Author Ty Gagne on "The Last Traverse: Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites" | New Hampshire Public Radio

Author Ty Gagne on "The Last Traverse: Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites"

Dec 31, 2020

Have you hiked Mount Lafayette in N.H.'s Franconia Notch? We talked with N.H. author Ty Gagne about his new book “The Last Traverse: Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites." It’s the true story of two friends on a winter hike that goes awry, and the search-and-rescue efforts that keep it from becoming a bigger tragedy. What makes it especially relevant for this moment is the insight into how we make high-stakes decisions and manage risk in uncertain situations. 

Airdate: Friday, January 1, 2021. Originally aired December 2, 2020.


GUEST: 

Ty Gagne's  essay  “Footprints in the Snow Lead to An Emotional Rescue” in the Union Leader newspaper, tells another rescue story and a psychological journey.

In mid-November on Mt. Rainier, a hiker was rescued after getting lost in blinding snow and freezing conditions. At a Seattle hospital, his heart stopped for 45 minutes and he was put on life support. Two days later, he was walking. Read about it here.

Transcript

 This transcript was machine-generated and contains errors.

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy and this is The Exchange. Today on The Exchange, we venture above tree line and into the world of winter hiking with New Hampshire author Ty Gagne. He has a new book out called The Last Traverse: Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites. At one level, the book is about two friends who set out on a winter hike that goes awry. But it's also about the decisions they made, the risks they took, the unique weather of the whites and the team of rescuers who put their own lives in danger to reach them. Author Ty Gagne is CEO of Primex, which helps local governments assess risk. He's also a certified wilderness first responder. His last book was "Where You'll Find Me Risk Decisions and The Last Climb of Kate Matrosova". His essay, "Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue," first published in the AMC Journal, is on our website today at NHPR.org Exchange. And Ty Gagne, welcome back to The Exchange. It's really great to have you.

Ty Gagne:
Good morning, Laura. It's good to be with you again. Thank you.

Laura Knoy:
And I want to remind listeners, you can join us if you have hiking experiences that showed you the fine line between adventure and disaster, you can join us. So Ty, there are lots of rescue stories in the White Mountains. We see them in the newspapers, you know, usually on a Monday morning after a busy weekend, most of them end well, sometimes they end tragically. What drew you to this particular story, Ty? Why did you think it was so important to tell?

Ty Gagne:
I was drawn to the story really based on a personal experience I had on Franconia Ridge eight days prior to James Osborne and Fred Fredrickson's accident on the same ridgeline. And as I was doing research for the first book and I was going out and talking with groups about Kate Matrosova's accident and the stories of the rescuers, I received the Fish and Game report that covered their accident because when I went up on the ridgeline, I made a series of decisions that day that I frankly, I was just fortunate to untangle from. And eight days later, this accident happens. And I'm still in this period of self reflection about my own decision making, and it just it stayed with me for, you know, what's been over a decade now, and that's really what led to the to the book.

Laura Knoy:
So the idea that you had been in that same place and you had made some decisions that were also not advisable, if I could put it that way, to give us a little bit more there, please.

Ty Gagne:
Sure. So I was invited to go to a winter traverse of the Franconia Ridge in early February 2008 with two people who I, I didn't know, let alone hadn't hiked with before. And my fitness level that winter. I didn't have my hiking legs. I wasn't doing a lot of winter hiking. And so my fitness really wasn't aligned with the objective, which was this 9+ mile loop of the ridge and Mount Lafayette, Lincoln and Haystack. But I, I went and the weather conditions were they were not great. We call them full. So very low visibility, high winds and on multiple at multiple points on that hike, I wanted to turn around and I just didn't speak up and I didn't speak up because I felt like I was a guest, you know, and I didn't want to be marginalized or perceived as being weak. And it was really an ego-based decision that kept me there. So, you know, I hit I eventually hit the wall You know, I wasn't hydrating. We call it self care. I wasn't really taking on food and got up on the ridge line in really, really high winds and which is exhausting and just really had to put one foot in front of the other to get through it. And learned really valuable lessons from it.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. And made it and it sounds like that's what drew you to this story. Is that your recognition, Ty, that you could have been these men, you might not have made it down.

Ty Gagne:
Right, and I think the other the other piece of this is that, you know, I potentially compromised the safety and well-being of the two companions I was with. And so it wasn't just my decisions were affecting me. They were potentially affecting the two people that I had joined that day.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and it's so interesting. And we'll get into this later. I mean, your profession, as I said in the opening, is helping, you know, municipalities and schools assess risk. So it's interesting to sort of take that from the professional to the personal. But let's talk about the hike itself for a moment just to place this for listeners. So Franconia Ridge, a lot of listeners will know this, but even for those who don't know it, they've probably seen it Ty, so where is it? What does it look like?

