Book Review: Where You'll Find Me
Kate Matrosova challenged the Presidential Range in winter and lost. A traverse above tree line in February can be dangerous for anyone, regardless of experience and preparedness. Matrosova was an experienced mountain climber. She had climbed the highest peak on four of the seven continents and was the first woman to summit Denali in winter. She was a highly successful, self-driven woman with a fascinating and enriching life – and it all ended at the age of thirty-two on the exposed slopes of Mt. Adams, after hypothermia took its toll during violent winter weather.
Ty Gagne's recent book Where You'll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova meticulously breaks down and explores the known details of the tragic day, as well as the attempted rescue that took place over the course of the next twenty-four hours.
Gagne assesses the situation from a unique perspective. He is the CEO of Primex³, a “public entity risk pool” that works with local governments and organizations to manage risk in their respective environments. His book is referred to as a “case study,” but more importantly, it is a public service announcement and a guide for how to think when approaching dangerous situations such as hiking in the snow-covered White Mountains.
The Last Climb
The flow of the book is cinematic. It's written in present tense, a fast-moving pace. It cuts from scene to scene: Matrosova climbing in the dark up snowy Mt. Madison, her headlamp bouncing off the trees, while her husband watches from the car, shaking bad thoughts out of his head; the Mount Washington Observatory meteorologist looking out to the skyline and publishing reports about the incoming “weatherbomb” storm; the mountain climbing guides who will be part of the rescue team in a few short hours taking their clients up to Washington's treeline that very morning; and the NH Fish & Game Sergeant who will soon be heading up the rescue mission, starting his day off with a drag, filling out paperwork about snowmobile accidents.
Cut back to Matrosova. Here she is again, between the peaks of Madison and Adams. She stood here a month ago at the Madison Spring Hut with her husband, having camped the night before, a warm-up hike for this Northern Presidential Traverse. She wanted Adams that last time, but there were differences in opinion between the two climbers as to the environment and their abilities, so they turned back. Matrosova is not one to quit easily. In her martial arts training, she is known for refusing to tap out, preferring to choke out. She has a detailed, well-researched plan: every trail is mapped out and stops are scheduled, and there are numerous escape routes planned in case of an emergency. She plans to climb from Madison to Adams, then over Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Clay, Washington, and then down the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail by headlamp. She's already hours behind and she's only peaked one mountain.
The book is not all narrative. Facts are not sparse, though much of Matrosova's specific thoughts and emotions can never be known as she began climbing Adams just hours before the snow storm and high winds struck. Fortunately, there are artifacts: coordinates and times from her GPS, photos from her camera, weather data down to the minute from various checkpoints around Mt. Washington, as well as technical and scientific information from various guides and other experts, papers, books, and interviews.
Gagne leads us down many side trails, too, to have views at all sorts of different things. We learn about self-care in the wilderness, risk assessment, situational awareness and the differences between thinking logically and emotionally. There are sections about leadership and decision-making, both solo and while working in teams. There are crash courses on meteorology, mountain safety, and what happens when a human experiences hypothermia. Gagne gathers all the information available, puts it in the correct order, and tells a compelling and ominous tale.
We have Matrosova's exact tracks, how far up she climbed, and how long she stopped in certain areas. At the base of Adams, as the wind howled and the storm approached, she paused for eight minutes. What was she thinking? Should she go back? But Adams is right there. Did she decide to peak Adams and race back down, those lingering emotions from the previous failed attempt still raw? Maybe she thought the weather would improve. The movie-scene tragedy here is that she checked the weather report from the Mt. Washington Observatory just before she began climbing, but it was updated with warnings of the terrible incoming storm only a half-hour later. And she never checked for updates while on the mountain.
It's heartbreaking to read as she chooses to climb the steep, rocky, exposed side of Adams, slammed by the wind and “ground blizzard,” blowing snow creating a total lack of visibility. Without snowshoes she was at risk of post-holing in between unseen boulders or “terrain traps,” snow-covered stunted trees growing around the trail. If you've ever been in the alpine zone of the Presidential Range and have seen the krummholz and the huge lichen-covered boulders that look like they were dropped there from the sky, imagine it with a foot of snow and 80 mph winds. In “optimal” conditions, the hike might take an hour, but as experienced guides in the book insist, there are no “optimal” conditions in winter.
The book is clear from the beginning that she will not survive, but as she decides to turn around and ditch her attempt only 144 feet from the summit of Adams, I began to feel hope that she might make it, and read each page eagerly. It's frustrating how close to possible safety she actually was before she activated her personal locator beacon to request rescue. But the truth is, it was probably too late when she decided to press on after those fateful eight minutes down below the mountain.
If you are interested in the play-by-play details of a full scale rescue operation – by land and by air – then the last half of the book is a page-turner and impossible to put down. NH Fish & Game's Sergeant Mark Ober gets the call about the beacon going off and starts making plans. He contacts fellow Fish & Game officers, the Androscoggin Valley Search And Rescue team, the Mountain Rescue Service team, the NH Army National Guard, as well as the NH Civil Air Patrol.
It took about three hours for him to gather everyone up, and another three hours for the first responders to reach the general area of where they thought she might be. The personal locator beacon sent out numerous signals and the device that read them showed numerous possible locations all over the mountain, so they had to guess. The Mountain Rescue Service team bushwacked in the dark down a steep section of Madison with no luck. There's more drama as a member of one of the teams has to get off the mountain before hypothermia claims him, as well. The Mt. Washington Observatory tweets out the next day that the summit was the second coldest place on Earth that night, reaching 35º below zero, and with the windchill it won the award for coldest, reaching 90º below zero. And these guys plowed right up into it to find Matrosova.
Some things go right, but some things just can't seem to, including finding the lost climber. They have to try again the next day. The wind is blowing so hard above treeline that some of their snowshoes turn into sails and knock them over. The airplane and helicopter attempts to scan the area are made impossible by wind. It brings a hearty respect and humbling feeling to the potential high-risk climber who must take these rescue efforts into consideration before going out on an adventure that stands the chance to go awry – and put many other lives at risk, too.
Matrosova's body is eventually found and carried down the mountain. It's a sad scene, but an important one to confront if you ever plan to go up there in winter. While the book sticks to a logical track throughout, Gagne offers up an emotional touch in the final pages, sharing the observations of an officer who visited Matrosova's husband to deliver the news. It was Valentine's Day weekend, and her husband had bought roses, chocolates, and wine, which awaited her return on a table. The officer confesses that it threw him off and made his job a little harder, to have to do it on what should have been a happy day.
Matrosova's death occurred three years ago this weekend. It was preventable – if she had taken the care to pay attention to certain details, and perhaps embrace the proper mindset that she might have to turn back and leave her prize behind. As one mountain guide interviewed in the book says, “Safety trumps peak-bagging every time.” The mountain will still be there next time.
Where You'll Find Me is a must-read for any winter hiker who wants the intellectual and emotional self-defense to safely challenge the White Mountains when the wind blows and the snow flies.