MOUNT WASHINGTON — What in the heck was that climber doing up there alone in that kind of weather and in those kinds of conditions? And what kind of training did he or she have?
Admit it. Those are thoughts that many of us have had at hearing news of the latest climber getting felled by extreme weather or overly challenging conditions on Mount Washington and the Northern Presidential Range.
Some would argue that accidents can happen to anyone, even to experienced climbers and that it’s wrong to think that only inexperienced hikers die and experienced climbers are immune to such lethal setbacks.
But others counter that while that may be true, it behooves any person heading into the White Mountains in winter to get as much education as possible from those who know the harshness of what the mountains can dish out, and to heed advice and warnings about the weather.
The debate raged four years ago after the death on Feb. 15, 2015, of investment banker Kate Matrosova, 32, of New York City, an avid mountaineer but inexperienced in the Whites in winter. As the liner notes in Ty Gagne’s compelling book, “Where You’ll Find Me” say, she set off before sunrise for a traverse of the Northern Presidential Range. The following day, rescuers recovered her frozen body “out of the mountains amid some of the worst weather ever recorded on these deceptively rugged slopes,” as the book jacket describes the challenging ordeal.
Matrosova, Gagne writes, could have halted her mission after climbing above treeline and reaching the Appalachian Mountain Club’s boarded-up Madison Spring Hut (which sits at an elevation of 4,825 feet) and headed back down the Valley Way Trail, the same way she had come up. But despite the 85 mph-plus winds, she chose to climb Madison and then Adams before trying to make it back to the hut, sending out a beacon that launched the heroic effort to find her. One attempt started that night and a second effort was launched the next day, with teams braving 108 mph winds and subzero temperatures before her frozen body was recovered.
The debate was sparked anew by a fatal accident in Huntington Ravine on Feb. 10, when Dr. Jeremy Felix P. Ullmann, 37, of Somerville, Mass., became the 160th person to die on Mount Washington. Ullmann suffered traumatic injuries after experiencing a long-sliding fall in an unwitnessed accident while attempting a solo ascent of Central Gully.
The Forest Service accident report on that death by lead snow ranger and veteran climber Frank Carus of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center raised a few eyebrows among longtime local guides because it did not call out Ullmann’s inexperience with winter climbing as a contributing factor.
Wrote Carus: “Jeremy was not wearing his helmet at the time of the fall. Due to the relatively low angle slope, the fact that he had not yet donned the helmet is an easy error to make. While helmet use is recommended in any climbing or skiing situation, it is also known that helmets offer limited protection from large, falling objects or from impacts associated with high-speed collisions. In this case, the injuries sustained may have been reduced but would have likely remained lethal given their extent and location.”
Carus added, “As to what actually caused the fall, no one can ever know with certainty. Skill using an ice ax and crampons in soft snow is forgiving and as simple as climbing a staircase kicked into the snow. When surface conditions are more like boilerplate steel, a combination of flat-footing and front-pointing is often used to maintain security on the slope as well as efficiency in upward progress.
"Experienced snow-and-ice-climbers also can attest to the fact that crampon points catch a pant leg, a gaiter or loose strap with some regularity and may occasionally even pop off unexpectedly if not perfectly fitted to the boot.
"In this instance," Carus said, "Jeremy’s crampons were securely on his feet, but the crampon strap and buckle used to secure the heel bail were on the instep of the foot. While easier and more intuitive to put on, this configuration creates one more item on the long list of potential trip hazards."
According to Carus, “The icy conditions that day made for relatively secure climbing since the hard snow surface yielded to sharp points to provide secure purchase. These hard and cold conditions may have also warranted the use of technical ice tools to increase security, especially when forgoing the safety of a rope and belay.
"It seems clear that Jeremy hadn’t reached the bulge of ice that is the steepest crux section of the route" Carus said, "but if he had, the two mountaineering axes, one of which was a superlight aluminum mountaineering ax, would not have provided much security. Mountaineering axes, with their drooping curved pick, do not allow for a hard swing like a hammer and secure pick placement into the ice. A mountaineering ax is generally sized and designed to plunge the shaft into snow while grasping the head of the ax like a cane.
"The snow this day," Carus pointed out, "was too hard to plunge the shaft securely into the snow, and the wrist leashes tied to both axes indicate that Jeremy may have expected to use them in the manner used to climb more vertical ice.
"While this is speculative, it was reported that Jeremy had not climbed ice. Lacking that experience or training, he may not have understood the critical difference in design and function between technical and mountaineering axes.”
Ullmann's death also was controversial because the U.S. Forest Service did not report the death of the neuroscience researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital to the Coos County Attorney until several days later, and the U.S. Forest Service did not issue a press release about the matter until 10 days later.
