“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”
Hunter S. Thompson, “Gonzo”
“To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
J.M. Barrie, “Peter Pan”
Last weekend, Ekaterina “Kate” Matrosova — a fellow younger (32-year-old), female, solo hiker — set out to hike the Northern Presidentials of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. She never returned.
When the news of Kate’s death spread, it shook the hiking community. In the days that followed, people showed their grief in a variety of ways. Some posted simple messages, asking Kate to rest in peace or asking other hikers to hold Kate’s loved ones in their hearts. Others shared quotes like those I included above and/or took comfort in the fact that Kate died amidst an adventure, in a setting she loved. Many hikers sought to analyze Kate’s hike, wanting details of what she was wearing and carrying in her pack, in the hopes that they and others might avoid a similar fate. And, some interpreted this latter coping strategy as victim shaming.
As Patches pointed out in her heartfelt response to Kate’s death, disasters on the mountains often result in hikers isolating themselves as they take stock of the way in which the adventurer died and evaluate whether they would have met a similar fate in those conditions. Those of us who love the mountains, who thrill in challenging our bodies and minds while seeing some of the most beautiful places on Earth, take our lives in our hands every time we shoulder our packs and head off, in the words of Christopher McCandless, into the Wild.
Yes, we can prepare for adversity by understanding the challenge we’re undertaking, by packing the right gear to get us through a night outdoors, by bringing navigational equipment and means of contacting help, and by adventuring with a group. But, even then, our success or survival — as much as we’d like to convince ourselves otherwise — is not guaranteed.
And, yes, Kate undertook a demanding hike in extremely hazardous weather conditions, but all sources seem to indicate that Kate was a very experienced mountaineer. As adventurers become more competent, they are likely to push themselves, to climb higher, hike further, and endure more trying conditions. I’d have never attempted a solo snow ascent of Vermont’s Mount Mansfield a couple years ago, but I was proud and thrilled to stand alone atop that white summit last November.
Sub-zero wind chills might be especially dangerous, but the worst can happen on even the best days.
Last summer, after recovering from a battle with Lyme Disease, I longed to return to my favorite trail: Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravine. One night, I was explaining why I’ve continued to return to Huntington Ravine when my girlfriend at the time asked if she could come along. Emma, as I’ll call her in this post, hadn’t previously hiked very much, but she’d spent a fair amount of time on indoor rock walls; I told her that she was welcome to come and that we could always turn around if she changed her mind.
The path up Mount Washington through Huntington Ravine is not just a walk in the woods. The hike begins following a super-steep, superhighway of a trail, but then hikers take a quiet little winding path through evergreens. The trail emerges in a clearing and is a boulder hop to the headwall, all 800 feet of which appear to be almost straight up. From the top of the headwall, there’s about another mile of hiking to do, through the Alpine Garden and up to the summit.
They say that the Huntington Ravine Trail is the most difficult trail in the East — and that it’s “as close as you can get to rock climbing without rock climbing” — but I’ve seen children and adults of varying abilities (including a man whose right arm had been amputated) make it to the summit. More important in my accepting Emma’s invitation was the fact that my first foray up Huntington had been when I was a complete newbie. In the summer of 2010, I’d accompanied a few fitter and more experienced friends on their trek through the Ravine to the summit. That hike gave me a hiker’s high unlike anything I’d ever experienced before: I was left euphoric and awestruck and hooked on hiking.
To make a long story short, Emma’s first hike of Huntington Ravine was nothing like mine. Halfway up the headwall, she missed a gutsy swing for a handhold and fell 45 feet. Sitting on a tiny ledge just above where she’d fallen, there was nothing I could do as Emma swung and then skidded down the rock face. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, and I was crying before she’d come to a stop. I called down to her crumpled body on the ledge it had stopped on and was astonished when I got a response. She was alive.
Emma could move her arms and legs and, miraculously (as the rescuers also pointed out), escaped serious injury. But, she was in no state to walk out of the woods. As a chilly drizzle began to fall, she seemed on the verge of becoming hypothermic or going into shock, so, from my ledge, I kept talking to her. I instructed her to get out of her wet layers and put on dryer clothes and helped her get partially sheltered. And, then, feeling absolutely amazed that my cell phone got reception — and I wouldn’t need to leave Emma and hike to the summit for help — I called emergency responders.
One hour later, men whose mountain experience put mine to shame came down to us and belayed Emma up the mountain, to a vehicle waiting on the side of the Auto Road. Three hours after Emma’s fall, we were in the parking lot at the base of the mountain, ready to go home. Emma shivered, seemingly more from nerves than cold, for the next couple of hours. Her longest-lasting wound was a sprained wrist.
The scariest day of my life left me literally speechless; I barely said a word for two days. I went to the office but just stared at my computer screen and hugged my coworkers. I could barely sleep, and eating was the furthest thing from my mind. I was too shell shocked to cry.
A couple days after Emma’s fall, I called Quiver, the Austinite with whom I’d shared part of my AT thru-hike. Talking to another hiker allowed me the platform I needed to express my emotions, and I began to forgive myself.
It is a privilege and a gift to survive a disaster on the mountains and be able to learn from these incidents. Every one of us has been too inexperienced for the itinerary we’d set. Every one of us has been a little reckless. And, every one of us has made a decision that we could have regretted.
We can learn from disasters like Kate’s — Emma’s fall has probably forever changed the way I hike — but we shouldn’t imagine that it’s possible to remove all danger from outdoor adventures. We can increase our safety and, thus, the safety of those who would rescue us by being prepared, packing for emergencies, adventuring in company when possible, and having strict itineraries that we adhere to and let others know about, but our adventures’ outdoor setting and our being human makes removing all risk impossible.
The fact is that, as Quiver insisted, accidents still happen. We must learn from mistakes, be as prepared as possible, and head into the Wild both empowered and humbled.
May Kate Matrosova rest in peace.