The Trader In the Wild

Kate Matrosova was a classic overachiever and, at 32, had everything to live for. Still she set out alone into the mountains of New Hampshire—and a deadly storm.

On the best of days, it would have been an epic hike—a 16-mile, dawn-to-dusk solo traverse across New Hampshire’s highest peaks. On the worst, it was something still difficult to fathom: another heartbreaking entry in the ledger of a range whose cordial slopes and modest elevations belie its savage weather.

The White Mountains forecast for Feb. 15, 2015, called for a high of -20F. Shifting winds from the north starting at 45 to 60 mph and rising midmorning to 80 to 100 mph, with gusts up to 125 mph. Wind chills as low as -75F. But once Kate Matrosova set a goal, she wasn’t easily deterred. At 32, she had boundless energy and a brilliant mind; she spoke three languages and built a stellar career in finance and banking largely on her talent for analyzing risk. She was fit and strong and confident in her ability to move fast. In New York she had been training every day by running up 42 flights of stairs with a pack containing a 20-pound barbell and two 20-pound sacks of kitty litter. When she lived in Florida, she’d won judo matches against male opponents who outweighed her by almost 100 pounds, and was on the brink of a black belt. She was also, perhaps, willful to a fault: Locked in a chokehold, she would as soon pass out as tap the mat to signal she’d had enough.

Her passion for mountains and wild places was kindled four years ago on an ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In 2012 she’d climbed Mt. Elbrus, the 18,510-foot high point of Europe. A year later she took an ­International Mountain Guides course on Mt. Rainier and learned crampon techniques and how to build snow caves and snow anchors. Last year she scaled 20,321-ft. Denali in Alaska and 22,841-ft. Aconcagua in Argentina, the apexes of North and South America. She set her sights on Everest and the rest of the Seven Summits, the high points of each continent; she aspired to be the first woman to climb Denali in the winter.

Matrosova’s new avocation would require considerable investments of money and time—savings to pay for expeditions and months not only to train but to travel to far places, acclimatize, wait out bad weather, and endure the sundry hardships all alpinists endure in pursuit of some transcendent happiness. In the meantime, each morning she climbed into a business suit and hiked through the din and fumes of Midtown Manhattan to the Equitable Tower off Seventh Avenue, where she worked as a credit derivatives trader in the North American headquarters of BNP Paribas, the world’s fourth-largest bank. It was rewarding work, but she also saw the job as a means to an end. At one time she had an illustration of the Seven Summits above her desk and a picture of her climb on Aconcagua as a screen saver on her laptop.

This past Valentine’s Day, Matrosova and her husband, Charlie Farhoodi, escaped Manhattan for a room at the Royalty Inn in Gorham, N.H. At 5 a.m. the next morning, Sunday, Feb. 15, Farhoodi pulled their rental car into a parking lot off Route 2 where the well-traveled Valley Way Trail begins. It seemed fitting to Matrosova that on Presidents Day weekend she should not only be training for Everest but celebrating her ­impending American citizenship with the so-called Presidential Traverse across the summits of Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Washington.

Near Mt. Elbrus base camp, August 2012

Courtesy Charlie Farhoodi

A month earlier she and Farhoodi had hiked up the same trail. They climbed Madison and camped overnight near the boarded-up Madison Spring Hut. The weather was fine by Mt. Washington standards: 12F on the summit with winds averaging 54 miles per hour. The next day Matrosova wanted to tackle Adams, about an hour’s hike and more than 400 feet higher than Madison, but Farhoodi was ready to go down. They’d been sweating in insulated down suits and laboring under a load of gear packed for every contingency. Whenever she coaxed Charlie into doing something, she was always careful to look after him. They turned back.

On other occasions, she’d helped him accomplish more than he expected to. Despite his fear of heights, she’d gotten him to go sky-diving. On ­Kilimanjaro, when ­everyone else was using porters, she convinced him that they should carry their own equipment because it would be more of a challenge. It was characteristic of her that she’d also learned a lot of Swahili before that trip to Africa, and had brought a suitcase of toys and games for a Maasai school. There was nothing hedged or ungenerous about Kate. She caught people up in her ­enthusiasms.

