Search and rescue members at the recovery site of Kate Matrosova. (Photo courtesy of Mike Cherim- Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue)
By Gordon DuBois
couple of weeks ago, on one of the coldest days of the year, Fran Maineri and I drove to Randolph, New Hampshire, to climb South Black Crescent Mountain. We planned the trip well in advance of this cold snap and we weren’t going to be deterred by below zero temperatures and gusty winds. We were prepared for severe weather and have climbed to summits in similar conditions. We wore several layers of clothing, plus we had extra socks, shirts, hats, gloves and mitts stored in our packs, along with sleeping bag, bivy sack, hand warmers, balaclava, face mask and other gear necessary for winter hiking.
When we arrived at the trail head located at the end of Randolph Hill Road, we began our trek on the Cook Path. The temperature was hovering around -10 Fahrenheit and the wind was whipping the freshly fallen snow into our faces as we strapped on our snow shoes. Ensured that we had all our gear, we set off on the trail. At the terminus of the Cook Path, the trail veered right into the deep recesses of Ice Gulch. We knew we didn’t want to descend into this deep crevice carved out millennium ago. Fran took out his GPS to set our track to the summit. However, low and behold, the GPS was frozen. It wasn’t functional. The extremely cold temperatures made the electronic device worthless, the batteries were dead. We had depended on his GPS many times before to set our track, but not today. This meant using the “tried and true method” of off-trail, back-country hiking: map and compass, which we always carry. With the map of the Crescent Range in hand we set our course and headed up the mountain. If we didn’t have a map or compass we would have had to turn around and abort the mission or continue on with the distinct possibility of losing our way and having to spend the night in sub-zero temperatures. As we progressed through the forest of mixed hardwoods and conifers, we found the hiking fairly easy except for the stands of hobble bush that continually impeded our trek. We reached the north ridge of the mountain and after scrambling through thick stands of spruce, laden with a foot of snow, we found the summit canister.
By this time of the day the temperature had “warmed” to around zero, but the wind was howling at the summit and we wanted to get off the mountain ASAP, returning the way we came. We reset our compass bearing and returned to the Cook Path and eventually the parking lot where the truck was waiting. We reached our goal because we hiked safe and smart: extra clothing and gear for extreme winter weather, map and compass, an itinerary left with my wife and some common sense.
There are many people who don’t hike smart or safe and are just plain foolish. Some even lose their lives because of poor planning, and bad decision making. I regularly read the Accident Reports in Appalachia, a mountaineering journal published by the AMC. These reports always have something to teach me about hiking safely. Below are a few accident reports from Appalachia, as well as some of my personal encounters with people who foolhardily take to the mountains.
One of the most publicized accidents occurred in February, 2015, when Kate Matrosova, an experienced mountain climber, died on the side of Mount Adams in extremely harsh conditions. Earlier in the day, Matrosova set out to traverse the Northern Presidential Range, hiking from Mount Madison to Mount Washington. A storm was expected to hit the mountains later in the day and she was confident she could get down and off the mountains before it hit. She was wrong. Coming off Mount Madison she was hit by the storm with blistering winds of over 80 mph and temperatures around -30 Fahrenheit. Instead of returning to the base of the mountain and safety she continued on, fighting the hurricane-force winds and the wind chill of minus 100. Her decision to continue to Mount Adams cost her life. She was found the following day, when the winds died, lying face-down in the snow.
In October 2015, Fran and I were bushwhacking to the summit of NW Twin, a 4,000-foot summit just off the Twin Way Trail. At the summit we noticed a helicopter circling overhead, and we knew that NH Fish and Game was looking for a lost hiker. The next day, on our return to Lincoln Woods, where our car was parked, we met two groups of Fish and Game officers and National Forest personnel on a search and rescue mission for lost hiker, Clairemarie, who had been missing for several days. When we reached Lincoln Woods we were told by a Fish and Game officer that search was called off and was now a recovery mission. The lost hiker was found in the Gale River. She apparently died while trying to cross the river that was swollen by several days of rain. She had also not left an accurate itinerary of her hike and searchers were not sure where to look for her.