Ty Gagne:
So as you're entering into Franconia Notch, if you're able to look up and high up into to the right, you'll see the highest peak, which is Mount Lafayette, over 5000 feet. And the ridge really works its way. So that's what you're probably going to see first. But as you get deeper into Franconia Notch, that expansive ridge line, which is a little low, you know, it's about one point six, one point seven miles begins to open up. And it's just. Incredibly majestic, I mean, and it just draws you in, it's just a beautiful particularly when there's snowcapped.

Laura Knoy:
So even if you've never been up there yourself, you've probably seen it if you've driven through the notch. And what draws people to this, Ty? I myself, full disclosure, I've been up there a couple of times, not in the winter, and it is pretty incredible.

Ty Gagne:
Yeah, for me in the winter, just speaking for myself, I think just being up above tree line in the wintertime is just a completely different feel than than the other three seasons. And, you know, I put it to... you have to be fully present when you're there. Your situational awareness has to be really high, paying attention to everything you're doing, which really creates this actually really nice disconnect from everything else you're leaving behind you on the trail. And it's challenging and it's rewarding and it's beautiful, but it's also unpredictable.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and before we get into all the unpredictable weather that these men faced and the decisions that they made, let's just talk about who they were, these two hikers, their level of skill in the outdoors. You know, these were lovely people who a lot of people cared about.

Ty Gagne:
You know, they really weren't. Fred Fredrickson and James Osborne, they worked lived in New Hampshire, both worked for what at the time, Concord Coach, and both were really beloved drivers of the bus and really, really well-liked within the company just known as very approachable, friendly, engaging people. And they were part of this small group from within the company of hikers, very collegial. They're just really close friendships. And they would just go out regularly on days off and and hike, most of which was in the White Mountains.

Laura Knoy:
And James Osborne was the less experienced hiker. Fred was the more experienced talk about that relationship, Ty, and how that affects some of the decisions that were made along the way.

Ty Gagne:
Sure, well, Fred had forced extensive four season exterior experience, and that was well known by anyone around him, he was just known as a really passionate outdoorsman. He was an exceptional physical condition, very well skilled, almost a perfectionist in terms of continuously testing new gear and upgrading it and reading about it. James was an avid three season hiker. He had done, you know, over I think he was at 37 or 38 peaks at the time of the accident. And Fred had done the 100 highest peaks in New England, done a lot of hiking and in Maine on Katahdin and elsewhere. And, you know, James really wanted to move into the fourth season and learn about winter hiking, he saw the enthusiasm that Fred brought about that and it was just a very enticing thought for him to go after it.

Laura Knoy:
And so what happens and you mentioned this with your own story, Ty, see what happens when you have a group in this case, just two people, where there is sort of a hierarchy of, OK, he has more experience than me.

Ty Gagne:
Well, this goes to, you know, heuristics, decision making, decision bias kinds of issues and what we call this - and this relates whether we're in the mountains or we're down at sea level. But when you when you have a perceived expert in a group or somebody senior or seems to have the authority, there can be this dynamic that's created where we really just we leave the decision making to that person. And the one thing I want to just make really clear is that Fred was not like a power authority kind of person. You know, he he really viewed his friends and his hiking partners as equals. And that's really not what this was about. But as James will will tell you is that he you know, he was the passenger on hikes, he he would leave the decision making, the planning to those that that he went with. And he's he's just very open about that, which I think speaks a lot to his character. But again, if we start to see things that are going wrong, we may not speak up because we feel that we have less tenure or experience or expertise or that if we do speak up, that we might be marginalized or isolated or criticized. And so we don't. We don't say anything and, you know, I don't think that's the dynamic. At play with with Fred and James, but there was definitely a default position of leaving the planning and the decision making to to Fred.

Laura Knoy:
And you interviewed James Osborne for this book, which I'm sure was very painful for him. You know, I mean, spoiler alert, you say right up front in the book in the first two or three pages that James made it and Fred did not. Why did James say he wanted to participate?

Ty Gagne:
He he really wanted to he really wanted to evolve and expand his skills and move in to just expand his hiking season.

Laura Knoy:
No, I mean, participate in this book.

Ty Gagne:
Well, early on after the accident and as James was going through his recovery, he worked very closely with Fish and Game. Todd Bogardus, who's in the book, he was the incident commander of the rescue and would go out and and talk with hiking groups about his experience and what he learned from it. And again, which I just really think goes back to his his character and really took ownership of it. And I knew that was happening. So when I approached him, although it was probably years later since he had done his last talk, you know, I introduced myself, told them who I was and and what I was hoping to do and you know, would he be willing to sit down with me, and he was.

Laura Knoy:
Did he see it as an opportunity to help other people avoid, you know, similar decision making traps?

Ty Gagne:
He did he really saw value in transparency, that he learned really valuable lessons from this and really. Was willing to participate in an effort that was really focused on helping other hikers or really any of us that are are making decisions. And staying out of harm's way, being safe.

