Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Death in the Whites

If you're part of the outdoors community, I'm sure you have heard this story.

Predictably the howls have begun. Why did she go alone? With that forecast? Why didn't she dig a snow cave, turn on her cell phone, not go at all? None of us can know these things unless we were there. All we can know is that she didn't have a chance once the wind began to blow.

I was dropped off today to do a solo ski from Salt Creek to Fergi, a distance of about ten miles. There's something about being dropped off that commits you to the adventure, but unlike Kate, I was skiing into a cold but sunny day. I was at a high elevation in a remote place, but after awhile I saw some snowmobilers, a sno cat, some dudes busting the oversnow road closure and a young girl mushing sled dogs. Winter came back this week and people were out. At the same time, the grader headed down a closed road to rescue a family that had illegally driven down it and been stuck out overnight. So you never know.

The road I skied lies high above the river, mid-mountain, far from anywhere. I was glad to be alone, to push the pace a little, to not have to talk. Maybe that's what Kate wanted too, but who can know? The people who admonish us to never go alone don't understand the value of being silent in your own company. I never really trust people who can't be alone.

Despite the meager snowpack, I was able to charge along the route at a blazing speed, faster than I've skied it before. It was so cold that I wore a puffy for the first half of the journey but the big hills soon warmed me. Somehow I always forget how steep this route is, but I skied along with my new mantra: "If a 74 year old woman can thru hike the Appalachian Trail, I can do this!"

Cold, the kind of cold Kate faced, can change everything. Maybe she made some bad decisions because of it. Maybe she should  have stayed home. It's really sad that she died, and it's sad that people's lives were put at risk trying to rescue her. But the mountains aren't safe. They never will be. And that's part of why we go there. Who wants to just hit the gym every day? Who wants to just sit on the couch?

I arrived at the parking lot in record time, happy with the day. The death in the Whites doesn't change a lot for me except that I will scrutinize the weather a bit more closely. Having been part of a search and rescue team, I never want to endanger others with my choices (Try having a Coast Guard helicopter out looking for you. It's embarrassing. And a long story. We weren't in danger but some conclusions were jumped to).  I carry a beacon and I turn around, a lot sooner probably than I would have at 32. I don't see this as failure anymore though I am sure at one time I would have. RIP Kate and all the others who have died in the mountains.

nytimes.com




25 comments:

  1. Yes, a very sad story. But, like you, this isn't going to stop me for embarking on solo adventures. I, too, cherish the time spent alone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Same. Though I don't think I'll do a winter traverse of the Whites in that kind of weather. I know that's above my abilities.

      Delete
  2. Yes, I had read a post earlier about the sad ending of Kate's hike. She was an experienced hiker, but the weather in those mountains is often treacherous. The post anticipated the critiques that would come, often from folks knowing little about the wild, but also affirmed the value of being in the backcountry and also of sometimes going alone. Keep going. Sounds like a good day

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's always the same comments, but I recall other situations where several people have died as a group--because I think group thinking can be often just as dangerous.

      Delete
  3. Being out there alone is worth it for me too. Though I also factor in the embarrassment of having a search helicopter out for us when I have to make a call whether to go forward or turn around.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess that is the ONLY reason for taking someone along in a situation like this. Maybe someone else would have said to turn around sooner. Maybe they wouldn't have, and in the end more than one person would have died. It's hard to say so when people say she shouldn't have been alone, I just say, well....?Who knows?

      Delete
  4. I read this last night (and the news article you linked) and it's been kind of haunting me since. But like you, stories like this don't stop me from doing what I do (alone time is IMPORTANT). But I think they give me a measured dose of caution. What a sad ending.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree...the hardest part of the story for me was that she was trying to save herself and in the end the wind was just too much--it sounds like it actually lifted her and threw her. Of course we will never know.

      Delete
  5. You are one of my heroes, living life and being smart about risk management. It would take a lot for me to push my SOS button, and I would hate risking others lives for mine. Those factors help keep me make better decisions, although my recent snowshoe incident in Great Basin was not one I'm proud of. But, it's been added to my arsenal of knowledge now and hopefully will help me make wiser choices in the future.

    Keep on keeping on Mary! May we all stay safe while playing hard and living life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've been in your (snow) shoes and made it out, so I totally get what you are saying, Jan. It would take a lot for me to press the button as well. I was once told I needed to "increase my comfort zone" but honestly I think it's a balance of being wise and also pushing it just a little so you learn and grow. I think we are both doing fine!

      Delete
  6. I heard about this yesterday, and haven't yet seen any of the internet comments out there about it--though of course I may have had the slightly snarky thought of "would this be as big news if she wasn't young, blond, pretty, and a Wall St trader"? Mainly a little Wall Street bias coming in there, my bad. :) But what I am curious about, and don't find details on, is that somewhere I read she had "extensive mountaineering experience" but I can't seem to find any details on what that means. It's none of my business, really, but I'm just curious what background she did have. It would help me put it more into some context. These days there seems to be a strong culture to push hard no matter what (I think of it as a direct effect of Crossfit and Tough Mudder stuff--"Pain is only temporary" and blah blah etc) but often those sentiments are in places where you can actually stop and back out. When the reality is actually life vs death, there is far less attraction in such bravado.
    All this is somewhat irrelevant, of course. People go into the mountains, some inexperienced, some experienced. Some die, some don't. Sometimes rescues work, sometimes they don't. So it goes, right? I am pretty confident in my risk assessment skills, and hearing about this story won't change how I do things a bit. But that doesn't mean I won't make a bad choice someday. I hope I get to learn from it, though!! I do like doing things solo, but I often choose to find partners because of safety reasons. It's just the way I roll these days.

