About the Author: Susan Reenan climbed her very first mountain when she was forty years old and has yet to take a break. She has climbed in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the Chisos Mountains of the high Chihuahuan Desert in Texas, the Sierra Nevada of California, and the Pacific Northwest. Susan now ranks as one of the first two hundred women ever to climb the Adirondack 46ers in winter, she has climbed forty-five of the fifty-eight 14,000+ foot peaks in the Colorado Rockies, and this past summer, she completed her all-season New Hampshire 48, New England 67, and Northeast 111. Susan’s current goal is to bag the Northeast 111 in winter. Really.
And then there was Saturday, the first hiking day of my March Mountain Madness vacation week in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My husband, Robert, and I had monitored the forecast all week, and it looked as though Saturday was going to be an ideal weather day: temperatures hovering around 10 degrees at the trailhead in the morning with highs around 14 degrees on the summits, clear skies all day, and winds starting around 35-40 miles per hour and dying to 10-15 by the afternoon hours. Sunday promised the next big snow, so the weekend was a perfect pair of days to traverse the Northern Presidentials on Saturday and take the snowy Sunday as a rest day. Cautiously optimistic, we prepared for an epic day of peak-bagging Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and Monroe. Since we had done a one-day full Presidential traverse in November of 2017, we had our GPS route already mapped out, and we ended up with two hikers who wanted to tag along. Climber #1, with whom we had hiked a number of times, is a dependable, pleasant, intelligent person who can be counted on for solid trailbreaking, good beta, and great conversation. He needed Madison and Adams as numbers 46 and 47 of his New Hampshire winter 48. Climber #2 we met for the first time at the trailhead. He was planning to complete his winter 48 that day on Washington.
Battling the wind on top of Adams with Hikers #1 and #2
My alarm went off at 2:30 A.M. Saturday morning. I made coffee while Robert double checked the weather. The forecast was holding, so we geared up and drove over to drop the Jeep at the Ammonusaic parking lot where we were met by Climber #1, who drove us over to the lot of The Valley Way. Climber #2 had slept at the trailhead that night, and when we finally pulled up around 5:00, he was pumped. With me setting a reasonable pace, the four of us crunched up the 3.8 miles of steep, hard-packed trail to the Madison Hut. Once the sun was up and we broke treeline, it became evident that the day was playing out as promised. Sunlight flashed off the snow, and we enjoyed the views from the hut (visibility extending to 130 miles) as the guys donned their goggles and I slid on my glacier glasses. The winds were not extreme as we spiked up to the summit. I know this, because the last time I climbed Madison, I crawled up most of the summit block. Standing on the top, we could see practically the entirety of our anticipated route over the Presidentials. This, thought I, is great! Next, we would head over to Adams.
Looking back down our route up from Star Lake from the side of Adams
We got back down to the Madison Hut, again without any crawling necessary, found a place somewhat out of the wind, and grabbed a snack. While there was no arguing that the wind did seem to be picking up, according to the last weather report we’d had, they were predicted to die down substantially in the coming few hours, so without discussion, packs went on and off we went. In the slightly wrong direction. You see, Robert and I planned to follow the most standard route up Mount Adams, the Gulf side to the Airline trail, on the north approach to the mountain, which was the route we had taken two years prior. Rather than taking a right up that trail, we turned left in a southerly direction from the hut. At this point, Robert pointed out that we should head in the opposite direction, which was also visibly broken out, but Climber #1 thought that we were headed in the direction of the most traveled winter route. Nope, Robert offered, we were headed toward Star Lake and the Star Lake trail, which appeared to be the far less traveled route. There was a moment of indecision before Climber #2 took off like a shot in the direction of Star Lake. O-kay. Robert asserted once more that we were headed toward a definitely non-standard winter route and, just for good measure, added that this trail might be substantially steeper, all of which was to no avail because Climber #2 was way too far ahead to hear anyone say anything anyway. Robert and I resigned ourselves to a little more adventure, and as we passed the solidly frozen Star Lake, a steep, windswept route stretched up ahead to the blasted summit, a solitary boot track marking the way. It made me think of Kate.
Another perspective on the route up from Star Lake
Kate Matrosova was beautiful, successful, driven. Just thirty-two years old, she had worked her way up in the eshelon of the male-dominated offices of Wall Street, and her personal pursuits included climbing mountains. Big ones. Kate was intelligent and a planner and an athlete, yet, on President’s Day Weekend in 2015 while attempting pretty much our intended route, she ended up hypothermic and disoriented, encased in a veritable ping-pong ball, a white out of snow with 80 mph winds and temps of -30F. Mountain Rescue found her body curled up in a patch of low scrubby trees called Krumholz about 100ft downslope off the trail beyond Star Lake. Her death was widely publicized at the time, and risk management expert Ty Gagne wrote an in-depth analysis of Kate’s decision-making process and the search and rescue efforts to find her entitled, “Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova”. But the takeaway is this: Kate fell victim to one of the most tempestuous weather systems for which these mountains are infamous. And, inarguably, there were a number of points at which better decisions could have resulted in a different outcome for her. To begin, a last-minute check of the forecast would have told her that a storm was barreling down on the Whites, and warnings had already been issued to that effect. Given that reality, whether she knew it or not, she was traveling light without any emergency gear that could prove vital if she got caught in inclement weather or injured along the way. Passing that lonely spot of frozen scrub, I could absolutely imagine how she ended up there and her feelings of frustration and mounting despair, as she struggled to get back to the safety of the Valley Way Trail, which was infuriatingly close yet proved impossible for her to locate in the fury of the blizzard.
