As she climbed out of the car 90 minutes before sunrise, Kate Matrosova could not have seen the top of Mount Washington, 5,000 feet above in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. It was 5 a.m., still dark and already overcast on the Sunday before Presidents’ Day.
The forecast was frightening, but it did not dissuade her: Matrosova was headed for the summit.
Up there, it was minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit — cold by the standards of those who live at sea level, but mild by the measure of the mountain in winter. The wind at the top blew steady, around 40 miles an hour. But in a place that boasts of the worst weather on earth, that’s not uncommon — or even severe.
Did the wind whip hard in the Appalachia parking lot on Route 2 in Randolph, N.H., where Matrosova’s husband dropped her off?
If it did, it did not dissuade her. Layered in down and Gore-tex, armed with goggles to shield her face and heavy-duty crampons to affix to her high-tech boots, Matrosova had planned to hike up the mountain range from the north and down the other side.
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.
Bad weather was on the way. But while forecasts warned of blizzards in New Hampshire, the winds in the mountains were not predicted to be at their worst until later Sunday. Matrosova planned to hike down the south side of the range, past the Lakes of the Clouds, along the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail and out to the Mount Washington Cog Railway by 6 p.m.
Her husband, Charlie Farhoodi, would be waiting.
In the parking lot, she scaled the nearly 6-foot-tall snowbank left by plows. Across a snowmobile raceway and a few paces up the narrow trailhead, a sign warns hikers bluntly of the risk they are about to bear:
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.
Trouble in the mountains
The call came over the radio in Sergeant Mark Ober’s cruiser around 3:30 p.m. Sunday, and within moments he knew the day had turned dire.
A hiker was in trouble in the mountains, a State Police dispatcher told Ober, a conservation officer for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. From the radio call, he learned Matrosova’s name and her vital statistics. He now had her husband’s name and cellphone number, too.
Most importantly, he knew her location. Matrosova had pushed the button on a personal locator beacon. That triggered an instantaneous alert at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., where emergency satellite signals from all such devices are monitored.
Operators in Florida immediately called the phone numbers associated with the beacon’s registration: The first, to Matrosova’s cellphone, had bounced to voicemail. Farhoodi, waiting in his hotel room in Gorham, got the second call and dialed 911.
So, just minutes after Matrosova pushed the button on her device, the details of her distress had reached Ober.
He plugged the GPS coordinates the dispatcher had given him into the laptop in his cruiser, and saw the location: south of the ridge between Mount Adams and Mount Madison, far above the tree line and the protection from the wind it affords.
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.
Ober knew this could be deadly. In conditions that dangerous, rescues are not always attempted. Risking the lives of dozens of rescuers to save one person does not always make sense — a week or two earlier, the conditions had been so hazardous, Fish and Game Lieutenant Wayne Saunders said, that a party could not be sent to save a woman who collapsed. The people she was with loaded her into a sleeping bag and dragged her back to safety.
But Matrosova had no one with her.
Ober called his Fish and Game colonel and described the situation and the conditions — the decision to send a team in search of Matrosova belonged to the colonel. He decided they would attempt to save her.
And he called Farhoodi, a vice president at J.P. Morgan in New York. Farhoodi described Matrosova’s mountaineering experience — extensive, he said — as well as her determination and her itinerary.
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.”
If she activated her emergency beacon, Farhoodi told Ober, it was because she was in real trouble. Ober told Farhoodi what the rescuers were up against.
And then Ober began raising the only people who might be able to save her life.
His first calls went to the conservation officers who are part of the Fish and Parks advanced search and rescue team — world-class climbers who perform daring rescues above the tree line.
Then he called Rick Wilcox, the president of the Mountain Rescue Service. If anybody could save Matrosova, it was Wilcox’s team.
“They’re the cream of the crop,” Ober said. “They’re the guys that will go up there and do stuff that normal people won’t, when it comes to saving a life.”
Assembling a rescue squad
Steve Larson’s phone rang a little after 5 p.m. On the line when he picked up at his home in Eaton Center, N.H., was a recorded alert marshalling the volunteer members of the Mountain Rescue Service.
The recording didn’t have much information, but it had enough. Larson began scrambling to get his gear together.
The call did not come as a shock to Larson, a soft-spoken, unassuming 58-year-old with a kind of wiry strength earned only from a life lived outdoors. “When you have a holiday week and bad weather, it’s almost a given that this is going to happen,” he said.