Laura Knoy:
Again today on The Exchange, we're talking with New Hampshire author Ty Gagne. His new book is called The Last Traverse Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites. As he's describing, it's about two friends who set out on a winter hike that goes awry. One man makes it, the other does not. But it also looks at the incredible rescue effort that was put into place to get these gentlemen off the mountain and the decisions that they made, the unique weather of the whites and how this all transpired. Ty, we got an email from Lynn in Sanbornton who says, I value the risk assessment lessons. I'm highly curious each time you take me there about how the search people are people too, and how they organize, I latch on to wanting to know what gear everyone has had on them, the lost and the searchers. I learn a lot about helicopters and their pilots in the last traverse. Most of all, though, Lynn says there's the loss you make us feel. We can emotionally ask, did it have to be this way and Lynn wants to know, Ty, how hard was it to be writing the a-life-is-gone parts of the book? Are you what? Your writing desk with tears running down your face. Lynn, thank you for writing in to us today.

Ty Gagne:
Yeah, I really appreciate that question. Thank you, Lynn. You know, I as I did with the first book and with this book, I just I approached it nonjudgmental and with empathy, because, you know, I had an experience in the mountains that could have gone in the wrong direction and and I didn't you know, this wasn't kind of storming in with a with a notepad and a pen and saying, you know, I have a series of questions. You know, I reached out to James as I as I already mentioned. And when I talked with James, James actually scheduled time for me to sit down with he and bet, which was Fred's ex-wife, who remained very, very close to him. And it was just a really it was a really moving experience. And it was I recognized the sacred nature of. Of this whole process and just tried to keep communication very open and with the understanding of what I was hoping to achieve with the book and, you know, just like James that and and her sons contributed greatly to to the story. And I really appreciate that. Yeah, Lynne. Can I. Yeah, go ahead. No, I also just recognize that it's not it's as as difficult as this topic is. It's it's not about me. I can't make it about me. It's about telling the story and trying to do so in a way that's. Helps people recognize that, you know, there are. We're all human and we see these things happen and we read about them in the paper and see them on the news, but there are people beyond that incident that are deeply impacted by these these events.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, and it's easy to see those headlines that you mentioned. And as you said a moment ago, you know, be judged or be critical or say how could they? But you are trying to offer a fuller portrait of these people and the decisions that they make. And, you know, we've all made bad decisions in the great outdoors. It's just that most of us make it down because, you know, we're lucky.

Ty Gagne:
Yeah, I agree, I've been I've talked to countless numbers of people over the past, I think five years since I started talking about accidents in the White Mountains from a risk management perspective and how that those incidents, what we can learn from those to help us better manage risk and make decisions just on a day to day basis and. You know, I just I think they're important parallels, a lot of what goes on up there is similar to the types of dynamics that affect risk and decisions here. It's just it may manifest itself differently, but it's very similar listeners.

Laura Knoy:
What are you hoping to learn from this book or from this story, again, of hikers who go into the winter whites with a fair bit of experience and a fair bit of gear, but a series of decisions leads to tragedy. Justin is calling in from Epping, Ty. Hi, Justin. Thanks for calling in to The Exchange today.

Caller:
I just wanted to share quickly, as an avid climber, I had an experience in Washington State with some friends, one of whom was the least experienced of our group of three. And we were off climbing an objective and just kind of watching friends have kind of a slow decline. And we decided to back off of what our objective was. And we still ended up getting back to our base camp after midnight. And you kind of had like a almost mental emotional breakdown during that time. So had we not paid attention, had we not, you know, heated stories of people before us? It definitely could have gone bad. Definitely could have been us up there getting a rescue, but rather we backed off and, you know, we got some food and rest and all that. And he felt better. We walked out and had a story to tell, but not one that was tragic.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah. And Justin, you know, Ty studies this whole issue of group dynamics and how some people, you know, are regarded as leaders and others follow and then decision making can spiral down from there. How hard was it for you, Justin, to, as you put it so well, back off from the objective?

Caller:
Honestly, not that difficult, only because I've read so many stories of people before me and it's objective, I still haven't reached to this day and it's still like one of those lifetime goals. It's just a beautiful, beautiful climb. But in this case, it really was easy to kind of see like this comfort level was just was coming down and as it was getting cold and tired and all the things that come with alpine climbing.

Laura Knoy:
Justin, it's great to hear from you and Ty in the book one of the rescuers says this is a common problem and Justin puts it so well, you know, whether to back off from the objective or not. And this person says to you, many hikers in the whites are, I think he puts it, summit focused or summit obsessed. How hard is it for people to back off from the objective?