“It was a wonderful thing to be pulled along in her wake,” Farhoodi says.

Now in the predawn dark of a February morning, she was setting out again, this time alone; they had discussed Farhoodi going with her but both knew he would only slow her down. She was carrying food and water. Even without her down suit she was well equipped for a frigid trek above the tree line: a good winter jacket, ­insulated pants, a balaclava, goggles, gaiters, crampons, poles, the La Sportiva Spantik double boots she had gotten on Rainier. She had her camera. They’d been unable to find a place to buy a selfie-stick, but Farhoodi had rigged one with some tape and a coat hanger. She had a satellite phone and a GPS device that would record her movements. And she had a gizmo Farhoodi had bought and insisted she take even though she couldn’t imagine using it and thought it was a waste of money—an ACR ­ResQLink ­personal locator beacon (PLB), which Farhoodi had registered with the federal authorities that monitor all personal locator beacons in the U.S.

On a handwritten itinerary, Matrosova had ­detailed times that reflected her confidence that she could move rapidly. Intending to summit Madison by 8 a.m., she’d budgeted only three hours to cover the four miles and 4,000 feet between the trailhead and the top. She anticipated making the summit of Adams by 9 a.m.; Jefferson by 11 a.m.; Mt. Clay by 1 p.m.; and by 3 p.m., Washington, the 6,288-foot crest of the range. That would leave her just shy of three hours of daylight to descend the ­Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, which ends at the base station of the Mt. Washington cog railway. She’d shown Farhoodi the bailout routes she could take if she fell behind schedule.

They said goodbye. Matrosova switched on her headlamp and walked into the woods. Farhoodi had been planning to go skiing, but he found himself lingering in the parking lot, unable to drive away. Many times he’d watched his wife head out on some adventure. She was fearless; he loved her for that—from the beginning, he’d loved her for all the ways she wasn’t like him. And she had always come back.

Atop Russia’s Mt. Elbrus, August 2012

Courtesy Charlie Farhoodi

The spirit of adventure and zest for life that sent Ekaterina Matrosova up the Valley Way Trail into what would become in a matter of hours some of the most hellish weather seen in many winters on Mt. Washington, was the same impetus that propelled her to America, on her own, with little more than a suitcase.

The elder of two sisters, she grew up in a poor family in the midsize industrial city of Omsk in western Siberia. After the Soviet Union broke up, her parents opened a shop importing shoes from Moscow. Her father had been in the Red Army and had won medals for service at Chernobyl. At 12, Matrosova was saving money from a lemonade stand to pay for school supplies. She studied finance at the Omsk State Transport ­University, and in 2002, at 20, got a work-study visa to the U.S. She’d arranged a job at a restaurant in Montauk, N.Y., at the eastern tip of Long Island, where she fell in with Lily Kirejenkova, a Lithuanian work-study visitor. Later that summer they moved to Chicago together and found jobs in a nightclub. One rainy night at 2 a.m., when they were crowded into a one-bedroom apartment with four other people and it was too hot to sleep, Matrosova said, “Come on, let’s go dance in the rain!”

“She said it would be fun, and it was,” ­Kirejenkova recalls. “We danced in the rain in our pajamas and jumped in puddles like 5-year-olds. Kate was able to convince people to do things. She always gave all of herself to whatever she was doing. And she always knew what she wanted, she always had a goal in mind.”

“It was a wonderful thing to be pulled along in her wake”

After hiring a lawyer to extend her visa, she saved money working as a waitress and hostess. She took courses at a Chicago community college and then enrolled at DePaul University. She studied finance, marketing, and accounting and graduated magna cum laude in 2006. With her new degree, she landed a job at J.P. Morgan and went to New York for a six-week training program, where she met Farhoodi, a witty, prudent private wealth manager. They were both 24. They were billeted in corporate housing and in the evenings went out in big groups to bars along Bleecker Street. Kate, who was studying for her ­security industry Series 7 exam, asked Charlie if he wanted to study with her.

