Searching from the Sky: N.H. Aircrew Braved Brutal Weather to Locate Hiker
By Jennifer Gerhart
It’s a story about an adventurer. It’s a story about an extremely smart, highly talented woman with a go-getter attitude and determination. It’s a story about creating a plan, decisions, consequences and ultimate tragedy.
It’s the story of Kate Matrosova.
Ty Gagne’s book, “Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova,” begins on a windy mountain in New Hampshire on Feb. 15, 2015. Matrosova, 32, and her husband, Charlie Farhoodi, arrived in New Hampshire the weekend of Valentine’s Day. Matrosova planned a solo hiking adventure across the summits of mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Washington.
She intended to climb over and through a 16-mile Northern Presidential Loop in alpine style — quick and light over the four summits. She would start on Mount Madison before dawn, climb over mounts Adams and Jefferson, and finally drop down from Mount Washington along the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail at the end of the day. Because the weather was expected to be extreme, she wanted to be up and back down before conditions became too rough.
A month earlier, she had hiked part of the trail with Farhoodi. This time, however, they agreed she would go by herself. For her solo hike, Matrosova was carrying food, water, a good winter jacket, insulated pants, a balaclava, goggles, gaiters, crampons, poles, double boots, her camera, a satellite phone and a GPS device that would record her movements. She also had an ACR ResQLink personal locator beacon.
By 3:30 p.m., Matrosova activated her beacon to call for help. Her beacon signal was relayed to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. The dispatcher reported the alert to the New Hampshire State Police dispatch center, which referred the emergency to the state Fish and Game Department would handle the emergency. It was after 8 p.m. when Civil Air Patrol’s New Hampshire Wing was called and asked if it had an airplane with beacon-tracking capabilities available and ground resources for a missing person search.
Col. Bill Moran was first on the alert roster for incident commander when he received the call.
“I knew this was going to be a bad situation, because I knew what the weather was going to be like — extreme cold and wind,” said Moran, the wing’s director of emergency services. “I told AFRCC we could provide air but not ground, because our ground members were not qualified for those weather conditions.”
After receiving the Air Force mission number and one set of coordinates, Moran contacted Lt. Jim Goss, the Fish and Game search and rescue officer. Goss said he would let the wing know by 8:30 a.m. the next day if he needed them to fly.
The call came in at 5 a.m.: Civil Air Patrol was needed to fly. Moran called Lt. Col. Mead Herrick, the next shift’s incident commander, and told him the Fish and Game agency had requested CAP take off as soon as possible.
A crew was formed with members of the Hawk Composite Squadron, the closest CAP unit to the search area. Lt. Col. Bruce Determann would serve as mission observer and Capt. Bruce Neff as mission scanner. At that time, the Mount Washington Observatory, 1,000 feet above and 1 mile northeast of Mount Madison, had an aviation meteorological report showing the overnight temperature was minus 35 degrees. The wind was blowing more than 140 mph, resuling in a minus 88 degrees wind chill.
“It was the second-coldest place on Earth that night; only the South Pole was colder,” Moran said. “Having lived in New Hampshire for 15 years and being somewhat of a weather enthusiast, I knew those conditions were some of the worst ever.”
When Moran got to the CAP hangar at Laconia Municipal Airport, he had to shovel snow accumulated in front of the hangar doors. During the preflight inspection he had to use a hair dryer to unfreeze a blocked fuel tank sump drain. The sky was bright and sunny, but the temperature was in the teens and the wind was blowing 25 knots down the runway. By comparison, Mount Madison was 40 miles to the northeast, and the Appalachian Trail that Matrosova hiked was over 5,000 feet in elevation.
As they flew to the area, Moran computed a search altitude and decided to fly at 10,500 feet. The wind was at 100 knots and gusting to 110. The downdraft took the airplane down to 9,000 feet, and the updrafts lifted it to more than 12,000 feet.
“We were extremely diligent to our position and altitude,” Moran reflected. “I was relying upon my 26 years as a bomber pilot flying many low-level routes through the USA.”
The aircraft’s direction finding equipment picked up Matrosova’s 406-MHz signal personal locator beacon, but the 100-knot winds and signal propagation made pinning down a location difficult. Between the personal beacon in Matrosova’s backpack and the extreme conditions, several false coordinate locations added to the search’s complexity.
As a blizzard ravaged the Presidential Range, the CAP members used a software app on an iPad to record their tracks over the search area with a high degree of precision.
“I was glad to have the opportunity to put all our training to use to save a life,” said Determann, the New Hampshire Wing's director of operations. “Unfortunately, I knew from the extreme conditions that day, it would be a difficult search and even more difficult for someone to survive in the mountains with those temperatures and winds.”
Neff, the mission scanner, agreed. Moran had called him and told him to be ready to go on a search the next day.
“I didn’t sleep much that night; my thoughts were of some poor soul exposed to the fury of the White Mountains on this particular night,” recalled Neff, an emergency services officer who has participated in CAP’s aerial photography program since 2006. “Through the clarity of the pictures, it was obvious that at ground level there was an absolute blizzard occurring, with clouds of billowing snow blowing horizontally.”
During the flight, Neff took a series of photos with the thought that if they couldn’t locate Matrosova from the air, the pictures could be scrutinized for anything amiss and help the ground search teams.
Tragically, for Kate Matrosova, the search teams were unable to locate her until it was too late.
For author Ty Gagne, Matrosova’s story gave him a deeper appreciation of rescue personnel and the commitment required to perform search and rescue.
“I didn’t know much about Civil Air Patrol,” Gagne said. “I have a lot of respect for Civil Air Patrol and what they do. I’m grateful for their support and sharing their story with me. I hope that after reading the book, people will gain a greater sense of empathy. We’re all susceptible to making decisions that lead to unexpected outcomes.”