Ty Gagne:
Yeah, I think it can be really hard. Justin, thank you very much for your insights. I appreciate that. It can be really difficult because if you think about the how close in proximity the White Mountains are to a large portion of the population on the Eastern Seaboard, it's really accessible. And in the in the case of Franconia Notch, it's right off the interstate. And so one of the these biases that we can find ourselves in when we're undertaking, whether it's going after a summit or something at work or what have you, is this sunk cost where we've invested so much time, energy and effort into this objective, i.e., I drove here for a long weekend to to do a traverse or to get the summit that we will we will escalate our commitment toward that summit or whatever that objective is, because we've invested so much to get there. And you saw this play out on Everest in 96 and since then and you see it, it has played out in the White Mountains as well. It's it's these are human factors that are that are really found within all of us.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and people who plan to come up, you know, maybe they come up from a little further than Massachusetts, from New York or Connecticut. You know, people don't have unlimited flexibility and unlimited time off. I mean, this is their weekend and they're going to do it. So there you go, right, Ty?

Ty Gagne:
Right, and especially right now, with just that feeling of escape, I think it could potentially even fuel that that dynamic more because you know, there's so much uncertainty right now. There's so much anxiety and stress and and the thought of just being out and being away and being in a high place, it's really enticing for people.

Laura Knoy:
After a short break, we will talk more about that point you just made the prospects for winter hiking this winter, given the heavy, heavy use that we saw in the whites this spring, summer and fall. I also want to talk about unpredictable weather. That is a big part of this book.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy. Today, we're talking with author Ty Gagne about his new book, The Last Traverse: Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites. It's about a winter hike that turned tragic, but also about decision making, risk taking and the amazing efforts of New Hampshire's search and rescue teams. So let's talk about winter weather. In specifically, your book emphasizes the unpredictable weather of Franconia Notch in particular and says, well, everybody knows about Mt. Washington's bad weather. People don't really appreciate the notch's weather. Why not Ty?

Ty Gagne:
Yeah, I think the presidential range in Mount Washington and rightfully so, gets has the reputation of the world's worst weather. But if you look at if you look at Franconia Notch and the Franconia Ridge, which is roughly 20 miles to the to the west and a little bit south, it runs in a very similar north south orientation. And the notch itself, when the wind is entering the Knoy. either from the west or the northwest, it creates, you know, wind and weather dynamics that are very similar to what's found on Mount Washington. And, you know, one of the many reasons I wanted to write this is to really raise awareness about the fact that, you know, if just because you go to the notch thinking it might be lower and less unpredictable than than the presidential range, it really isn't.

Laura Knoy:
Also, there's the dynamic of and I'm showing my colors as not a winter hiker, I'm a three season hiker. The sun goes down pretty early in the winter, Ty, as you know, and especially correct me if I'm wrong, in that area where these men hiked right? Like once the sun goes behind Cannon Mountain, it gets really cold.

Ty Gagne:
Right, and in talking with to that point, Alan Clarke, who's the the president of the Pemi Valley search and rescue team, and Jim Kneeland, who's the current team leader of the Fish and Game advanced search rescue team, they talk about this dynamic where the sun just it people do not factor always factor in how quickly the sun disappears behind Cannon Mountain to the west. And and they find themselves in situations where they haven't built in that time or maybe factored in what time is sunset. And we know it's probably going to be earlier for us if we're, you know, ascending the slopes within Franconia Notch because it's it's going to disappear pretty quickly.

Laura Knoy:
Let's take another call. Hi, this is Bruce driving north on 893. Hi, Bruce. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller:
Hi, good morning I wanted to share a quote of a name I think many, many folks know anything about mountaineering. Brad Washburn, great climber, great mapmaker and director emeritus of the Museum of Science in Boston, used to say that he was an old mountain climber because he turned back a lot. I think it's such a great message. I think that anybody who likes climbing big mountains or winter mountains should take it as a point of pride that they do turn back. I think that would save a lot of lives. And I wonder if we have time. I'd love to share a story about my very first winter mountain trip. A friend of mine wanted to sure share his knowledge with me. So I was the neophyte. We were going up the back side of Mount Madison and the weather was terrible. Each time we pop up above the trees, the wind was blowing about 80 miles an hour. You couldn't walk standing up. You were walking like dogs across the ice. And eventually I remember we just we finally got up above the last tree line. I was coming across the ridge, the whole summit on that trail, we we kind of crawled over to each other and put our put the hood of our jackets up so we could walk the wind a little bit. And my friend hollered at me, Bruce, I think we need to reconsider our destination. And I said, yeah, we just reached our destination.

