BOOK REVIEW: Where You'll Find Me (Ty Gagne)
In Where You'll Find Me, author Ty Gagne manages to tie a myriad of vantage points together into a single, cohesive and deeply compelling narrative detailing the last climb of Kate Matrosova, a highly skilled and motivated recreational climber who died during a 2015 attempted winter traverse of the highest four peaks of the New Hampshire Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains. Part biography, part management primer, part rescue mission reporting, Gagne brings readers a wealth of information with both the style of an investigative journalist and deep knowledge of a risk management expert.
In many ways, Gagne's attempt to tell this story is a case in risk management itself; with so many perspectives and story lines demanding attention and competing for precious page space, this book could have gone off the literary rails quickly but Gagne deftly brings home the goods in fine form, carefully crafting a gripping and tightly formed account of how one hiker's bold attempt serves as a cautionary tale for everyone striving for any objective in their personal or professional lives. While clearly serving as a partial homage to Matrosova and her adventurous, highly driven spirit, Where You'll Find Me also pulls no punches in critiquing the young woman's flawed approach to this fateful climb and her decision making during its execution. Gagne delves into considerable detail about her failings and shortcomings both prior and during what would end up being her final ascent. Along the way, however, Gagne methodically dismisses any simplistic notion one may have of Matrosova suffering from a simple case of hubris, outlining the steps in the decision process and the various conditions which can cloud anyone's "situational awareness" and ultimately, their choices. Should I go left or should I go right? This question is invariably asked by everyone at some point in life more than once. For Matrosova, this decision becomes a literal crossroad where the correctness of her choice will mean life or death, and Gagne provides evidence as to why this decision was not as simple as one safely on ground level might assume.
Where You'll Find Me shifts slowly from personal biography and part time management case study midway through, giving way to a stirring play by play account of a harrowing rescue attempt carried out by various state and local personnel who are tasked with going after Matrosova in the unforgiving cold and winds atop the most rigorous mountain terrain in New Hampshire. The actions of these rescuers deserve the spotlight Gagne offers them during the latter half of the book and he mindfully gives them their due without devolving into simple hero worship, highlighting the challenges inherent in a rescue in such harsh conditions while underscoring the growing futility of their honorable mission. Hardened, experienced rescuers all, yet each wrestled with his own fears and hurdles prior to the mission to rescue (and later recover) Matrosova. Gagne deflates the popular "bat signal" myth surrounding most people's perceptions of getting rescued up on high. It is neither quick nor safe for those coming to the aid of marooned hikers. They take significant and often formidable risks attempting to save people who can't save themselves. Gagne intricately details the steps team members take in preparing for these rescue missions. The attempt to save Matrosova was especially arduous and carried out in the worst weather many of these team members had ever experienced. Gagne's book could be useful just as a rescue narrative alone but all told, his work takes on a much deeper level of meaning than merely retracing a mission to get to a lost hiker.
Gagne's narrative is appropriately technical yet consistently accessible, requiring very little knowledge of mountaineering or climbing on the part of the reader, allowing for the most important themes of the story to resonate long after the last page is read. Gagne succeeds in parlaying Matrosova's story into an authentic homage to her life while creating a highly engaging professional risk management guidebook of sorts, never sacrificing the story's human element for the sake of relaying simple or gratuitous "war story" details. The narrative Gagne weaves througout Where You'll Find Me basks in honorable humility while remaining wholly objective when examining Matrosova's doomed journey and its various steps and decisions which got her to that fateful point. The same approach holds true of the author's take on the rescue/recovery operation, as Gagne conveys the wide spectrum of human emotion, even frailty, underlying any mission of this magnitude. Matrosova was in a critical, eventually fatal, situation and those choosing to take on getting her out were also putting themselves at tremendous, even deadly, risk. Gagne never allows the reader to forget this important detail, making his story just as much about the responders as it is about Matrosova herself.
In less knowledgeable, superficial hands, Where You'll Find Me could have become a work shackled by one of two extremes--either a story which relied too much on creating unearned sympathy for the main subject (or subjects if one includes the responders) or becoming a technical, "how to" guide on search and rescue that glosses over the humanity required to understand why a force of nature such as Matrosova could make the decisions she did which resulted in her death.
Thankfully, Gagne splits the difference in fine fashion, straddling both worlds with compelling expertise, an approach illustrated best in the Epilogue ("Emotion and Reason"), a section which details a climb Gagne and a partner made nearly a year to the date of Matrosova's death. They hiked nearly the same route (minus a Mt. Madison summit) and took into account the same junctures Matrosova would have encountered, heading up to the Madison Hut, gazing at the Adams peak in the distance, heading up the fateful trail by Star Lake and attempting to imagine the world Matrosova might have been seeing on that fateful day. Of course, Gagne notes, this is impossible. They were not facing the constant pounding winds like she did. They were not alone like she was. They had the benefit of reflection and experience in the Presidentials, something Matrosova was lacking when she attempted her traverse, regardless of her experience in other locations. Gagne wisely pushes aside much of that technical hand wringing for a much more human, intimate reflection. Matrosova met her fate that day because she fell victim to shortcomings any one of us could have if faced with the same situation. She was much more driven than most people, a trait which brought her much success in her life. This drive also pushed her to make ill advised decisions in a situation which could have turned out much differently had those decisions been reversed or the conditions predicating her plan remained constant. But this didn't happen. In his own reflection of Matrosova's final hours and through his own hiking homage to her memory up Adams' challenging winter slopes, Gagne allows the reader to also say goodbye to Matrosova while pondering his or her own mortality and shortcomings, ending the story with perhaps the book's most powerful and lasting gift.
Ty Gagne is the Chief Executive Officer of Primex, a New Hampshire-based risk management company. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife. Where You'll Find Me is available on Amazon and is published by TMC Books (Conway, NH).