    Plus, did you see the youtube video the SAR team took up on the mountain during the mission? Two of the guys are getting TOSSED by the wind. Very impressive. Those mountains are serious.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those mountains are serious, but they're often not taken as such by people from other parts of the world, since they're only 5000-6000 feet high. I don't know if this applies to Ms. Matrosova or not, but people tend not to consider the implications of being the highest elevation in a thousand miles, even if it's not a lot of elevation in the absolute sense.

      Delete
    2. Yes, I read she had climbed Elbrus in Russia but no other information. You would climb that peak typically with a guide or at least with others. So I don't know about her experience either, although it sounds like she had some. How sad for her husband. And I have no doubt those mountains are serious!

      Delete
  7. As a New England hiker who follows the New England hiking fora and blogs, I've heard quite a lot about this story. Although there are some questions about her preparations and gear, I think the reason this has had such an impact is that she was not a clueless newbie; she died because she did not decide to abort her hike until too late. I, and I think a lot of us, are wondering if we would have made the same mistake. I have aborted hikes because conditions were too bad, or because I realized I hadn't nearly enough time, but I've also finished hikes where I thought back on them and realized I really should have aborted them.

    I've actually twice solo hiked through the col where she died in winter conditions. Both these hikes were two-day trips in November, though (staying in the RMC huts on the slope of Adams), with better weather, and even so both times I abandoned my plan to add Jefferson to Adams and Madison. I wondered then if I was being too cautious, but I didn't want to end up above treeline after dark trying to follow rime covered cairns.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad to hear your perspective, being familiar with the area. The question I read most often is, why did she go with such a grim forecast? if you happen to come back to this blog it would be interesting to know if this kind of condition is normal and people would normally go or if most people would not.

      Delete
    2. Most people, I think, would not go above the treeline in the Presidentials in those conditions. In fact, I have a friend who canceled a planned Presi hike that day because of the conditions.

      One thing which has been discussed online but not mentioned in the newspaper article is the fact that on Saturday morning the forecast for Sunday was serious, but borderline doable. Late Saturday the forecast deteriorated to brutal. It's been speculated that she saw the early Saturday forecast but didn't check for updates. I don't always recheck updates the night before either, but I like to think I would have if the original forecast was on the edge of acceptable.

      We will never know, but I wonder what her intentions were when she started up Star Lake Trail. She had at that point successfully summited Madison and returned to the col. Was she still planning on hiking further past Adams? Or had she decided that the full hike wasn't happening and that she'd just tag Adams and head back to Appalachia? One thing to consider is that there are two trails from the col up to Adams, Airline Trail and Star Lake Trail. Airline is the usual way, because Star Lake has some tricky sections, but Star Lake would have been more shielded from the wind that day. The fact that she ascended via Star Lake implies that she knew Airline wasn't doable, and if she knew Airline wasn't doable I find it hard to think she could have expected to make it even to Jefferson. This is, of course, all speculation, though. We will literally never know.

      Delete
    3. Thanks, Cumulus. That helps me understand a little more. Perhaps after investing in the drive from NY there was a can do aspect to it. But like with any tragedy you are right, we won't know and will only have to learn.

      Delete
  8. Like you and others, I also considered my own decisions when reading this story. When I lived in Juneau, I hiked alone frequently. I turned around from my destination lots of times. But I also had one incident where I'd recently purchased a new jacket that I wanted to test out for the ITI, and there were Taku winds in the forecast. Typically this means 50 mph winds in town, but can top 100 mph on Mount Roberts, which is where I headed. I'll fought my way up the slope in my crampons, and I'll never forget cresting the ridge to the full brunt of that wind. Forward progress into the wind was absolutely impossible, and turning my body even slightly to the side knocked me off my feet. I retreated quickly, having learned a valuable lesson. Before then I had not the same concept about the impact of high winds. It was much more powerful than I even expected.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting and I don't think we had Taku winds in Sitka? I've been in a house in 100 mph winds and in one hurricane but never out exposed. Hard to imagine winds that can pick you up. Scary stuff.

      Delete
    2. Taku winds are specific to Juneau. The Taku Inlet is a narrow channel that tends to draw cold air from the Interior of British Columbia toward the warm air of the coast, which creates extremely high (hurricane-force) localized winds. It's the same phenomenon that creates the famous blowholes along the Bering Sea Coast.

      Winds up on the mountains in Juneau knocked me off my feet more than once. There are several places with weather stations so I could go back later and look at the measure wind speeds. 60 mph was about the limit where I could walk without being knocked around by sidewinds, or pushed off balance and sometimes onto the ground. I've never actually been picked up by the wind, only because around 60 mph is where I turned around and retreated to treeline. I am quite scared of high wind.

      Delete
    3. Interesting about those winds! And then you think about Kate being in 100 mph winds and know that she had no chance.

      Delete
  9. I hadn't heard about this yet. What a sad story. As athletes, I think we all push our boundaries from time to time, it's so hard to know when conditions go from marginal to "holy shit, get me out of here".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree, especially if you are a destination fixated person like myself. Sometimes I feel like a wimp if I turn around, especially if everything turns out to have been okay and other people pressed on.

      Delete
  10. So last Saturday I turned around during a hike in the Whites. Details here: http://rocksontop.com/topic/1102-the-bonds-traverse-that-wasnt-zealand-and-the-spruce-trap-of-death/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I went over there and read your report. That is a scary situation. I have had snowshoes caught and had to remove them but not as dire of a situation. Glad you made it back okay and definitely a cautionary tale.

      Delete

Hello out there. If you liked this post, please leave a comment so I keep writing!