Caller:
So we turned around, go back down. Then that was the good part. The bad part was as soon as we got into the the nighttime part of our descent, only about maybe a mile or so from from the parking lot, my friend felt he didn't want to, whereas his trail was very icy. He went down and twisted his knee very badly. Oh, dear. So what turned into the last few minutes of sauntering along the trail turned into a major epic event where we were able to to extract ourselves from the trail. But I had to fashion crutches for him, load it all of his gear on top of my pack. He broke a headlight. So we had only one headlight between us and we took about two hours or so to to to creep along toward the trail and then took him to the hospital in in Conway. And I couldn't warm up. I ended up stripping down to my my lowest level layer of polypropylene long johns in the waiting room of the hospital, what I learned there was I've been so focused on helping my partner get to the car that I forgot to take care of myself.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, you were hypothermic. Yeah. Yes. Bruce, I'm so glad you called. Thank you for sharing this story, because so many things that you just told us are big topics in your book Ty. I mean, the idea that Bruce was the neophyte, the shocking experience, really, once you get up there of the wind, hypothermia that occupies, you know, a couple chapters in your book, how it's treated and how precarious it is. Bruce, thank you so much for calling. Could we talk about the wind first, Ty? I was surprised reading your book at just how incredible the winds were up there on that ridge.

Ty Gagne:
Sure. Well, as James and Fred were making their way across the ridge line, they were about a half mile from Little Haystack and they were heading north toward Mount Lincoln. You know, visibility was was pretty low. It was snowing lightly. And the winds that were at their back really at like 13 miles an hour, you know, miles. And there was just this sudden extreme shift in the wind that came out of the west northwest. Wind speeds ramped up from 13 to sustained 60, gusting to 70 miles an hour. And it brought with it a snow squall. And that wind picked up all of the freshly fallen snow. And it it just was an overwhelming sensory experience for particularly for James.

Laura Knoy:
Well, that's the point where I would have turned down. But add to that weather forecast, you know, there was a major weather event predicted for that day. One rescuer in your book says this storm was predicted a week in advance. As somebody with rescue experience yourself time and as somebody who professionally assesses risk, how should these forecasts by the Mount Washington Observatory be used by hikers? And how often are they used in that way?

Ty Gagne:
You know, I think the hiking community and I you know, a lot of credit to the Mt. Washington Observatory for the amount of work they that they put into putting out a higher summit's forecast and a forecast discussion. I think, particularly over the past several years, hikers and outdoor recreationalist, skiers, have leaned very heavily on that report. And back in 2008, you know, the web is, you know, still evolving and cell phones were really still flip phone in nature, I think the first iPhone came out in mid-2007, but so it just wasn't quite so easy to access that forecast as it is today. And it you know, James, again, very openly says he didn't check the observatory forecast. You know, I can't know for sure if Fred did, but, yeah, it was forecasted. But I think it was just, in this case, a really unfortunate and tragic miscalculation of the timing and the severity of the weather event.

Laura Knoy:
I also want to ask you, Ty, about planning and packing. And, you know, our caller, Bruce, mentioned the crampons. Without going into all the stuff they brought because that would take, you know, 20 minutes right there. What is it that they didn't bring? And this is something that, you know, the hiking community has been focusing on for a long time. Bring all the stuff, even if you end up just carrying it. What is it that they didn't bring that might have made a difference?

Ty Gagne:
Well, and I'll you know, I'll preface this by saying that, what I'm going to say is, is really what was generated out of the Fish and Game report and in my in-depth and ongoing conversations with James. I think one of the pieces that was missing here, James, is very open about this is that neither had a sleeping bag or what we would call a bivy bag, which is much like a tarp or what you would call a tent fly. Their fluids froze and their food froze quite quickly just because of the extreme temperatures. And so there was an absence of insulation tools that can be used to keep your drinks, you know, from from getting frozen and your food from just becoming, you know, impossible to eat because it's just solid. I know I'd say those are pretty key.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, so keeping food and water not frozen and a sleeping bag, and yet Ty, I wonder, you know, you don't want to get into the trap of saying, gee, if they just brought X, they would have both survived, you know what I mean? You know, there were a number of forces that that hit these gentlemen that ended up creating a tragedy for Fred. So, you know, you want to tell people, bring all this, but you don't want to say, yeah, if you guys just brought a sleeping bag, all would be, well, you know what I'm saying? It's a tricky line.

Ty Gagne:
Yeah, I would refer people to the Hike Safe website on New Hampshire Fish and Game, which gives you the 10 essentials. I also include it in the index of the book, that shows here are the 10 essentials for any hike. But then if you're going to expand into winter and do other kinds of activities, there are additional lists there. And that was done in collaboration with Fish and Game and the White Mountain National Forest.

