I recently read Ty Gagne’s book Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova. For those unfamiliar with the backstory, Kate was a thirty-two-year-old athlete and mountain enthusiast that died on New Hampshire’s Presidential Range in horrific arctic conditions (-100°F wind chill and 90+ mph winds).

Gagne’s profession is risk management (interestingly, it was also Kate Matrosova’s). Thus, he skillfully overlays decision points in Kate’s climb to help us understand what was happening in the physical world high on the exposed ridges of Mount Madison and Mount Adams, and what Kate’s mental and physical responses appear to have been as a result. 

We cannot know with certainty what Kate was thinking as the storm grew with intensity and forced her to abandon her itinerary to embark on a last, increasingly desperate dash for survival, but her GPS coordinates help us trace at least part of her journey.

Yellow Signs

The author believes that we should be careful not to judge Kate Matrosova’s decision to attempt the climb. Gagne effectively uses the image of the yellow warning signs posted just below treeline throughout the White Mountains. People that venture beyond the signs have been forewarned that conditions ahead are unpredictable and that those who venture beyond need to be prepared and responsible for their decision to do so. 

Gagne wants one of our takeaways from Kate’s death NOT to be to live our lives in the safe zone below the yellow signs. In fact, he contends that we need to periodically venture beyond the metaphorical yellow signs that exist in our professional and personal lives to find meaning and purpose.

I completely agree, yet I am still heartbroken that Kate didn’t turn back at the yellow sign when she still had the chance.

Mountain Tested 

Kate Matrosova had participated in guided trips to the summits of Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Rainier, Mount McKinley and Mount Elbrus (among others). She had also done a winter climb to Madison Col in the White Mountains with her husband only one month before, where they camped in their four-season tent. But she had never attempted a solo winter hike across half of the Presidential Range. And the way she packed for it left almost no margin for error.

I understand why she wanted to attempt the hike, why she wanted to pack light so she could get up and over the summits before the bad weather came in. I also understand her incredible drive to do it. At age 32, I was cut from similar cloth. What I wish for more than anything is that the voice that said, “turn back” spoke up sooner.

No small part of the reason Kate’s story hits me so hard is that I was lucky enough to hike out of some serious situations. Those experiences at the edges of the danger zone established boundaries and gave my voice of reason the strength to speak up when emotion wanted to hijack the conversation. Simply put, when we step beyond the yellow sign, we need to constantly assess our ability to get back down. And our need to be objective is most important when our margin for error is least.

In Kate’s case, the conditions deteriorated so quickly that she couldn’t hike her way out. If she had been able to get up and over the summit of Mount Adams, less than 150 feet from where she reversed course, she might have made it down to the occupied, heated cabin located below treeline on the other side. It is reasonable to assume that she was giving it her all to get there. But with winds approaching 100 miles per hour and wind chill reaching close to -100°F, she likely got knocked down too many times and lost too much strength to keep going.

As Gagne points out, the environmental, emotional and physical conditions collapsed in upon Kate Matrosova. She had ventured too far into the danger zone and couldn’t get back. Like so many of us, I wish with all my heart she had been able to make it back to the world below the yellow sign—not to live out her days in the safety zone, but to take what she learned with her into the mountains for many years to come.