Anatomy of a Search: When Hiker Called for Help, N.H. Rescuers Braved Monstrous Storm
With winter now here, New Hampshire's search-and-rescue teams are watching for storms in the Presidential mountains and worrying that once again, a hiker will make a decision that puts lives at risk.
That's what happened last February, when Kate Matrosova, a 32 year-old from New York, who thought she could beat an approaching storm.
It was 5 a.m. on February 15 when Matrosova's husband, Charlie Farhoodi, dropped her off at the Appalachia parking area on Route 2 in Randolph.
Matrosova had grown up in Western Siberia, saved her money so she could study finance and made it to the United States. She worked her way through college, graduated magna cum laude, and got a job on Wall Street.
She was adventurous and wasn’t a novice in the outdoors. Her husband would later tell Fish and Game officers that she was “an experienced mountaineer.” Her past summits included the 20 thousand foot Denali in Alaska.
That February morning Matrosova planned a Presidential traverse, hitting the summits of Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay and Washington. Then, she’d follow a trail to the base of the Cog Railway and meet her husband.
With good weather, that 15-mile trip wasn’t impossible to do in a day for someone like Matrosova. Her husband would later tell Fish and Game she checked the weather forecast and knew about the cold front “but was determined to reach her goal.”
It was just the kind of gamble that worries rescuers like Mike Pelchat, one of the founders of Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue, a volunteer group. And that afternoon, down in Gorham, Pelchat knew the weather up above was getting bad.
“The roaring winds that were way up high on the mountains. We could hear that,” he said.
Pelchat hoped nobody would need help. But after more than three decades of search and rescues, he’d come to the conclusion that such a storm often meant somebody would make a bad decision.
As Matrosova headed up the Valley Way Trail the temperature was in single digits. She had high-quality winter gear and a medium-size backpack but no sleeping bag or shelter. Her husband said she didn’t want to carry too much because she planned on moving quickly.
She was racing that storm.
By mid-afternoon, it would have been clear to her that she lost the race. On nearby Mount Washington the temperature was around 37 below and winds were gusting to 100 miles per hour. That meant the wind chill could have easily been ninety degrees below zero.
About 3:30 – nearly 11 hours after she started – Matrosova activated a personal locator beacon that sent a rescue signal to an Air Force center in Florida, something her husband later said she wouldn’t do “unless something was really wrong.”
The report of that signal was relayed to Mark Ober, a sergeant with Fish and Game, who was aware of the incredible cold temperatures and high winds up in the mountains.
“Instantly I knew it was a big problem,” he said.
Ober began radioing some Fish and Game officers who had already put in a long day, knew about the storm in the mountains and couldn’t believe they’d have to head into it.
The exchange was captured by Broadcasify, a police-radio monitoring website:
“Bring your search and rescue gear. There’s an incident on Mount Adams, we need to go up there.”
“Are you serious?”
Ober was. There was no choice.
Then, he called the Mountain Rescue Service, a North Conway volunteer group that specializes in tricky, high-risk rescues.
Rescue Service member Steve Dupuis was at home, enjoying his Sunday with his children, sitting on the couch and having a beer. He got the call, gathered his best winter survival gear - about $3,000 worth of equipment - and headed off to meet Ober.
Meanwhile, Ober was in his pickup in the Appalachia parking area, where Matrosova began her trek. He had a radio, cell phone and internet access. He was responsible for strategy. Who should go where and when? And, how to minimize the chance a rescuer could be hurt or killed?
He was constantly checking the weather. It was awful.
“These rescuers had to be suited up for the worst,” he said.
Just after 6:30 p.m., the first team - Fish and Game officers Matt Holmes and Bob Mancini – were working their way up the mountain.
The emergency beacon had shown Matrosova’s location on the Star Lake Trail between Mount Adams and Mount Madison. For some reason, in all that time she hadn’t gone very far. A little over four miles.
Ober wanted the rescuers to get as close as possible to that spot. But they were told not to go above tree line where the storm would be the too dangerous.
“Even with sleeping bags and other forms of shelter you could easily freeze up there,” he said.
And, then the search was getting trickier. Matrosova’s rescue beacon began sending several more signals. All from different spots.
At first the rescuers hoped that meant she was moving. But the locations were too far apart. She couldn’t possibly have been to all of them. Suddenly, they had a horrible thought: they couldn’t be sure where she was.
About 7:45 a Mountain Rescue Team consisting of Dupuis, Geoff Wilson, Scott Lee and Steve Larson trudged out of the parking lot and headed up the trail, steadily heading into a horrible storm.
They were going to one of the more recent beacon locations. It was just below the tree line and close enough to the initial location that it seemed possible Matrosova had been able to reach it and was hunkered down in a snow cave. That’s what Dupuis was praying for.
