Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Climbing every mountain

It may have been lost in all the other bad (weather) news, but over Presidents’ Day weekend, a young woman (32; not what-me-die? foolish young, but young enough) decided to go it alone, hiking in the Presidential Range of the White Mountain in New Hampshire.

Kate Matrosova’s plan was this:

One by one, she would climb to the top of four mountains named for men whose memories the holiday also honors: Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington. (Source: Boston Globe.)

The weather was terrible. A blizzard was expected in the state. Up at the summit of Mt. Washington, it was minus-six.

As all New Englander’s know, the weather on Mt. Washington – the highest peak east of the Mississippi – is erratic at best.

One July, I climbed Washington in humid, 80 degree weather. Although we only got as far as Tuckerman Ravine, about 2/3’s of the way up, it was still humid and 80 degrees. But the last of the skiers were still skiing there.

Another July, I climbed Washington in a car. At the base, it was humid, 80 degree weather. At the summit, it was about 40 degrees and windy enough to bowl the sturdiest of pins over.

Mt. Washington may not have the worst weather in the world, but it’s right up there.

When it comes to what weather has to offer, I’m guessing that the other Presidents aren’t far behind.

But Kate Matrosova wasn’t put off by the weather. Or by the sign at the start of the trail:

Try this trail only if you are in top physical condition, well clothed and carrying extra clothing and food. Many have died above timberline from exposure. Turn back at the first sign of bad weather.

Matrosova, 32, was fit and strong and smart. A trader at BNP Paribas on Wall Street, she was also driven and determined. She had undertaken some strenuous climbs before, and this was the vacation she had planned.

And if Matrosova saw the sign by the light of her headlamp in the pre-dawn darkness — if she read every word before she set out between the trees — it did not dissuade her, either.

Her husband dropped her off, and off she went.

Kate was well-equipped, with high-tech layers, high-tech boots, high-tech goggles. She also had her personal locator beacon, a device that sends out a satellite signal and calls for help.

Within minutes of her making it, Kate’s high-tech cry for help was heard by Mark Ober, an officer with New Hampshire Fish and Game, who quickly figured out that she was above the tree line.

Up there, the tree line is often the boundary between life and death.

Next, he checked the weather at the Mount Washington Observatory.

Between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., the temperature at the summit was 21 degrees below zero. The wind was blowing 77 miles per hour, and the wind chill was -67. In that wind and cold, frostbite develops on exposed skin in minutes. And it was only going to get colder.

Deciding whether to actually go in and try to rescue someone is a life and death decision, and sometimes the powers that be decide that it’s not worth risking the lives of the would-be rescuers. But because Matrosova was out there on her own, Ober’s boss decided to send out a search party.

In better conditions, her plan might have been doable, if ambitious within the time constraints. But weather is everything in the Whites.

“It gave me pause,” Ober said. “Nobody attempts that at this time of year, in those conditions. Certainly [not] alone.”

She had known the forecast, Ober said, but forged ahead. “This was her plan. She wanted to accomplish it. The weather didn’t seem to faze her that much.”

Despite all the risks, a volunteer rescue squad was raised. (Two rescue squads, in fact. The search extended over two days.)

But they – and Kate – had no luck.

The rescue squad turned into a recovery squad.

As well-equipped as Kate Matrosova, that equipment was not quite up to the job, rated only to work up to 20-below. It was colder out. The location signals were as erratic as Mt. Washington weather, an didn’t quite guide the rescuers to where Kate needed rescuing.

Bad luck? Bad choices?

Some of both.

The hubris of the young, the dynamic, the aggressive, the driven, the gambler?

Kate was a trader at BNP Paribas. So it’s no doubt check, check, check.

While still feeling bad about this unnecessary loss of life, it’s important to add that , in deciding to climb these particular mountains, in this particular weather, Kate not only put herself at risk, she put the rescuers there, as well. Fortunately, they all made it down alive. The death of these men because one woman was foolhardy, well…

Mostly I’m guessing that Kate Matrosova biggest mistake was putting too much trust in technology.

The Gore-tex would protect her from the wind. The down would keep her warm. The crampons would give her good footing. (There’s speculation that she was actually blown off a ridge.) The location beacon would ensure that she was rescued.

Not that people haven’t pushed their limits since the first caveman decided to make his way from Cave A to Cave B, even if he had to cross a swollen river and climb a rocky mountain in order to get there.

And not that people a lot less equipped than Kate was don’t get rescued all the time. (Ask me about my attempt to climb Mt. Washington in my waitress shoes, why don’t you.)

But I think that all the teched-up gear encourages folks to take extraordinary risks. I’ll stay warm. I’ll stay dry. Sure, there’s an element of danger – that’s what makes it so worthwhile – but I’ll stay safe.

Press the button, help is on the way.

Sad day for this young woman’s husband, her family. A cautionary note to all that sometimes all the tech in the world isn’t going to save you.

1 comment:

valerie said...

Thanks for this one. I had wondered. In fact, having known the record-breaking bad weather here, when I heard her husband had dropped her at Mt Washington and driven off, I idly wondered if it were murder. That's how bad it was. Unimaginable. In January of 1986 I drove into a 7-11 in Newport to see a silent group of teens staring slack-jawed at a TV. The Challenger had exploded. The unthinkable had happened -- technology had failed.