After gearing up, it took him 20 minutes to drive to North Conway to meet the three other rescuers who responded to the call. They gathered at Wilcox’s store, International Mountain Equipment, and went over their plan, distributed radios, and handed out other team equipment.
By then, a second location from the emergency beacon had bounced from the satellite to Florida — this one below the tree line, on the north side of the mountain.
The second beacon came as good news, Larson said. If Matrosova still had her wits about her, she would do anything to get to that line — it was her best chance of surviving.
Where the trees give way to open rocky terrain, there is no shelter from the punishing wind. By Monday morning, gusts would register at more than 140 miles per hour. Almost nothing can live up there in such conditions.
Below the tree line, though, the wind howls but does not bite nearly so hard. Someone with the right gear and a little luck could dig a shelter in the chest-deep snow and hunker down until morning. If Matrosova had made it down to the trees, as the second beacon location suggested, the chances that rescuers might reach her alive were surprisingly good.
So sometime around 7, not far behind a team of three conservation officers and with the temperature hovering around 30-below at the summit, the four men trudged up the Valley Way trail Matrosova had hiked 14 hours earlier. Another four-man Mountain Rescue Service team would follow later.
“My first thought was that it was really inappropriate for anybody to be up there,” said Max Lurie, 28, who responded to the second Mountain Rescue Service call and began his ascent around 10:30 Sunday night.
“It was cold — one of the coldest nights of the year — and the wind was howling,” Lurie said. “I don’t go up there when there are conditions like that.”
Larson could recall only a half-dozen times when it had been this bad. The Valley Way trail passed relatively quickly. It was cold, but with good gear and no wind, it was not unmanageable. And the trail was packed down from hikers traversing the same route.
But as they neared the location of Matrosova’s beacon reading, the hike turned into a crawl.
Off the packed trail, the men forced their way through snow that reached their chests despite their snowshoes, hacking their way through brush. In the cold darkness, their headlamps bobbed above the snow.
Larson’s spirits sank.
Even if Matrosova had fought her way back to the tree line, how could she have traversed this? It took some of the world’s best mountaineers two hours to travel a quarter-mile in this terrain. Why would she have abandoned the relatively easy trail to take this on?
“It just didn’t feel right to me,” Larson said. “She had no business being there.”
It was after midnight when they arrived at the coordinates the emergency beacon had described. It was 35 below zero. There was no sign of Matrosova.
By then, a third beacon reading had arrived — this one far to the south, on the other side of the peaks. Suddenly, what had seemed to be the calculated movements of someone fighting for her life now appeared to be the nonsensical output of a broken machine.
Exhausted, the team turned back.
At 3 a.m., they walked past the warning sign, across the snowmobile run, over the bank, and into the parking lot.
By Monday morning, there were 11 readings from the beacon, some overlapping and others far afield.
But there were also more people ready to search.
A team from Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, another area volunteer group, was dispatched to the original beacon location, near the Star Lake trail between Mount Madison and Mount Adams, south of the ridgeline between the peaks.
Mike Pelchat, a state parks employee who volunteers as a search and rescue worker, said he got a call to be on standby Sunday night. He put a pack together and was on the trail around 9 a.m. Monday.
Carrying 40-pound packs, the team hiked up the mountain.
“I’m an optimist,” said Pelchat, 60, who lives in Gorham in the shadow of the mountains. “Over more than 30-odd years, I’ve seen some amazing feats of survival. People can survive if they can get out of that wind.”
But by Monday morning, that wind was gusting upwards of 100 miles an hour. The Androscoggin Valley team members were being tossed from the trail like toddlers toppling on a playground.
They checked on each other often. In the savage wind, wearing gear that covered every inch of skin, that meant huddling close and shouting their loudest.
At the top of Valley Way trail, they huddled at Madison Spring Hut — a small shelter that was closed for the winter but substantial enough to briefly block the wind.
Up over the ridge, there was no such shelter. The blowing snow can eradicate any trail that might have existed. The frigid air and brutal wind on the ridge are what make these mountains a training ground for the world’s tallest peaks.
“A lot of people relish the severe weather,” Pelchat said. “That’s how they test and train themselves for the higher mountains around the world.”
But Sunday, he knew, had gotten colder and colder as the hours passed. The wind had driven harder and harder. What had been a mild Sunday morning gave way to hell: According to Weather Now, a website that tracks weather stations around the globe, there was a moment Monday morning when the peak of Mount Washington was the second-coldest measured place on earth, the Conway Daily Sun reported.