“She’d study and I’d stare at her, trying to make her laugh,” he says.

She was always taking pictures of what they did ­together, places they went, dinners they had, the speedboat trip they took down the Hudson past the Statue of Liberty. One late night toward the end of summer when they’d been talking for hours, they sat down on a stoop in Chelsea and somehow managed to fall asleep only to wake and find his wallet and her purse and camera had been stolen. “Oh no, they’re gone!” Matrosova cried. Farhoodi tried to console her—they could replace the wallets and the cell phone. “No,” she cried, “they’re gone. Our pictures are gone!” The pictures, not the purse or the phone, were what mattered to her. As he would explain to the mourners listening to his eulogy nine years later, that was the moment he fell in love with his wife.

Graduating with a master’s from Berkeley, March 2014

Courtesy Charlie Farhoodi

In 2008 she moved into his apartment in West Palm Beach, Fla. They were married a year later. ­Matrosova’s job helping manage the billion-dollar portfolio of S. Daniel Abraham, founder of Slim-Fast weight-loss products, left her time for long lunches. She resumed her kodokan judo practice. As part of her training she would bike 26 miles, round-trip, to the dojo in Hypoluxo.

“She was my ringer,” recalled her sensei, Hector Vega. “I would tell the tough guys, ‘Go defeat that girl,’ and Kate would thrash them. Once you met her, you would never forget her. Her endurance was incredible. She was really well conditioned. In the dojo now we say, ‘Let’s train like Kate.’ She would never surrender in a match. She never went halfway at anything. We used to talk about things in life as a judo match, how you have to prepare for possibilities.”

In 2012, restless for more stimulating work, ­Matrosova applied to the master’s program in financial engineering at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. She was accepted as one of 68 students. Before the program began, she had to take courses in stochastic calculus, statistics, and the C++ programming language. She also had to read some heavy texts, including the quant bible, Options, Futures, and Other Derivatives, by John Hull.

One of the first projects she worked on was writing derivative-pricing programs for GF Securities, a Chinese investment bank. Her teammate, Li Sun, who now works for Morgan Stanley, had been a Ph.D. physicist at Prince­ton with a thesis that made Options, Futures, and Other ­Derivatives seem as bubbly as chick lit: “Multidisciplinary ­Assessments of the Structure and Function of Co-enzyme B12-Dependent Enzyme Ethanolamine Ammonia-lyase.”

“She was an adventurer, but I don’t think she was a risk-seeker,” says Li. “She wanted to know different things, achieve different things, get to different places. It wasn’t about risk. It was about achievement.”

Matrosova helped Li write a program for an options-pricing application that’s still available on Apple’s App Store. She and some other classmates started a consulting company called Blue Mountain. In March 2014, she was part of the six-member Berkeley team that took third place (and first among Americans) in the prestigious Rotman International Trading Competition in Toronto.

“I’m afraid I’ll never find a student like her again,” says Linda Kreitzman, executive director of the program. “She had a prolific mind, and it wasn’t just for finance. It’s the immigrant story. You have to work so hard. She was born determined, and there was no hidden agenda. You see that quality in children. You loved her? Guess what, she loved you back. I know people say, ‘There she was quantifying risk in her profession. Why didn’t she quantify the risk in the mountains?’ But she is the only person I know who could try to do what she did. And I know she is not a person who would ever say, ‘Let me defy death.’”

A visit with the Maasai in Tanzania, August 2011

Courtesy Charlie Farhoodi

Sometime in the midmorning of Feb. 15, when she’d expected to be near the summit of Jefferson, she took a picture of herself at the Madison Spring Hut. She had pushed her goggles up and was smiling.

