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Dealing with Death in the Mountains

Last week, three of the world’s best climbers died in an avalanche on Howse Peak on the Icefields Parkway. It sent shockwaves through the outdoor industry and the world of climbing grieved with a collective sigh. Social media lit up with condolences from around the world for Austrians David Lama and Hansjorg Auer and American Jess Roskelley.

Howse Peak, a mountain reserved for those climbers “in the know” was suddenly the focus of media outlets around the world. Three young climbers at the prime of their lives, dead. What the hell happened?

How do we deal with death in the mountains and continue to justify returning to those ridges, walls and slopes engulfed in objective hazards? How do we answer friends and family when they ask why we go there? I once thought I knew, but now I don’t. My angsty don’t-care-about-the-risk 20s is long behind me and my 30s are nearly wrapped up.

My stoke for throwing myself into deadly areas has long faded, but I understand those who’s fire burns to attempt what’s never been done. Talking to Lama, Auer and Roskelley in the days leading up to their accident gave me relief that there are those few climbers out there still willing to risk it, push it and ultimately live or die doing it. But how do we deal when it’s the later?

I don’t know how other folks deal with it and to be honest, I don’t even know if I deal with it. I lost count of the number of friends and acquaintances I’ve lost to the mountains over the years. I’ve lost count of the number of times I got a phone call or text message that someone is missing, there was an avalanche or someone fell from the side of mountain.

I’ve lost count of the wakes and remembrances, but from time to time, glimpses of times past with those who’ve died drift through my mind. It’s usually when I’m alone, often after a long period of exertion when my body and mind are tired. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t collapsed in a temper tantrum of tears and anger. For some reason, I reserve those moments for when I’m completely alone. Often on a mountain. After a few minutes of wailing and wondering, I come to, wipe the snot from my upper lip and continue on my way.

I don’t know if that’s dealing with death in the mountains or not. When climbers die, I find the community rallies and the support for each other is greater than the grief. If that makes sense.

We all know mountains are dangerous and complex, but we’ll continue to justify being out there, even if it’s just to use them to deal with the lives they’ve taken. As Reinhold Messner said, “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.”