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Coping With Tragedy and Death in the Mountains

"Just as every individual will experience trauma differently in the moment, how we process the pain and grief afterwards is also a uniquely individual journey"

Photo by: John Scurlock

Snow buried me to my neck in an avalanche once.

I was backcountry skiing at a fly-in lodge, following a guide with ten other skiers, skinning uphill in snowy, flat-light weather. Up ahead, the guide stopped, made a kick turn to reverse direction, and continued uphill until he was directly above me.


I felt the snowpack jerk under my skis. I’d felt whumphs before, so I waited, expecting the slope to settle.

It didn’t settle. It began moving. And it carried me with it. I swam. The force knocked back in a sitting position and the snow pushed me downhill with me waving my arms the entire time.

“Keep it off my face. Keep it off my face.” I recited the words like a mantra.

When the world stopped moving, I was buried up to my neck in snow. My left arm was under the snow, my right arm was free. I had kept the snow off my face.

My first reaction was disbelief.

“What the fuck are we doing here?” I was at the bottom of a shallow, treeless bowl. I felt angry. Why were we skinning up a slope that could avalanche when we knew the avalanche hazard was rated HIGH? Why had the guide led us there?

The avalanche was small, barely size two. But big enough to bury four people, including me. One man was completely buried for more than 15 minutes, his face blue when he was dug up. Another skier gave him mouth to mouth. He lived. Nobody went to hospital.

I was the only guest at the lodge who didn’t ski the next day. I wrote 23 pages in my journal, carefully recording details about decisions I’d been witness to and my discomfort with various events that day. I did ski the other days afterward for what was the longest, least enjoyable ski week of my life.

From the moment the event happened, I knew I had a choice to make – whether to write publicly about my experience, or not. I’d been invited to the lodge to write about skiing there. I acknowledged what the consequences would be if I did. It could certainly get me a lot of attention as a writer. Front pages.

But to what end? Such an article would cause pain for not only the professional guides and lodge owner, but their families too. Children. Partners. Employees. The other skiers’ families. What would be gained? Was a crime committed? Was the guide’s error deliberate? Or did he simply make a mistake in the mountains?

And for me, personally, was this event I just happened to experience something I wanted to be known and remembered for? Did I want that moment to define my life?

Absolutely not.

But I had a choice. Because no-one died, there were no TV cameras. No media scrums with reporters unfamiliar to mountain life trying to file stories by deadline. I sought out experienced mountain people who listened to my story, answered my questions. I shared my concerns with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. As the months progressed, my need to share my story diminished with the winter snowpack. Sixteen years of backcountry adventures later, that day serves as a reminder to be vigilant in the mountains. Accidents happen when you least expect them.

One thing I learned from my experience, was that none of the other skiers interpreted the events of that day the same way I did. Of course not. Everybody was there with their own unique collection of mountain experiences. We didn’t just remember the day differently, we each lived it differently.

So, it is with everyone’s stories.

Last November’s Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival featured several powerful, insightful and heart-touching films sharing stories of men and women who have suffered after traumatic events in the mountains. In Sonder, Jay Macmillan retraces his parents’ footsteps to Nepal’s Langtang Valley where their lives ended in the 2015 earthquake, exploring his relationships with his parents and brother, and honouring his own trauma along the way.

In the film Torn, Max Lowe invites viewers into his deeply personal experience growing up after his world-renowned father, Alex, died in an avalanche on Shishapangma. Ten years old at the time, Max holds memories of his father while his younger brothers barely do. Their mother, Jennifer, married Alex’s best friend, Conrad Anker who escaped that same avalanche. Through granting Max, the space to make his film – in which we learn he didn’t quickly warm to having Conrad as his new father – the family sets a bold and loving example of how we can choose to live after experiencing deep trauma.

Just as every individual will experience trauma differently in the moment, how we process the pain and grief afterwards is also a uniquely individual journey. Denial, anger, guilt, depression – all are common emotional responses. Some people become stuck in anger and harbour an insatiable need to assign blame. Or unquenchable demands for answers. Of course, anger only begets more pain. In our own suffering, we must respect how our actions might harm others who are also suffering. Professional counselling can provide excellent guidance to navigate painful times.

In that vein, the film Not Alone shares a thoughtful, raw and insightful view into the experience of ACMG alpine guide and world-class ice climber Sarah Hueniken, and her struggles since the day her close friend, Sonja Johnson Findlater died in avalanche while participating in a woman’s ice climbing camp Hueniken was running.

Naturally, everyone there – camp participants and guides – experienced the accident differently. In Not Alone Hueniken shares her perspective – feeling of responsibility, loss, guilt, and darkness that has, at times, brought suicidal thoughts. The film is intensely personal, but in being so, it provides a safe space for people to speak openly about the darkest imaginable moments. Not Alone introduces viewers to the Mountain Muskox program (mountainmuskox.com), which, inspired by the defensive circle of muskoxen, creates a place of healing safety, connection and support. Is there a better way to welcome in the light?

Climbing, mountaineering, backcountry skiing, all are activities that fill our hearts and souls with joy. Accidents have always happened in the mountains though, and despite our best efforts, they always will.

Perhaps respected alpinist Steve Swensen summed it up best during his Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival live interview with Geoff Powter.

“We’re not in charge on these mountains,” Swensen said. “We all make mistakes. Anything that happened to any my friends could have happened to me.”

Sometimes in life, and especially in the mountains, there simply are no answers. But our response must always be kindness and loving support.

Lynn Martel is a mountain writer and climber who has called the Canadian Rockies home for more than 30 years. Read more stories of the Columbia Icefield and how glaciers are part of Canadians’ lives in her book, Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce and Creativity on Canada’s Glaciers. Martel is a regular contributor to Gripped, be sure to follow her on Instagram below.

Lead photo: John Scurlock