It’s the last picture in her camera.

What had delayed her? She was far behind schedule. Had she post-holed into soft snow and wrenched an ankle? Slipped on rocks and injured her knee? Had she lingered, weighing the risks heralded on the yellow U.S. Forest Service sign where the Valley Way Trail breaks out of the trees and onto the upper unsheltered reaches of the range? “STOP,” that sign cries. “The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there of exposure even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.”

“It wasn’t a bad day, but you could hear the wind ­beginning to build like a freight train bringing in the cold air,” says Mike Pelchat, manager of Mt. Washington State Park and a member of the Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue team that recovered Matrosova’s body. “The front came in really quickly, sooner than forecast. One thing people often don’t ­understand is that every 10 mile-per-hour gain in wind speed increases the force much more than 10 percent. When the winds are 80 or 90 or 100 miles an hour, you can’t walk or stay on your feet; you’re on your hands and knees waiting for a lull. You can’t lift your goggles up, the wind blows your arms behind you. If the temperature is 20 below and a zipper breaks or you drop a glove, you can get into trouble quickly. Hypothermia sneaks up on you, and you start making poor choices.”

By noon on Sunday, the temperature had dropped to -14F and winds had reached hurricane force, howling out of the north at 75 mph; by 1 p.m., 85 mph. The temperature was falling. By 3 p.m. it would be almost 21 below; by sunset, 30 below.

Back at the inn in Gorham, Farhoodi was growing ­increasingly concerned. He had no interest in the day of skiing he thought he might get in while his wife hiked. He checked the Mt. Washington webcam and signed up for the premium content views only to discover he couldn’t access them immediately.

At 3:30 his cell phone rang. It was an operator calling from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Fla., where personal locator beacon signals are relayed. ­Matrosova had ­activated the device she had scoffed at. Farhoodi knew she must be in desperate straits. He called 911. The state police dispatcher contacted conservation officers from the New Hampshire Fish and Game ­Department, who began ­coordinating a rescue attempt. ­Sergeant Mark Ober got a description from Farhoodi of Matrosova’s clothes, height, weight, level of fitness, and itinerary. He plugged the PLB data into mapping software on his laptop and called Rick Wilcox, an Everest summiter who for nearly 40 years has been president of the Mountain Rescue Service, a volunteer organization based in North Conway, N.H. By the light of ­headlamps, three conservation officers and a team of four ­organized by Wilcox set out in the dark aiming for a location well off the trail on the northwest side of Madison that had been indicated by a second signal from ­Matrosova’s locator beacon. A second Mountain Rescue Service team followed later in the evening.

Having activated her beacon at 3:30 p.m., it’s likely Matrosova didn’t have long to live and wouldn’t have been found alive even if the initial coordinates had been spot on. But the second ping was off the mark, perhaps affected by the angle of the antenna or the temperature, which had plunged well below the device’s -4F limit. While all of the coordinates recorded were within a mile of the Madison Spring Hut, the first wave of searchers went hunting for Matrosova on the wrong side of Madison, bushwhacking into the early morning hours on what proved to be a wild goose chase in chest-deep snow with temperatures dropping toward -35F. They returned to the parking lot at 3 a.m. with icicles on their eyebrows. The search resumed later that Monday morning.

Other pings from the PLB had placed Matrosova on the northern side of Adams in King Ravine near the Gulfside Trail she was planning to follow all the way to Washington. But a team that included Pelchat homed in on signals from the east that placed her in the col between Madison and Adams near the Star Lake Trail. The Star Lake Trail climbs along the eastern flank of a satellite peak, Mt. Quincy Adams, and then up to the summit of Adams. On the first pass they saw nothing. On the second, about 150 yards below the small frozen plain of Star Lake and some 150 feet off the Star Lake Trail, they found her. She was lying on her back, her leg caught in the stunted growth of balsam fir and spruce known as krummholz. Her pack, with the beacon inside, was about 15 feet down the hill. She was still wearing her gloves and goggles.

