Managing risk in the outdoors, particularly that of winter in the White Mountains, requires learning hard lessons. Focusing on one tragedy can have its pitfalls, but Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova by Ty Gagne (TMC Books, 2017) is respectful of that tragedy, avoids sensationalism, and expands in scope to use the narrative as a guideline for the analysis of risk.
Gagne’s book follows the ill-fated attempt of the Northern Presidential traverse by thirty-two year-old Kate Matrosova in February 2015, and the ensuing rescue and ultimately, recovery operation. Gagne presents a scrupulously researched narrative and timeline of events, which is interspersed with maps, drawings, and analysis. The level of detail is astounding, and simultaneously gives the reader a bird’s-eye view of the unfolding drama along with granular details about the people on the ground.
We see Matrosova’s movements in comparison to other hiking groups in the White Mountains on the same day, and what the would-be rescuers were thinking, feeling, even eating. To his credit, Gagne keeps the reader hoping for a different outcome for Matrosova throughout the book, even though the ending is already known. All this detail leads to the central question of the book: if someone this fit and prepared lost her life, what measures can be taken to ensure one’s own safety? Gagne addresses Matrosova’s planned route:
In establishing bailout points and packing cell and satellite phones, a GPS device, a map, and a personal locator beacon, Matrosova is acknowledging the existence of risk on the traverse. She has established a risk management plan. But given her inexperience in the White Mountains, is her plan comprehensive enough to address the multitude of exposures that exist there, especially in winter?
After explaining the steps to an effective risk management plan, Gagne goes on:
A key to all this is timing. Even with a well-developed risk management strategy and the ability to implement it effectively, Matrosova will have to decide if and when to trigger alterations to her original plan. In the end, it will be the timing of her decisions that will make all the difference.
Gagne describes this timing, including the rapidly worsening weather, and subsequent warnings issued by the Mount Washington Observatory after Matrosova had already embarked on her hike. As Matrosova slowly falls behind her self-imposed timeline, her challenges become more and more complex, and Gagne explores the biases that may have factored into her decision-making. Whatever the reason, these decisions found her exhausted, frostbitten, and facing “an impenetrable wall of wind,” on Mt. Adams, “80-plus-mph headwinds,” that caused her to turn back, at a point that was too late to save her own life.
In the background of this heartbreaking human drama, Gagne illustrates the science of survival, with details regarding the functioning of the locator beacon, the progression of hypothermia, the record-setting extreme weather, and tactics and techniques of Search And Rescue (SAR) personnel.
Gagne fittingly ends the book with an account of his own February 2016 anniversary hike to where Matrosova’s body was eventually found, guided by her GPS track, and by one of her would-be rescuers. The conditions are different, far milder, and Gagne and his companion are together, well-prepared and equipped, but the ghost of loss still lingers on the periphery: “As I turn my back to the col and make my way down, I say my goodbyes to Kate.”