Hiker’s death in N.H. reiterates dangers of extreme cold

Yesterday afternoon, a hiker was found dead in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Her name was Ekaterina “Kate” Matrosova. She was 32 years old, from New York, and she had been hiking alone, according to the New York Daily News.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A view from Little Moose Mountain on March 5, 2012. Little Moose Mountain is a popular place for winter hiking in Maine.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A view from Little Moose Mountain on March 5, 2012. Little Moose Mountain is a popular place for winter hiking in Maine.

For me, the sad event drives home the dangers of winter adventuring, especially in the brutal weather we’ve been experiencing in the Northeast recently. Everywhere I go, I hear complaints about the never-ending cold — and I don’t blame the complainers. In Maine, we’ve experienced wind chill values as low as -30 degrees, and the thermometer hasn’t read above freezing for weeks.

As someone who often hikes and skis alone, I feel a sort of connection to the recent tragedy. Matrosova was clearly an adventurous woman, someone who relished the challenge of high peaks and wasn’t afraid to strike out alone. Someone I maybe would have liked, had I met her.

The story also hits close to home for me because it’s truly close to my home — the Presidential Range is right across the Maine border. Those mountains are visited by many Maine hikers, skiers and snowboarders every year.

Matrosova was dropped off by her husband at the base of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains on Sunday morning, according to published accounts. She planned to hike to the top of Mount Madison, then continue on to Mount Adams and Mount Jefferson, ending her long trek on the 6,300-foot Mount Washington — the tallest mountain in the Northeast.

That afternoon, she activated an emergency personal locator, sending out her coordinates to rescuers. At the time, she was experiencing brutal weather conditions, including 100 mph winds.

The weather was so extreme that search crews couldn’t reach the area overnight. Winds were exceeding 100 mph and the temperature dropped to about -30 degrees Fahrenheit. And the winds didn’t let up. The next morning, the National Guard crew flew over the area with a helicopter but couldn’t see anything because of blowing snow. They had to turn back.

That’s when a team made up of Fish and Game officers, Mountain Rescue Service members and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue members set out in 108 mph winds and found Matrosova’s body between Mount Madison and Mount Adams. The team said it appears she died of exposure to the extreme temperatures.

Since the tragedy was reported, people from around the world have been talking about it on social media. Some offer their condolences, while others write opinions. Many say Matrosova shouldn’t have been out there in the first place, that the forecast was too dangerous for such a high-altitude solo trek.

I’m cautious to offer my opinion because I wasn’t there. I don’t know Matrosova. Other stories that have emerged about the tragedy have called her an “adventure junkie” who was experienced in mountaineering and a variety of other extreme outdoor sports, including whitewater rafting and rock climbing.

Instead of shaking my fist at her carelessness or defending her fearlessness, I feel more comfortable (and productive) viewing Matrosova’s death as a warning or a reminder that Mother Nature is unforgiving; that caution is an invaluable trait for a winter adventurer; that preparation is key to any outdoor excursion; and that backing away from an outing due to poor conditions is OK.

This event reminds me of a story I wrote last year about Maine ice climbers, who told me that they skied across Moosehead Lake to Mount Kineo three times before attempting to scale the mountain’s ice wall. The first two times, they decided the ice wasn’t safe. These ice climbers knew the danger of the sport they loved, and they did everything they could to make it safer, even if that meant walking (or skiing) away in disappointment.

I’ve learned over the years, from my own experiences and in listening to other people’s stories, that being an outdoor adventurer (in any degree, whether a summer day hiker or ice-climbing mountaineer), is all about knowing the risks of your activity and deciding which risks you’re willing to take.

In the White Mountains, Matrosova faced many risks — sub-zero temperatures, debilitating winds, avalanche zones, rugged terrain. It was her choice. Just as it was her choice to hike alone, which is almost always more risky than hiking with a companion or group.

Personally, I understand taking some of those chances. I’m cautious about weather, but I do understand deciding to hike alone. I hike solo often, to the disapproval of my mother. I know it’s more dangerous than hiking with a companion, but I try to make it as safe as possible by telling someone where I’m going to be and when to expect me back, by carrying something to communicate with, and if it’s a fairly remote trail, by bringing a GPS and extra gear.

You can’t erase all risk from outdoor adventuring, but I believe you should do all you can to reduce unnecessary risk. So to wrap this musing up, I’d like to offer a few tips for reducing risk during winter day hikes in the Northeast.

  1. Whether traveling alone or with companions, tell someone who isn’t on your adventure where you’re going and when to expect you back. Plan to check in with that person. And if you don’t check in, they should plan to start a search.
  2. Even if it’s a day snowshoe or ski, pack everything you’d need to survive comfortably in the outdoors overnight. I suggest a first aid kit, emergency blankets (which fold into a tiny square), hand and foot warmers, something to cover your neck and face, extra socks, water, a fire starter, a headlamp with extra batteries, and snacks. Some people even pack a sleeping bag. For more ideas on what to pack, check out the Appalachian Mountain Club’s list of essential gear for winter day hikes.
  3. Dress appropriately for the temperature and bring extra clothes for if the temperature drops. Your clothing should be layers of wool or synthetic clothing with a waterproof and windproof layer. Also wear mittens or gloves, warm socks and a warm hat that covers your ears,. Choosing appropriate winter boots is also important. Here’s a story that may help give you ideas about staying warm.
  4. Drink a lot of water. The winter air is dry, and water aids circulation, keeping you warm.
  5. Know the signs of hypothermia and be prepared to deal with it. Here’s a story that will help.
  6. Know the weather forecast and be prepared to call off the trip or turn around before you meet your destination.
  7. Know your terrain. Carry a map, compass and GPS (and know how to work with these tools).

I’m still learning about outdoor adventuring myself, and this is far from a complete list. So if you’re interested in learning more about winter adventuring, there is a wealth of information available online, including a website on winter recreation safety provided by the U.S. Forest Service and a website on dressing appropriately for winter by the National Ski Patrol.


Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.