Above Madison Hut on Madison. We took a left at the hut to go up the less traveled side of Adams
Even on this bluebird morning, the route Kate had taken toward Adams, though more direct, looked steep and challenging. Kicking steps into solid, consolidated snow, our little group rose from Star Lake along a direct line to the summit. The terrain became more inclined, the snow harder, the wind stronger. Where, I wondered, was the calm promised in the forecast? As I passed the place where Kate was found, the angle further steepened, and suddenly, we were on a sidehill traverse across and up an unprotected slope that ended somewhere down there, in the Great Gulf. The snow snapped into a harden wind crust, the surface of which supported weight but was too hard to put much of a dent in with the Hillsounds, a slightly more aggressive spike than microspikes, that were on my feet. My trekking poles were not denting the crust much either. Sideways on the slope, looking cautiously down, there seemed to be a long, smooth run out to the Gulf, but I couldn’t really tell, as there was a cliff below me. The wind whipped gusts, kicking up what snow it could in spindrifts that worked to push me into then off of the mountainside. I was in danger, and I knew that it was basically my own doing. If my feet went out from under me, I would suffer a fall. My fate would not be so different from Kate’s, and I knew, as she probably did, where my decision-making process went wrong. While we did confirm the forecast prior to setting out that morning, at the junction by the hut, I ought to have insisted that we follow the route we had mapped out on the GPS and that we already knew. True, the morning’s weather report indicated dying winds over the course of the morning, but the Mount Washington Weather Observatory for March 9, 2019 around 10 A.M. shows that at the time of our climb sustained winds were at about 55 mph with gusts to 68 mph, a far cry from the anticipated 20 mph. The temp was a balmy 5*F above zero with wind chills at about -25. Going up the standard route would have given us the advantage of familiarity with the terrain as the weather unexpectedly turned.
Super happy to be back at the warning sign at the start of the Valley Way Trail. Read the signs, people! They are not fooling around up the in the Whites.
Given that we had chosen, or rather it had been chosen for us, not to take the standard route, I found myself with about 100 more yards of this wind crust to traverse before I could see boot prints again. The winds seemed to have a mind of their own and were bursting, swirling, lashing me with spindrift that occasionally contained larger particles that had become icy projectiles in the near hurricane-force winds. I couldn’t worry about that, because my footwork, poles, and balance were all that were keeping my body attached to this slope. This was bad, but it didn’t have to be because the real mistake of the day was that I had all the tools I needed to make this nightmare a relative cake walk, but they were all strapped to my pack. Crampons and ice ax, useless because I had not bothered to stop at the lake to put them on for the ascent. Given the level of experience in the group, we all should have known better. Not twenty steps up the slope, I knew we should have chosen otherwise, but it was too late. We could not turn around without further endangering ourselves, and there was nowhere on that slippery slant to stop for a gear change. We had no choice but to keep going, grinding in our inadequate spikes as best we could and hoping each foothold would not be our last. I’m not going to lie. I was angry, and I was frightened. We made it to the summit and hunkered down amongst the frosted boulders. The sky remained a sparkling sapphire and Washington, only another 3.8 miles away as the crow flies, looked tantalizingly close. But, as the winds were raging, snow was on the way, and we had just traversed the wild approach that had been Kate’s last climb, Robert and I made the decision not to risk going on toward Jefferson. The other two members of our team pushed ahead in spite of the conditions, but we descended the Airline Trail to make our way down the mountain protected from the winds below the treeline on the Valley Way. This would not be our last climb.
When I was a teenager, my mom used to share newspaper articles aloud to me and my four siblings. Not warm human interest stories, not political commentaries, not gritty investigative pieces, oh no. My mom wanted us to learn from experience, other people’s experience that is, so she read us stories about bad choices people made and the consequences of their actions. I recall the story about a kid who lost his temper with a soda machine and ended up dying when he inadvertently tipped it over on himself. Then there was the story of the kid who fell off a cliff when running away in the dark from the police. There were others, each equally horrific and appalling sad, from which she intended us to learn life lessons: follow rules, plan ahead, keep your cool, be smart. If my mom had been alive in 2015, I know that I would have opened a letter from her to find the tragic story of Kate Mastrosova’s last climb clipped from our hometown newspaper, and it is in that spirit that I offer you my own narrative of near-tragedy. Plan. Stick to the plan. Have the correct gear and use it.