Aside from those differing views on how best to report the incident to the media, Carus in an interview with The Conway Daily Sun this week stood by the report, asserting that accidents can and do happen to anyone.
“It’s sheer hubris to call someone inexperienced and chalk up the accident to inexperience,” Carus said. “So experience or no experience — no matter what your level of experience, there is a certain point where what’s challenged is your decision-making. Both ends of the spectrum — experienced and non-experienced — you see people making mistakes that can lead to tragedy.”
Likewise, Gagne, who is a risk assessment manager as well as a writer, told the Sun that he was not judging the decision-making that led to Matrosova's death — his goal was to present an accurate account of the ordeal, trying to pay tribute to her adventurous spirit while telling her story, as well as that of the heroic responders from the volunteer Mountain Rescue Service, Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, New Hampshire Fish and Game, as well as the New Hampshire National Guard, State Police and N.H. Civil Air Patrol.
Gagne's book — available locally at stores including White Birch Books in North Conway — is a haunting telling, has received wide acclaim, and has sold 8,000 copies, according to publisher Ted Walsh of TMS Books LLC of Conway. A certified wilderness first responder and member of the Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue Team and board of directors, Gagne also is a frequent lecturer.
"One of the things I tried to do in the book," Gagne said "was to say that rather than spending time on what should have never happened, I wanted to explore some of the reasons why these things happen and what can we take away from that, whether we are a hiker, climber, firefighter or police officer … or just going about our day-to-day business on a normal commute."
Gagne said he has the utmost respect for all of the climbing guides interviewed for this article.
Foremost with his outspoken views was veteran retired climbing guide and frequent lecturer Bill Aughton of North Conway, a one-time owner of International Mountain Climbing Equipment and a semi-retired Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities (SOLO) Wilderness First Aid instructor and risk management consultant.
“It blows my mind that very intelligent people will do very dangerous things without doing as much research as they can about that particular thing,” said Aughton, a former SAS (British Special Forces), retired MRS team leader and lifelong climber. “Some of the things in this Ullman case are beyond my thinking after 60 years of climbing.”
“How could you (Ullmann) not be a winter climber, and attack an 800-foot gully with the wrong equipment, and not wearing your helmet, with your crampons on inappropriately … I don’t have an answer," Aughton said.
"It’s not like they’re fools,” said Aughton. “These people were very intelligent. Jeremy Ullmann was a wonderful guy, from what I hear, and so was Kate Matrosova. So, what prompts them to ignore all the learning they had to do to get where they were in life, and then to do something else that they don’t do any learning for and just go off and get killed?”
Aughton said he enjoyed Gagne’s book on Matrosova’s ordeal, but he said he had to leave one of Gagne’s lectures two-thirds of the way through because the author did not call out Matrosova on the obvious issue of her going out on her solo adventure despite forecasts that called for high impending winds and low temperatures.
“It’s not judging someone, it’s common sense. She should not have been out there in those conditions. And Ty wouldn’t say that!” an exasperated Aughton told the Sun, adding he nonetheless appreciates the accurate and compelling tale told in the book.
Aughton and other local guides interviewed this week agreed that when it comes to heading out into the White Mountains in winter, their best advice is ... to get the best advice from those who know before setting out.
In a day and age when technological data are everywhere concerning incoming weather— especially locally from the Mount Washington Observatory high summits forecast website and postings by the USFS Snow Rangers’ Mount Washington Avalanche Center (mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org), let alone the availability of lifetimes of information from local climbing — it behooves all to consult with professionals and not get in over their heads in terms of skill and challenges.
It doesn’t guarantee that bad things won’t happen, but all things being equal, it certainly increases one’s chances for survival, veteran climbers say.
“That’s not just a plug for the climbing schools, even though, yes, that is what I do,” said International Mountain Equipment Climbing School director/owner Brad White.
“I have been climbing for 43 years, and at times, like everyone, I have been lucky to survive some of the things I have gotten into," White said. "But with that longevity comes a lot of valuable lessons.”
White and others said clients often want to book a trip for, say, a spring ski outing to Tuckerman Ravine or a summit attempt, but it is their duty as guides to dissuade them if the conditions are not right.
White said: “I spend a lot of time on the phone with people who are not even booking with us, and they may not like what I have to tell them when I say well, listen, you may not agree with my opinion on your game plan for the week. You have to have the mountain sense when to know those conditions exist and how to prepare for them.
“In Ullmann’s case, by soloing in those hardpack conditions, he gave himself zero options; a fall in those conditions meant death,” White said.