“People survive some incredible things. I’m just hoping for the best that she found a hole to dig into, to get out of the wind,” Dupuis said.
But while the team wanted to get there as quickly as possible, going too fast would be dangerous given the extreme cold: the rescuers couldn’t afford to start sweating and get wet.
“You have to take the slow-and-steady approach and plod along,” Dupuis said. “It is quite a conundrum.”
Eventually the team left the trail and started bush-whacking through deep snow, using a GPS to guide them.
“You go into a pocket and you may slip down two or three feet deeper than you thought. The snow could be 10 or 12 feet deep in there because of the way a tree held up the snow. And, you are almost walking on top of some of the small ones,” he said.
They wore head lamps with the remotely located batteries nestled against their bodies so they wouldn’t drain in the cold.
Despite being below the tree line Dupuis guessed the wind was reaching 90 miles per hour.
“There were times when it was difficult to stand and other times where there was a little bit of a lull and we were fine,” he said. “But, it was raging pretty hard. When your nostrils freeze together it is pretty darn cold.”
The wind and deep snow weren’t the only problem. There were walls of fir trees. “You can be stopped dead in your tracks,” Dupuis said.
Meanwhile, the two Fish and Game officers, Mancini and Holmes, were high up on the Valley Trail, but still below the tree line. Ober’s plan was to keep them in reserve. If Dupuis’ guys found Matrosova they would need help.
“They were freezing cold. They had to do jumping jacks and run in place,” Ober said.
Finally Dupuis’ team reached the spot signaled by the emergency beacon.There was no sign anyone had been there.
The searchers were all back at the parking lot by 3 a.m. Monday. They told Ober the storm was “probably the worst conditions they’ve ever been in.”
Ober believed them.
“The thing I remember the most about that is how exhausted everybody was,” he said. “They were, literally without exaggeration, like walking zombies.”
Later, Ober talked to one of the men from the Mountain Rescue Service about what could have made it tolerable in such conditions? The answer: a space suit.
The storm was so bad that it was hard for the rescuers not to have a bad feeling about the young woman nobody knew but some were thinking of as “Kate.”
They were trying to save Kate.
Her husband, Charlie Farhoodi, didn’t respond to a series of phone messages and emails.
But Matrosova was profiled earlier this year by Chip Brown for Bloomberg Business.
“She was an extraordinary person. She was extremely bright, extremely driven, extremely happy in a way and had a kind of zeal for life that was unusual,” Brown said in an interview with NHPR.
“She had a kind of impulsive, headlong joie de vivre. It sort of caught a lot of people up in it. She would come up with things to do like ‘Let’s go dancing in the middle of the night in the rain.’ ”
By 8 a.m., Monday Ober had been working more than 24 stressful hours. He turned things over to a pair of lieutenants, Wayne Saunders and Jim Goss, who would oversee four new teams. One of those teams was kept in reserve in case Matrosova was found. The other three each headed for different locations indicated by the rescue beacon.
The worst part of the storm was over and rescuers could go above tree line – but it was still dangerous.
Matt Bowman, of Gorham, was part of the team that headed for the initial beacon position on the Star Lake trail. He still can’t forget the wind.
“It was ferocious. It can sound like a train coming and passing.”
He shot some videothat shows “tough, big guys" being blown over and "getting tossed around like ragdolls.”
But Bowman remained optimistic that Matrosova had hunkered down over night and was okay.
“I assumed that we would find a little snow cave, a little snow pit. And, we’d just say ‘Hey, we’re here to take you down,’ ” he said.
In the early afternoon Bowman, who happened to be at the front of the group, saw a backpack on the ground.
“The optimist in me was ‘Oh, one of the guys dropped a backpack.’ And then, reality set in and I realized what it was. And, I looked up, and she was twenty to thirty feet away in the snow.”
Matrosova, who was 5’ 7’’ and weighed about 125 lbs., was off the trail, on her back among some stunted trees, one leg in the air, Pelchat said. Her GPS was on the ground, near her hand.
“It looked like she might have been on the trail and then the wind picked her up and blew her down there,” he said.
Pelchat figures she was so hypothermic at that point she just couldn’t get up.
Her body was found almost a day after she hit the emergency beacon.
It wasn’t possible to determine the time of death.
But Fish and Game’s Ober thinks she didn’t have a chance in such a ferocious storm.
“We speculate when she hit her emergency beacon it was too late,” he said. “Without a helicopter rescue – right then and there – she was beyond any help.”
And while a National Guard helicopter was sent out at first light Monday, dangerous conditions including a whiteout kept them from seeing anything much less landing.
It still isn’t clear why Matrosova’s emergency locator beacon - which was found tucked in her backpack with the antenna extended - sent so many locations.
But search-and-rescue experts say the fatal flaw was her decision to disregard the forecast of an approaching storm.
She was the 154th person known to have died in the Presidentials.