In the year since her husband’s death, Samantha Ramsay had found that the top of a mountain brought solace, offering peace to the 41-year-old mother of two.
In a December Facebook post, she wrote that her 9-year-old son, Reidar, had told her, “Mom, I know why you love mountains so much ... Because mountains are your playground.”
Ramsay had prepared to conquer the Swiss side of the Matterhorn without a guide, describing it as one of her “biggest challenges” in a conversation with her sister, Sarah Lilyquist. But on July 30, five days shy of the first anniversary of the death of her husband, former Seattle Mariners pitcher Rob Ramsay, she was struck by lightning and killed near the summit of the iconic mountain.
Samantha Ramsay died instantly, her family has been told, after a thunderstorm quickly formed over the face of the 14,692-foot mountain. Details are sparse, but the Local, Switzerland’s news in English, reports that although her climbing companion sounded an alarm in the afternoon, rescue workers were unable to reach them for six hours. Ramsay was dead; her companion, a 40-year-old man, was taken to a hospital in Visp, about 120 miles from the mountain. Valais police said he is expected to recover; he has since been released.
Experts who conquer mountains for a living say this has been an unusual year, with summer storms arriving earlier than ever, sometimes, they say, as early as 7 a.m. Ramsay, an experienced climber, was no dilettante. “She was very goal-oriented,” Lilyquist said in a phone interview from Idaho, “and she loved adventure; she had a true passion for it. She loved the mountains – that was where she could get into a flow.”
The death of Ramsay, who was an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Idaho’s Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences since 2010, stunned her friends and colleagues.
SeAnne Safaii-Waite, a friend at the University of Idaho, described her as “extremely spiritual” and more determined to continue with her outdoor adventures after the death of her husband from complications related to brain cancer. “I would say that she was more intense after that,” Safaii-Waite said in a phone interview. “(Being active) was like a lifeline and a way of feeling alive, too. She would always run (in races) for Rob and climb for Rob. It was just part of her spirituality.”
Ramsay had traveled to Taipei this spring, led students on a school trip to Ghana, hiked in Oregon’s Three Sisters and climbed Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro in June. Last year, she and her oldest son, Ryan, now 12, climbed Machu Picchu, which her sister said was “one of her favorite climbs.” According to her Facebook page, she brought her two boys to Washington, D.C., just before heading to the Swiss Alps. “I will never meet anybody more active than Samantha Ramsay,” Shawn O’Neal, a family friend, told KREM. “She talked about going to Switzerland or Mexico or South America like some of us talk about going to Yakima or going to Spokane or something, that’s just who she is.”
Ramsay was acutely aware that a single parent’s love of daring adventure could leave children vulnerable. “We had talked on Friday,” Safaii-Waite said, “and I reminded her to be careful. ‘You’re all the family the boys have.’ And she said she had backup plans, that that was all taken care of. She said her [other] sister and her husband would care for the boys.”
Although what happened on the mountain is not exactly known, Jonathan Spitzer, a guide who is licensed by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations and the Alps program director for Alpine Ascents International, who plans to lead climbers up and down the Matterhorn this summer, says the weather has been unpredictable. “This summer has seen unusual weather patterns in the southwestern Alps,” he said by phone from Zermatt, Switzerland. “We’ve seen thunderstorms building much faster and more severe than usual.”
That means that “we leave very early – at 4 a.m. – and we hope to be back down by 4 (p.m.) at the latest,” he said. “You have to be aware and if we see a vertical lift in the clouds, we descend.”
Ascending the mountain takes four or so hours; descending can take about an hour longer. Ramsay and the companion were about 100 feet or so from the summit, Safaii-Waite believes, when the storm struck. Spitzer stresses that it’s likely that they did nothing wrong or were the victims of inexperience. “There’s always a chance of lightning,” he said. “I was caught in South Africa and was able to rappel to a crevice. On the Matterhorn, there’s no place to shelter down.”
Jayson Simons-Jones, also an IFMGA-licensed guide and the Alps director for the Colorado Mountain School, returned to Colorado last week from Europe to train another Matterhorn climber and described this summer in the Alps as “really odd,” defying the ability of weather forecasters to predict with confidence.
Even an experienced guide can get caught, as Simons-Jones found out firsthand on a climb. “It terrified me,” he said. “We didn’t hear thunder, but I heard my gear buzzing and I looked at my climbing partner and his hair was standing on end. And he said mine was, too. We were in the electrical cloud and we both thought we were going to be (struck). There was a feeling of helplessness and I thought, ‘The only thing that’s going to get me out of this alive is luck.’ “
Ramsay’s body is not expected to be returned to the U.S. until late this week at the earliest. Her sons are “surrounded by family and love and are doing the best they can,” Lilyquist said. They will live with Sydne, the sister of Samantha and Sarah, and know her well from the time she lived with the Ramsays during Rob’s illness. A GoFundMe account has been set up for them.
“We join the Vandal family in mourning the loss of Dr. Samantha Ramsay. Our thoughts are with her family, friends, students and colleagues.
– University of Idaho (@uidaho) August 1, 2017”
Safaii-Waite described Rob Ramsay as “a sweetheart.” A seventh-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox, the Vancouver, Washington, native was later traded to the Mariners, with whom he made 43 appearances over 1999 and 2000. During the 2001-02 offseason, doctors discovered the lethargy and headaches he had been experiencing had a cause: glioblastoma multiforme. Although he tried to pitch in the minors in 2003, MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince wrote that “he never truly escaped the effects of two craniotomies, chemotherapy and radiation.” He decided to become a high school teacher and coach, and then a stay-at-home dad, as he dealt with the progression of the disease.
At the time of Samantha Ramsay’s death, she and Sydne were training with friends to run in her husband’s memory in the 200-mile Providence Hood to Coast race later this month, plans that have since been shelved. “Right now,” Lilyquist said, “it’s just too painful.”
They will pick it up again next year, when she, Sydne and friends will enter the race, switching the theme from “Run for Rob” to “Run for Ryan and Reidar” and perhaps finding their own kind of peace.
“She was an incredible athlete and was strong in every way,” Lilyquist said. “She was just sunshine.”
She laughed a little after calling her sister “sunshine” but then added that it was the most accurate description of Samantha’s ethereal energy.
“I’ve been trying to think of the words to describe my sister,” she said. “I almost feel like I need a new adjective to describe her.”