“My one word that fits these two tragedies is ‘ignorance,’" asserted Aughton. "I think these poor people just did not know.” He said Jed Williamson, editor of the North American Mountaineering Club’s annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering Journal, has shared similar concerns. “Why they didn’t know is the unknown. They were not rude, not stupid; they were both very fit — they just did not know what they were getting into,” said Aughton.
“Conditions (for spring skiing) can change in a matter of an hour on Mount Washington and the Presis — corn snow once temperatures drop when it goes into the shade can become icepack," White noted. "People don’t always understand that.”
“You need to respect Mount Washington in general. I’ve climbed all over the world, and the worst weather I have ever experienced has been on Mount Washington.”
And, although there may be plenty of data concerning the weather and conditions, people may not heed it.
Why is that? White was asked.
“People have access to a huge array of information today — but I think that even when they know they should take it seriously, they get information overload, and they blow it off,” said White.
Sharing his outlook were Rick Wilcox, 71, owner of International Mountain Equipment, and leader of the successful 1991 New England Everest Expedition, and Joe Lentini, 66, of Ascent Services of North Conway, who has made over 500 climbs up Mount Washington.
Wilcox, is a past 40-year president of the Mountain Rescue Service (1976-2016), now led by Steve Dupuis; and a current team leader and board of directors member who directed the service's response in the Matrosova rescue attempt.
Lentini is a past vice president of the Mountain Rescue Service. Both continue to serve, with Lentini one of the MRS team leaders who is responsible for making the calls to team members when a climbing emergency arises.
“I think people underestimate Mount Washington,” Wilcox told the Sun. “There’s the wind. And one day you have powder; the next day glazed ice. The fellow who died in Huntington went up on a day where his skill level would have to have been much greater for a safe climb.”
He then added one of his favorite admonitions that have been gleaned from a lifetime of climbing throughout the world: “There’s a lot of education and knowledge that goes along with being safe in the mountains and if you don’t know, don’t go!”
This outlook, based on his experience climbing in the world's harshest elements, has kept him from summiting in many cases because he likes to err on the side of safety. As Wilcox frequently quips, “Climbing doesn’t count if you don’t make it back down.”
“What I always tell people,” said Lentini, who also serves as chair of the Conway School Board, “is you need to be prepared for any of the potential conditions and to be prepared to take care of yourself.
"So, you need the appropriate gear and equipment — and you need to have the experience with it,"Said Lentini. "Do you know how to use the gear and have you prepared for any of the eventualities? Because being on Mount Washington is not the place to try out new things. Are you prepared to spend the night out there if something prevents you from going on, such as a broken ankle or bad weather?”
Like Aughton, White and Wilcox, Lentini agreed that Mount Washington’s accessibility and close proximity to major urban centers of the Northeast are part of the problem of people not deeply appreciating the fact that, yes, it really is “Home to the World’s Worst Weather.”
Lentini should know, having been part of a Mount Washington Observatory Edu-Trip group that stayed overnight at the Sherman Adams Summit Building Feb. 27, when the Obs crew recorded a new February record windspeed of 171 mph, the eighth-highest ever recorded on Mount Washington, where the world record wind of 231 mph was recorded 85 years ago, on April 12, 1934.
“This year, even more than most years, the average windspeed on Mount Washington’s summit has been 45 mph, but it blows to 75 on average every third day — that is hurricane force!"said Lentini
"They’re getting more 100 mph days than ever before, which is astounding,” he said, who noted that being the summit (though safely inside) for the 171 mph blast was an incredible thrill.
“The whole building hummed and vibrated. One of my clients had to call from the summit to tell his boss he would not be in for work, and the boss said it was the ‘single best excuse for not coming to work he had ever heard." Lentini said.
“But that’s the thing about Mount Washington," Lentini said "Because it’s so accessible, and at 6,288 feet not very tall in the realm of things, people underestimate how ferocious the weather can be.”
On challenging days on the mountain, guides such as White or Lentini will opt to call off a climb to the summit, either saving it for another day or if the group wants to get a taste (but not a gulp) of the mountain’s furor, to instead climb to Lion’s Head, where they are protected. (That is what a group led by a team of guides did the same day as Matrosova’s ordeal, as recounted in Gagne’s book.)
“You can take them there so they can experience a glimpse of it — it’s like when I was on the summit for that 171 mph wind at the Obs," Lentini said.
"I took my clients to a sheltered spot where they could stick their head around the corner with the wind blowing 80 to 85 mph. People realize they’re not going to be able to walk in winds like that, that they are going to be knocked down. They feel they can hike in 100 mph winds — well, no you can’t!”
It’s just one of the many lessons that the mountain will reveal, whether you want to be educated or not.
“I’m still learning, yes I am, absolutely,” said Lentini. He added: “Whenever you think you know it all, it’s time to quit. ... The mountains are always teaching new things.”