us live to learn from it and tell the tale.

If you want to delete the thread, that's perfectly ok my me. Was poor judgment on my part to start it.
Folks that are not mountaineers will always struggle to understand why we do routes in the Adirondacks and Presidential's in mid-winter. Folks that have made these climbs are aware of the risks and do what is necessary to prepare. Never the less, things can happen. I have had the fortune to exercise good judgement in most cases but also been blessed by luck in others. That route is one of the most extreme on our continent. If things turn bad, the bailouts are down. There are shelters. It is possible to get off the route to get holed in out of the elements. But, it is also possible to get trapped and stuck and as here, suffer the most extreme consequence. I am in awe that anyone would run this route alone if there is a promise of foul weather. But, there are many folks that have done this and lived to tell albeit with better skills and judgement.
I was proud of my son for bailing out on this route under similar conditions. He learned his lessons and lived to tell. It does not always play out that way. She has my respect and sympathy.
I have no problem with mountaineers doing mid-winter routes. Know guys who do it. I am not that type, never have been: was long ago a backpacker. I have had my feet on that route in fine weather and in fair. My only point was, “why do really smart people make sometimes really poor decisions?” That you can learn from. Awareness of weather must be part of an outdoors skillset. That an arctic cold front was due to push through New England was everywhere and obvious. This was no modest fluke of a slight weather change. This was the winter equivalent of a regional hurricane.
I worked for the AMC from Sept. 2000 - May 2001 at Pinkham VC doing SAR. Weather conditions can change in an instant and these mountains are not to be messed with. Its one thing to be on the mountain when conditions change. Its an entirely different thing to plan for a trip, and set out on the trip irregardless as to what the weather was not only doing, but forcast to do. That is foolish. I spent the better part of a winter waiting for my day to do a winter summit of Washington. I got my chance March 9th and was a picture perfect day....with winds still over 50! I went back up several years later and made it to treeline. I realized that a summit bid was not in the cards because of the weather. I turned back! You have the choice to do that! My point is that just because you are there, doesnt mean you have to carry out what you have intended to do. The mountains will be there another day....you may not. Its ashame that a young woman lost her life trying this. It was unfortunately a preventable tragedy!
Just to close on this, apart from weather, it should be noted that what Matrosova was trying was not merely an ascent up Mt. Washington, but the Presidential traverse.

Here’s what Mike Pelchat, team leader of Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR) says of that.

“The north-south traverse that Matrosova was attempting is about 18 miles long, and while not unheard of in the winter, it is most commonly done in the summer, said Pelchat, adding that it takes experienced, aggressive hikers about 18 hours although it can sometimes take up to three days.