Laura Knoy:
Got a lot of emails here, Ty, of listeners really relating to this idea that, Bruce, our caller, said, you know, an old winter hiker is a hiker who's turned back a lot. Coeli emails. I've been noticing the term "objective" being used a lot today. In a recent trip to Baxter State Park, we turned back above tree line because 30 mile per hour wind gusts and large boulders are a bad combination. So Coeli says, I did not finish the New England 67 this year as planned. But it's critical to remember at all times of the year the true objective of every hike is not the summit, but your safe return home. All experienced hikers can help by promoting this message. Joanne in Deerfield also a similar thought: as a Southern transplant to New Hampshire, I fell in love with winter hiking. For me, the essential piece was an experienced hiking partner who never hesitated to support me when I said I just don't have it today. After a long day, we also walked away from a Mt. Adams summit when we saw a storm blowing in sooner than expected. My advice, Joanne says, when in doubt, shout it out. You have to be honest and communicate with your partner. Good life lesson, too, Joanne says. Thank you, Joanne. And Spencer emails: I've been the subject of a rescue in the Tetons many years ago, but not until reading Where You'll Find Me, that's your earlier book about Kate Matrosova, was I convinced to get a personal locator beacon. My wife says thanks, Ty. On the topic of turning back, I am familiar with the problem. What does Ty say to overcome that trap? Spencer, thank you. And first of all, could you address the personal locator beacon question that Spencer raises?

Ty Gagne:
Sure, you know, technology's certainly playing a larger role in backcountry efforts and a personal locator beacon is one of a few different types of tools that hikers can rely on, you know, if they get into trouble. What I what I will say, though, is that technology is fallible and that we have to, we have to recognize the fact and have a contingency that, well, what if the the beacon doesn't work or it gives a false signal? Do I have map and compass skills? Do I have a handheld GPS? Do I have backups for those kinds of events?

Laura Knoy:
On the topic of turning back, Spencer says, what do you say to overcome that trap? And I like that Spencer used the word trap because that's a word you use too, Ty. There's a number of decision making traps that people make that can get them into trouble.

Ty Gagne:
Yeah, it is a trap. And I'm glad you brought it up. And it's you know, you mentioned the "Footprints in the Snow" essay. Pam Bales, who is a rescuer for Pemi Valley Search and Rescue team, would always say, you know, getting to the top or the summit is optional. Getting back to the car is not. But these traps can happen when, again, we set that goal or objective, the word I've used before. And we get fixated on it to the point where we we get tunnel vision and we we're not paying attention to changes that are taking place either within us or around us. And so my suggestion is that when we find ourselves in this position of I want something right. Whether it's a summit or a material object or whatever it is, you know, there's emotion that's often driving the light. And I think it's it's really just taking a step back and trying to shift to should I. And when we shift from I want to should I we position ourselves really to to increase or reset our situational awareness where OK, I'm heading for the summit, but I'm going to stop and I'm. How am I feeling? Am I hydrating? Am I am I taking care of myself? Am I layering my clothing appropriately? What is the weather doing? You know, where is the sun at this point? Am I behind schedule, ahead of schedule? How are my teammates? It's it's just that continuous, again, presence that I talk about and just constant reevaluation. So you get from I want, to should I? I think, you know, that can help head off these these traps that we find ourselves getting into.

Laura Knoy:
So say that again, Ty, getting to the summit is optional, but getting back to the...go ahead?

Ty Gagne:
getting back to the car is not.

Laura Knoy:
Right. Wise words and wise words as more people undoubtedly head into the Whites this winter, what concerns do you have be given that, you know, it's pretty safe to say there'll be a lot of people out there this winter.

Ty Gagne:
There will be and we saw evidence of that over the summer, I think the trails were packed for lack of a better term, particularly in Franconia Notch and over in the Presidentials. And I think what you're likely to see is that people are looking again for that escape to get away from the current reality that we all find ourselves in. And they're going to be stretching their legs into the fourth season. You know, there you have three seasoned hikers that are going to start venturing out into the winter season that we do see examples of people that don't really have hiking experience, but they they want to they want to go out and try mountaineering because they've seen it. You know, it's extreme. And I think in talking with members of the search and rescue community in recent weeks, one of the concerns they have is given the pandemic and the impact it's going to have on ski area operations. Yes, they're still going to be running, but it's going to be different. And there's really the potential that that people are going to move more into backcountry skiing, which brings on a whole host of additional risks for people and potentially for rescuers.

Laura Knoy:
All right. We're going to take a very short break.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange I'm Laura Knoy. This hour, we're talking with author Ty Gagne about his new book, The Last Traverse Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites. And Ty, just before the break, you mentioned your discussions with New Hampshire search and rescue folks who are very worried about crowds going out into the backcountry in the winter, who don't have the experience that they perhaps should. For people who are unfamiliar with this search and rescue system, who are these teams? Because a lot of them, from what I understand, are volunteers.

Ty Gagne:
They are. So New Hampshire Fish and Game, which has oversight of inland search and rescue in New Hampshire, has a highly trained advanced search and rescue team. It's approximately 13 members and they're spread out throughout the state, but primarily in the area of of the mountains. And then there there are a host of volunteer teams out there, again, many of which are situated, you know, southeast, west and north of the White Mountains. And they they really work together. And as you said, those teams are all volunteer. There are schoolteachers, they're nurses, they are mountain guides, firefighters. They're just remarkable people and selfless. And it's one of the other reasons I really wanted to talk about this in the book is just they're not paid. They don't they don't wish to be. They're going out there and and helping fellow hikers, recognizing that there's really a thin margin between the people that they are rescuing and themselves.