“It looked like a gust of wind had blown her off the trail and put her in that position,” Pelchat says.

Lieutenant Wayne Saunders called Farhoodi with the news that his wife’s body had been found. The cause of death: exposure.

“She wasn’t a silly girl playing at mountaineering”

The conservation officers examined the record of Matrosova’s GPS coordinates and passed on to Farhoodi their conclusion that Matrosova had climbed Mt. Adams—the mountain she wanted to scale the month before but hadn’t, yielding to Farhoodi’s desire to descend. After getting to the top of Adams, she seemed to be heading home, retracing her steps—but with one grave difference. On the way in, she’d had the wind at her back. On the way out, she was struggling against torrents of gelid air moving at hurricane speed. It was not a contest she could win.

“I know she checked the weather, she had to have,” says Olya Lapina, who recognized a kindred spirit when she met Matrosova at the Aconcagua base camp, in ­Argentina, in January 2014. “Maybe she didn’t see the storm coming. You don’t always know a storm is coming. I can’t imagine she didn’t check the weather. Maybe something happened. Maybe she fell and became unconscious. It’s really important to understand what she stood for and who she was. She wasn’t a silly girl playing at mountaineering. She was brave. There are people who push limits and boundaries. Kate had a power within her. Her climbing was leading up to what she would become. It was a way for her to ­understand and strengthen who she was. What happened to her is a tragedy and an accident.”

Farhoodi returned to New York with all of Matrosova’s mountain gear stashed in a garbage bag. A thousand little things pierced him. They had moved to the city only last fall, Farhoodi transferring to a job as a vice president in JPMorgan Chase’s New York headquarters; Matrosova was an associate in the fixed-income investment-grade credit trading group at BNP Paribas. Farhoodi gave away the tickets to the performance of Carmen they were supposed to see a week after her body was recovered. A letter arrived scheduling her citizenship exam for April 13 at 9:30 a.m. So much for that. For their cat, Carrot, he put out the kitty litter Matrosova had carried up staircases as part of her training regimen. He tried not to read accounts of her death, especially the cretinous comments calling her an arrogant blonde banker who deserved the Darwin Award for removing herself from the gene pool.

Prior to her ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro, August 2011

Courtesy Charlie Farhoodi

A month after her death, he organized a ­memorial service. His parents came from Dallas. Lapina, who last fall had climbed Manaslu, her first 8,000-meter peak, flew in from San Francisco; Vega came up from the dojo in Florida, and Kirejenkova from Chicago—Kirejenkova, the Russian speaker who had called Matrosova’s parents in Omsk with the crushing news.

More than a hundred people crowded into a room at the Harvard Club. Near the end of the service, when it was Farhoodi’s turn to speak, he told the story of his first night with Kate, when she invited him to her apartment for a sandwich at 2 a.m. and then, in typical fashion, suddenly asked whether he wanted to go ­rollerblading. “In general, or right now?” he had replied. Right now, of course. And then she was skating down the hall. “Her eyes were never bluer than when she was in the mountains,” he said with a catch in his throat. He was still lost for what to do with her ashes, musing only half-fancifully that perhaps he could find a way to scatter them on Everest.

His thoughts kept circling back to that last glimpse of her when he was in the car at the trailhead and she was stepping up a snowbank and into the defile of the Valley Way. “Every time I said goodbye to her, even if she was just going out on her bike with her headphones on, I would wonder if I would ever see her again, just because of who she was.”

He was not given to premonitions, and yet he’d ­lingered in the lot. Why? He thought perhaps she might turn around right away. It was hard not to wonder what he might have done or could have done or should have done. Could he have run after her, pulled her back from the adventure she was determined to have? Saved her from herself? So easy in retrospect to say, God yes. But who would she be—who would either of them be—if he kept her from being who she was? He watched her headlamp dip and flash in the darkness like an out-of-season firefly. He watched until the light was gone.