The first was a weather station at the South Pole.
“We thought it was going to be grim,” Pelchat said. “We were preparing ourselves for what we might find.”
It took nearly five hours to reach the location from which that first beacon — and three others since — had emanated. The team of 11 rescuers combed the coordinates and then doubled back, fanning out to search the area.
Around 2 p.m., a few hundred feet off the trail, Pelchat saw someone down on the ground.
Maybe one of the team had fallen over again, he thought.
But Kate Matrosova did not move, or stagger to her feet.
Her pack was off, and her face was scraped and cut. Her headlamp was still in place.
“It looked like she got blown off the Star Lake trail,” Pelchat said. “A big gust of wind picked her up and blew her off the trail.”
She died where the wind left her.
Retracing her steps
Along with the beacon that she hoped would save her life, Matrosova had brought another GPS device with her that day — one that guided her along snow-covered trails and tracked her progress.
So after rescuers bore Matrosova’s body down the frigid mountain to the hearse waiting in the parking lot below, conservation officers were able to piece together her path.
She first turned the device on when she emerged at the tree line, and she followed the Appalachian Trail directly to the top of Mount Madison, 5,367 feet above sea level. She followed the trail back down and stopped at the Madison Spring Hut to take a picture of herself, said Saunders, the fish and game lieutenant.
She looked strong and healthy. Already, though, she was behind the schedule she’d set.
With the fearsome wind at her back, she headed south along Star Lake Trail, following it to the summit of Mount Adams — 5,794 feet.
She surely knew by then that she would never complete the route she had planned: Her GPS tracker shows her turning back, retracing her steps along Star Lake Trail, headed for the hut and tree line below.
But if a tailwind pushed her up the mountain, a headwind held her there. By the early afternoon, gusts were already topping 100 miles per hour. Even along the south side of the mountain ridge, the full force of the wind was assaulting Matrosova.
Turning back was the right decision, but it came too late.
By 3:30 p.m., she was off the trail, in the lonely place where Mike Pelchat would find her body 22½ hours later.
Alone a treacherous mile above the world, she pushed the button on her locator beacon.
Toeing a line
No one will ever know for certain how long she survived. Some take her headlamp as evidence that she held out at least until dark; others aren’t so sure.
Had she turned on her cellphone, Ober said, she might have been surprised to find that she could get through to 911. But she did not.
“It was negligent for her to be up there,” Lurie said. The conditions overnight were among the worst he’s seen, he said.
Though she was not a novice — people strand themselves on these mountains in rubber boots and jeans — the truest tests of skill out here are not physical.
“Her decision clearly speaks to her inexperience,” Lurie said.
But her route, Saunders said, “shows she was thinking the whole time.” She aborted her trek and tried to make it back to safety.
“She wasn’t wandering around the mountain,” Saunders said.
Finally dissuaded from her goal, she was trying, strategically and systematically, to save her own life.
“She was the victim of a combination of bad judgment and bad luck,” Larson said. But “people make worse errors in judgment all the time” and don’t lose their lives.
What haunts Larson is how close he came in his attempt to rescue her.
“One lesson in all this, for all of this whiz-bang technology, it obviously is not spot-on,” Larson said. If his group of rescuers had had only the one true set of coordinates of her location — had they not spent hours bushwhacking through chest-deep snow to a remote place she’d never been — they might have reached her 14 hours earlier than Pelchat did.
Maybe, he said, they would have found her: Frostbitten. Frigid. Alive.
But her beacon was rated for 20-below, Saunders said. The air was far colder. And mountain shadows, he said, can sometimes trick even modern technology.
“Maybe she relied a little too much on the technology,” Pelchat said. “Maybe she thought she could turn back. But the temperatures, and the wind, got the best of her.”
The weather was not the only thing that got the best of her, of course.
“When you’re goal-oriented, that makes you successful in the business world,” Pelchat said. “That also can put your blinders on.”
The single-minded determination that drives people to climb mountains in the first place is the same quality that can doom them.
And though the ridgeline between these mountains is narrow, it is not as narrow as the line between pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough.
Had she turned back sooner and made for the line where wind gives way to the woods, Kate Matrosova may have walked away from the mountain cold and disappointed and alive.
But she did not.
During winter in the Whites, the narrowest line is the one between life and death.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.