Lessons Learned From A Hiker's Death In The White Mountains

Sep 28, 2017

Rescuers searching for Kate Matrosova in 2015.
Credit Matty Bowman photo

Mountaineer Kate Matrosova’s death during a winter traverse of the Northern Presidential Range in 2015 still echoes for some in the White Mountains.

Ty Gagne says the climbing community lost one of their own.

“The North Country in some ways is still rattled by this.”

Gagne is a member of the Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue Team. He also wrote a book on Matrosova’s tragic last climb that explores backcountry decision-making and risks.

Gagne tells The Exchange that the death of such an experienced mountaineer raises the issue of one’s own vulnerability. (Listen to that program right here.)

The show highlights the attraction and challenges of hiking in the Presidentials, for experts and for novice and intermediate hikers.

Lt. James Kneeland, head of New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Search and Rescue Team, and Corey Fitzgerald, co-owner of Northeast Mountaineering, shared their insights about safe hiking, more available technology, and the increasing popularity of the Whites as a destination.

“I think a big part of it is the accessibility,” Fitzgerald says.

Kneeland says the summer season can be so busy he goes to sleep at night with his cell phone nearby - sometimes on his chest.

A lot of hikers just need to be better prepared. (See Hike Safe, which includes gear checklist.)

Other points from the show include:

  • Kneeland said Fish & Game sold 2,800 “Hike Safe” cards in 2015. The voluntary card proved popular. Sales increased to 4,500 in 2017, which generated about $115,000 for the Search and Rescue fund. He says trained volunteers who help with mountain rescues are unsung heroes. They respond in the worst weather, sometimes in the middle of the night or in the middle of a Patriots game.
  • A caller from Franconia also praised volunteers. She noted seeing some hikers in sandals with a beer in hand setting out for a difficult trail. She was referring to the Trail Steward Program of the U.S. Forest Service. Volunteers at five locations in the WMNF offer advice to hikers at the trailhead. They pay attention to those who may not be prepared for an arduous hike. It’s been so successful that Kneeland reports his calls at the Falling Waters Trail has dropped significantly.
  • Fitzgerald and Kneeland say technology has its place. But hikers should not rely on it as the end-all, be-all of their gear. Fitzgerald advises clients to be prepared, and that includes not reaching a summit if the forecast is bad. Yet he says he regularly sees other hikers with improper gear. Mount Washington, he notes, "is the eighth deadliest mountain in the world."