Laura Knoy:
Well, yeah, and they are also a big part of this book. And speaking of rescuers, I do want to remind listeners that your essay, "Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue. First published in the AMC's Journal is on our website today. That's about one of the female rescuers in this group who really... People have to read it. It's it's an amazing story. And she really ended up saving a life and turning someone's life around. For this rescue in your book, Ty, just describe how massive it was and why it had to be so massive.

Ty Gagne:
Well, they didn't have an exact location of where they believed James and Fred were going to be. And so the incident commander, based on his own experiences in rescuing on that ridge, which he was very familiar with, and what he learned from past incident commanders that he trained under is that, you know, the idea is you really have to cover most of the major trails that lead up onto the ridgeline and that started from the northern most trail of the notch to really one of the more southern, and then on the back side of the ridge in Pemi wilderness. And so the idea is to deploy teams and have them move inward on these trails in hopes that you're cutting off the hikers as they're bailing out or you're at least containing them if they attempt to. Or you find signs of the hikers. And as Todd Bogardus, the incident commander, said, you know, we're not looking for hikers. We're looking for signs of the hikers. And I think that's a really important piece for people that are going out in the backcountry. You know, hikers leave these breadcrumbs, whether it's, you know, a burnt map or a candy wrapper or something like that, a footprint. There's just a whole host of things they they rely on to help them find people.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and this also gets to the planning. These gentlemen did not tell anybody specifically where they were going. They said we're going to go on a winter hike, you know, in the Notch. Had rescuers known which trail they were taking. Right. Ty, they might not have had to have deployed such a large number of people.

Ty Gagne:
Right, and I would like to add there was also an air search by the New Hampshire Army National Guard, which I know will get into a little later. But yeah, I wouldn't say there was a firm or fixed itinerary that was left with anybody behind. But there were inferences that Fred and James were going to go do Franconia Ridge, but no one knew whether it was Saturday or Sunday, you know, and thankfully, their coworkers and and good friends connected the dots on Monday morning when they were supposed to be back at work and and at least got the search started.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and somebody who was involved in the search. Right. His dad had actually seen them that day. And that was a key clue, wasn't it, Ty?

Ty Gagne:
Yeah. And these are the small these are the stories within the larger story that you don't hear about. But he's a retired Manchester firefighter. He was just there to climb a little hay stack of the Falling Waters trail just as a training hike and just to keep his fitness up. And he also happens to be the father of what was then at the time, a member of Mountain Rescue Service. And he hiked the trail, he encountered James and Fred a couple of times. And the next morning, as his son is driving to the rescue call, he calls to check in on his father because he wants to make sure it's not his dad because they, you know, knew that there were they were looking for two two men. And his father immediately answered the phone and said, oh, I saw them. And he was able to give search and rescue personnel and the incident commander an idea of the point last scene, which is critically important in a search and rescue mission.

Laura Knoy:
Yeah, it's a title of one of the chapters, I think Point Last Seen. And then they don't have to be fanning out all over the place in terrible weather. They can be a little bit more focused. Let's take another call, this is Tracey in Newbury.

Caller:
Hi, good morning, I'm calling basically to give a shout out to the AMC outdoor education program. I'm a middle school teacher and I have spent years and years hiking with middle schoolers in the Whites, generally with a guide from the outdoor program. And the last time I did it was a presidential traverse in June, but we hit winter conditions, including, we had a snowball fight, but then also on the final ridge had hail conditions. And one of the things that that the education program does so well is not only helping the students prepare for what to hike because nobody wants to carry a lot of weight when it's June and teaching them about preparing. And then the difference between when we encourage students to kind of push through being uncomfortable for a great goal that's worth it and bringing them into the decision of when is it no longer safe and we have to turn around. And I can't say enough about what a great job they do of introducing young people to that area in a way that is safe and rewarding both.

Laura Knoy:
Tracy, it's great to hear from you and it's great that you're introducing young people to New Hampshire's beautiful outdoors. Any thoughts from that call for you, Ty, that come up?

Ty Gagne:
Yes, you know, thanks, Tracey, a couple of things. One, I totally agree, the AMC has some excellent winter workshops. I would also highly recommend if people are trying to progress in their skills and technical competency. There are a number of expert guide services, particularly in the Mount Washington andFranconia area, that are more than willing to go out there with you. I went out with a guide once. I was trying to build my skills in a particular area and it was just a really enriching experience. And then, you know, she made the other point about taking people to a level of discomfort. You know, yes, I am in risk management, but I also really believe that some degree of risk taking is is beneficial, particularly when we're outside of our comfort zone in a pgressive way and and building skills and maybe with a mentor or another expert, because that's where we develop confidence and experience and skill sets. So I, you know, I just don't kid myself that we have that we need to stay in this box and avoid everything. I don't think we can and I don't think we should. I just think there's a way to do it.

