This is not a Peaceful post. The latest life lost attempting to summit Mount Washington was an unnecessary death. The challenge was a solo climb in the Presidential Range. The climber was experienced, fit, and goal driven, but ignored obvious weather warnings that deterred the experienced local guides. The practical mind can be overwhelmed by obsessive, ego driven goals that force bad decisions. When applied to Mt. Washington, “Home of the World’s Worst Weather”, bad decisions can turn deadly.
I debated posting this story, but there are lessons to be learned from this tragedy. Almost every year a person perishes in the White Mountains, often due to bad decisions. Although I remain hopeful, further deaths will occur even in the face of documented errors and loss of life. With this in mind, a few personal thoughts became words leading me to write, bringing light to one heartfelt aspect of this latest fatality.
A certain skill set is required for successful mountaineering – fitness, training, awareness of changing conditions, but nothing is more important than good judgment. Being conservative is safe and smart. I read mountaineering accidents and journals to gain knowledge of what can go wrong during an unsuccessful climb. Weighing these new facts against my climbing experience can help inform personal collected knowledge to make future expeditions successful and safe. My experience and review of the recent February 15 incident offer some insight to the tragic outcome, which I now share to demonstrate what can happen in the White Mountains in the winter.
My skill level as a mountaineer is intermediate. Most climbing has been nontechnical using crampons and a mountaineering axe on terrain not requiring ropes and ice screws. I’ve attempted to summit Mt. Washington a few dozen times only successfully making it half of those attempts. Turning back was necessary when weather became ominous or to assist another climber down not ready for the undertaking. The mountain will be there for another attempt. Rope is carried for emergencies and safety. I’ve experienced adverse weather conditions including a white out on Mt. Katahdin in Maine, battled 70 MPH winds with an International Mountain Equipment guide to get to safety and thrown to the ground in wind gusts exceeding 80 MPH. Experience has been gained from a climbing partner, the International Mountain Climbing School, SOLO Wilderness Medicine School, Tracker Survival School and personal mountaineering experience. There’s a complimentary pairing of what my safe, knowledgeable climbing partner and I bring to a climb. We are usually not only responsible for ourselves but for others in our group. A winter attempt of Mt. Washington is a serious undertaking where weather risks are assessed from days before to the morning of a climb. Changing weather conditions and group safety are monitored throughout ascending and descending a climb and there are set checkpoints where we decide to continue, bail out or proceed to a safer trail below treeline.
When weather conditions change quickly there is little room for error on snow and ice covered mountains. Most accidents occur while descending due to fatigue or because it is technically more difficult to downclimb than ascend. Accidents can start with one bad decision leading to another then another. Injury adds potential danger to the climber and the rescue team. Pure accidents including breakaway rocks or ice happen, this is a risk mountaineers know and take, but risks must be mitigated. What happened recently in the Presidential Range wasn’t a pure accident. This was completely preventable starting with the climber never approaching the trailhead or leaving the hotel for that matter. Monitoring the weather is top priority. Forecasts are provided by the Mount Washington Observatory website including posting of severe warnings which were present on the site throughout the weekend. The article “The Young Woman and the Mountain” details the events that occurred.
The climber, a successful, goal driven, 32 year old woman climbed throughout the world. Her fitness and climbing skill were strong enough to climb Mt. Washington and she must have thought she was capable of pressing through severe weather. During the period of her attempt Mt. Washington had the second coldest recorded temperature in the world after the South Pole with wind gusts recorded at 140 MPH. Another mistake was setting out climbing alone. A partner could have deterred forward progress or helped with a rescue. Another was attempting an overly optimistic trek to summit the four presidential summits of Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Washington in a season with a short period of daylight.
She was prepared with the correct clothing and gear, including an emergency beacon and GPS. Missing was a sleeping bag which would have been of use only if shelter was found below tree line. Unpacking a sleeping bag in exposed, hurricane force winds would be impossible. Digging a snow cave would have only been possible below tree line. I’ve seen a shovel become a sail lifting a climber off the ground in strong winds. Removing a backpack would result in it being blown away. Hers was. Bitter cold and roaring winds left her to a crawl hoping to find a place of refuge below tree line she didn’t make. What struck me in this tragedy is this woman died alone in a frightening situation. No one should die alone. Not on a mountain, at home or in a hospital. Not anywhere. This was her bad decision but I do have compassion for her final moments.
I’ve read comments about this young woman’s death and differ with those mentioning, “At least she died doing what she loved.” Here’s my rebuttal you may or may not agree with. When you are in a hypothermic condition being pelted with snow and pinned to the ground barely able to inhale the deafening 100 MPH winds you know death is near. This is not doing what you love. There was nothing spiritual in this tragedy.
Peaceful thoughts to you Kate Matrosova.
In Peace – Greg