By Ed Parsons
Since before the Greeks, tragedy has made a great story. When a great deal can be learned from a tragedy in the outdoors to help prevent future fatalities, it is worthy of study and even the publication of a book about it.
Such is the case with the new book “Where you’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova” by Ty Gagne.
On Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015, Matrosova, a 33 year old born in Omsk, Russia with a spectacular rising career in New York finance and with an impressive list of the world’s higher mountains notched on her accomplishment belt, died of hypothermia on Mount Adams in the Presidential Range.
It is easy to say she shouldn’t have been there. Yet many people were outside that day. I took a short snowshoe hike with friend Nancy Walch across a beaver pond in Lovell, Maine. Out on the treeless pond we bundled up as best we could in the frigid wind and soon scooted back to the tree lined shore. It was a fun hike.
Guided groups started up both sides of Mount Washington that day, but turned back at tree line or just above it. It was a positive learning experience for those involved.
Matrosova had climbed Mount Madison early that morning, the first peak in her ambitious plan to traverse the Northern Presidentials. Back in the col (the lowest point of a ridge between two peaks) by the AMC Madison Hut, she reached a point of decision: to turn back in the lowering temperatures and increasing wind, and go back down the Valley Way to the highway, where her husband had dropped her off at 5 a.m., or to continue to her next objective: Mount Adams. She turned south and continued.
The rest is a long and fascinating story of her climb and demise, and the ensuing rescue turned recovery, which involved numerous agencies and volunteers, many of whom risked climbing up into high winds with off-the-chart wind chills looking for her. On Sunday night, they hoped to find her alive, on Monday most were convinced it was a body recovery, which was correct.
When Gagne of Holderness heard the story of Matrosova he was captivated by it. An experienced winter hiker, he was also executive director of Primex, a public entity risk pool based in Concord that handles workman’s compensation claims for schools, municipalities and counties. Like any insurance company, they have interest in teaching people how to avoid accidents.
Gagne’s love of outdoor adventure, where courting some risk is a given, plus his extensive knowledge and connections in communities convinced him in late 2015 to start giving talks to Primex member public-entities on the Matrosova incident. It was titled “Trouble in the Presidentials: What a Mountaineering Accident Can Teach Us About Decision Making and Managing Risk." In the beginning, like other mountaineering lecturers, this included how dealing with climbing risks could inform those who were experiencing the risk in the public sector.
The outdoor adventure aspect of his presentation grew. He gave talks at L.L. Bean, Recreational Equipment International (REI), The Mount Washington Hotel, the AMC Annual Meeting and libraries. He has been invited back to L.L. Bean and the AMC Annual Meeting. Among the many comments he received after a talk was that it would make a great book.
Stonehearth Open Leaning Center (SOLO) is a wilderness medicine school off Tasker Hill Road in Conway. Gagne earned his Wilderness First Responder there in 2015. That is when he met Ted Walsh.
Walsh is co-owner of TMC Books, an offshoot of SOLO and based next door. It publishes wilderness first aid books and a wide variety of related books. Walsh is a trained illustrator and artist. After meeting Gagne, Walsh created some great watercolor illustrations for Gagne’s lecture on Kate Matrosova.
Gagne began writing the book last February, getting up at 4 a.m. weekdays to write before work. He finished it in May. It was published by TMC books, and came out in August. It is generously illustrated by Ted Walsh. His watercolors add a haunting touch to the events of February 15, 2015.
“Where You’ll Find me” is easily the most detailed book of a rescue in the White Mountains. It also draws from Gagne’s research in risk, and there are many quotes from experts and a lengthy bibliography at the end.
I read the book and didn’t get time to review it for a couple weeks. I realized then that I needed to read it again. Like the first time, I was drawn into the storm on the mountain and couldn’t put it down.
In North Conway, this book is available at White Birch Books, the Mount Washington Observatory valley facility and International Mountain Equipment. To order it directly from TMC Books, go to tmcbooks.com or call (603) 447-5589.
Since this is a hiking column, I am obliged to suggest a hike. It is with pleasure that I suggest a hike to Star Lake, a place that played a pivotal role in the Matrosova drama. Plus, I like water as a destination. To get there, starting at the Appalachia parking lot on Route 2 in Randolph, climb the Valley Way for 3.8 miles to the AMC Madison Hut, located just above timberline. From there, take the Star Lake Trail a short way to the top of the saddle between Mount Madison and Mount Adams.
Star Lake is a tiny mountain tarn only a foot or so deep. The view south from it out over the Great Gulf to Mount Washington is spectacular. Be sure to go there on a day with good visibility.
When Matrosova passed it on her way up to the steeper slopes of the Star Lake Trail toward the top of Mount Adams, she could see little in the distance as the storm winds and blowing snow grew in intensity around her.