Laura Knoy:
Alexis writes, She'd love to know some of the best resources for three seasoned hikers like me who want to learn how to do some winter adventuring safely. And Alexis, thank you for writing. I'm guessing that's a lot of listeners have that same question. Go ahead, Ty.

Ty Gagne:
Yeah, again, I think if you can find a mentor, somebody that you know and trust, that is that's willing to go out there with you and in a non pressure kind of setting and and help you grow your skills, or if you choose to take a workshop with the AMC, as I mentioned before, guide services are also out there. I know the International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway has a mountaineering workshop that actually that's what New Hampshire Fish and Game participates in when they're training their new search and rescue personnel.

Laura Knoy:
So there's a lot of lists about what to bring and what to do on the Fish and Game website, on AMC and so forth. Alexis, thank you for writing. Chief Goldstein of the Franklin Police Department wrote in. He says, I've read Ty's first book and heard his presentation. His experiences lend themselves to my profession, law enforcement, and my passion, skydiving. I've had to make the decision, for example, not to jump for similar reasons expressed so far. And Chief Goldstein, thank you for writing in. John emails. As a very experienced winter hiker, I can really relate to Ty's writing. I didn't think I would be as interested in the risk management and decision making parts, but as soon as I related them to my own group, they became riveting and vital. I was able to understand not only my own thinking out there in different conditions, but those of my companions too. After reading Where You'll Find Me, I gave a lecture on hiking safely to my Boy Scout troop and decided when I retire soon, I want to give back by volunteering for one of the search and rescue groups in the Whites. That's great, John. Thank you for writing.

Laura Knoy:
You know, one of the other aspects of this book that was eye opening for me, Ty, is how complicated hypothermia is. And this is something, you know, I don't want to say we're going to see more of it, but we might see more of it as more people venture out into the White Mountains this winter. Just remind us, hypothermia is complex, right? It's not just your cold and you need to warm up.

Ty Gagne:
It really is, it's called the silent killer in the back country, it's probably the leading cause of death for most in the White Mountains and particularly in the Presidential range. And it's a very challenging thing to manage because it's a very slow cognitive decline. As you get older, your body goes through this phase of vasoconstriction where as blood is returning to your heart from the outer extremities, it's cold because we don't have a ton of insulation in our hands, our feet and legs, and the heart doesn't like that, so the brain sends out a signal in our veins and our arteries start to constrict. And so blood flow starts to lessen in our outer extremities. One of the first places that takes place is in our frontal cortex of our brain, which is really the decision center of our brain. This is where they call it the executive function portion of your brain. So with a lack of blood flow there, you start to see behaviors where people are taking care of themselves. We forget to hydrate. We don't add layers of clothing when we should. We may actually remove layers of clothing because we perceive ourselves as warm. We shiver, which is involuntary exercise, which as we burn through our glycogen stores, we stop shivering and then, you know, we're really in trouble. But I think one of the problems with this is our frontal cortex will often lead us into trouble. And it's exactly the thing we need to get out of trouble. But when we're hypothermic, the frontal cortex is impaired. And so we see these situations that take place in the mountains where people do things that we judge, we criticize and we don't understand, but people don't often don't know they're doing it. So it's really important to pay attention to it.

Laura Knoy:
And I didn't appreciate that until I read the book that, you know, your brain is not making good decisions because you are hypothermic. So it's so easy to read these stories and go, gee, why didn't they do X, Y, Z? And that's why. I want to close out Ty with an email from Susan who says, I have been James Osborne's partner for the last 12 years. Again, just to remind listeners, James is the one in this pair who survived this hike. Susan says, I met him shortly after the hike. And through the years, James has shared many stories of that tragic day. I have to say that reading Thai's book has brought tears to my eyes. As I sit here and listen to your show, I feel the need to thank Ty for his nonjudgmental approach, his professionalism and his ability to make the reader feel and see the story. And Susan, it's really great to hear from you and Ty Gagne, hard to believe you run out of time. Thank you very much for being with us today. I really appreciate it.

Ty Gagne:
Thank you, Laura, it was great to be with you.

Laura Knoy:
Ty Gagne is CEO of Primex. The book we talked about is called The Last Traverse. The other book that came up a lot in our conversation today is Where You'll Find Me: Risk Decisions and The Last Climb of Kate Matrosova. You'll find his essay, Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue, first published in the AMC Journal, on our web site today, NHPR.org/exchange. Today's program was produced by Exchange Producer and news host Jessica Hunt. Thanks for being with us. This is The Exchange on NHPR.