Less tragic examples of not hiking safe or smart:
Two years ago in the late fall I was hiking with some friends, returning from a summit of Owl’s Head Mountain in the Pemigewasset Wilderness. It was late in the afternoon when we noticed a young man walking toward us. We thought it strange that he was hiking into the wilderness at this time of day. Darkness would be on us soon. We also noticed he wore only a t shirt and a thin jacket. He obviously had no intention of staying overnight as he had no backpack. He then asked us where the parking lot was. We told him, “It’s in the opposite direction you’re headed.” “Oh,” he said, “I guess I’m lost.” We found out he was on a day hike, but had become disoriented. He had no map, compass, little clothing, food or water. He was totally unprepared for even a day hike, let alone an overnight stay in late November when temperatures dip to well below freezing at night. He followed us out to his car and thanked us for his rescue. He could have very well ended the hike in similar fashion to the hikers mentioned above.
On Feb. 16, 2016, a 31-year-old hiker, Mark, began a hike at the AMC’s Cardigan Lodge in Alexandria, intending to summit Mount Cardigan and return via Firescrew Mountain. On his descent he fell and injured his leg. He couldn’t walk and called 911 for help. If you are familiar with Mount Cardigan, you know that much of the mountain’s summit is above tree line. Temperatures that evening were falling through the 20s with winds reaching 30 mph; no night to be spending on the mountain. When the rescue team reached him, they found Mark had no extra clothing or gear. Without the rescue, he would have been in serious trouble.
Another example of a hike gone bad involves a 25-year-old hiker, Andy, who hiked to the summit of Mount Washington and was planning to take the Cog Railway off the mountain. When he reached the summit he learned the Cog wasn’t running that day. He was advised to hike the Nelson Crag Trail to Pinkham Notch. He then began to follow some other hikers off the mountain, but lost sight of them. Dusk was approaching and he consulted his map he bought earlier in the day. He then decided to take the Huntington Ravine Trail, which showed a more direct route. Without knowing the difficulty in descending this trail he pushed forward. This trail is one of the most challenging trails in the White Mountains and the sign at the trail head says so. When Andy got part way down Huntington Ravine, which is very steep in sections, he could go no further. His legs began to cramp and he resorted to calling 911 for a rescue. When rescuers arrived, they rescued him with a rope and led him down the auto road to safety below.
And finally, on June 2015, a pair of hikers, Jon and Isabelle, were found after losing their way on Mount Washington. NH Fish and Game reported they “had taken a picture (with their cell phone) of a map of the area and trying to use it to navigate along with the GPS in his phone.” They were attempting to hike off the mountain via the Boot Spur trail, but ended up on the Davis path near Mount Isolation. They lost reception with their cell phone, but were eventually rescued by AMC Lake of the Clouds personnel who hiked through the night, meeting up with them at 5:30 a.m. In a statement issued by NH F&G, “Hikers should not rely on electronic devices in the back country. Batteries fail and there is no replacing a map and compass if you know how to use them.” This statement certainly rings true, based on our bushwhack to South Black Crescent Mountain.
Mountains offer us beautiful vistas, inspiration and an opportunity to refresh the spirit. They are also dangerous and hostile places if we are not prepared for what can be thrown at us by the mountains and mother nature. All accidents I have described could have been avoided with careful planning, preparation and having the knowledge to hike safely in the back country. Whether it be ignoring weather forecasts, poor planning, not having proper clothing or gear for the hike, depending on a GPS or cell phone for navigation, not having a map or compass, not using common sense or just plain ignorance, the mountains can turn that enjoyable mountain hike into a day of terror or even death. I would hope that readers heed the lessons learned from others who have made errors and will be properly equipped and prepared so they don’t end up having to be rescued by NH Fish and Game. As notable climber Ed Viesturs said, “Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.”
Fran and Reuben breaking trail to S. Black Crescent