Love and Loss within the Mountains



Don’t misunderstand: no wisdom, however steep its price, can prepare you for losing the person you planned to spend your life with. In the year since her death, the grief has hit Campbell in waves, receding one minute, overwhelming him the next. A few days after the accident, while walking over a railroad trestle, he looked down and thought how easy it would be to tip over the side, the water below it cold and embracing. But he didn’t. He thought about other people. He thought about the pain it would cause them.

If he learned one thing through all this, it’s that friends and family are a gift—their profound grace, and the solace that can be found in them. “The biggest thing for me is allowing myself to be open with others, to share what I’m going through and let them try to help,” he says. They call. They check in. People want to be there if you’ll let them. Campbell calls now, too, which he never would have done before. He leans on those he loves. He’s honest.

The changes Campbell underwent while dealing with his grief represent a shift in awareness that’s growing in the outdoor world. Mountain towns, and the risk-takers who populate them, long responded to loss with a hardman approach—­stoically, on their own, perhaps with a whiskey or three while seated at the end of the bar. Survivors of deadly events would often feel isolated. And even the caring communities where they lived didn’t know how to reach them. Hjertaas says he knows longtime ski patrollers who have seen so much tragedy that they can no longer even respond to accidents.

But that reaction is changing. Maria Coffey’s 2003 book Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow is about people left behind after such deaths, and it helped open the conversation. So, too, has acceptance of the truth that grief is not weakness, nor is it necessarily a plea for help. Tim Tate, a psychotherapist in Bozeman, Montana, began seeing mountain athletes in 2018 and now works with members of the North Face team, who sometimes visit him in person for intensive four-day sessions. Last year the American Alpine Club started the Climbing Grief Fund, which includes small grants for climbers in need of counseling services. The fund had ten applications in its first 24 hours.

Now, as he lay in a hospital bed in the small hours, too battered to sleep, he saw through the long lie that he was totally self-sufficient. “It broke that shell that I put around myself,” he says.

Late last year, Campbell began helping out with a new group called Mountain Musk Ox, the brainchild of a few Canmore residents, including Janet McLeod, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma treatment, and mountaineer Barry Blanchard, who has lost several friends and clients in the mountains over his storied career. (The group’s name refers to the tough-as-nails musk ox and its instinct to encircle vulnerable members of the group when threatened.)

The program is a series of group sessions for men and women who have experienced gutting loss in hard circumstances—it’s a chance to talk openly about their trials and to work through them. Hjertaas is involved, too; he told me that people keep contacting him, saying they wish the program existed when they went through hell. In time, organizers hope to expand to other mountain communities.

There is no road map to a quick exit from grief, though. Others can help—can be there to hold up a lantern in the limitless dark—but in the end, each must find their own way out. “You have to be really, really gentle on yourself,” Campbell says. “Ultimately, the person you were before the accident kind of dies along with your partner, because you’re just so deeply changed by it. And you have to accept that and learn what your new life is like.

“You have to be reborn.”

Campbell isn’t angry at the mountains. He doesn’t hold them responsible. He quotes Reinhold Messner: “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.”

Last summer, Campbell returned to the site of the accident. When he located his wife’s ski in a creek, he fell to his knees. But the mountainside was not windswept and cold. It was alive with bouquets of wildflowers and the thrum of running water. “I ultimately find my comfort and joy in nature,” he says. He has been among high peaks, skiing or climbing, almost every day since. His priorities have changed, though. Time outdoors is no longer about big goals. In part, this is because his body is no longer the same. But neither is his mind. He simply relishes being outside with others in a way he didn’t fully appreciate before. “The conversations I have with people out in nature are some of the best conversations I have. They’re the most honest and raw,” he says. “I find that that is where people are their genuine selves.”

One day over the winter, Camp­bell shared a story online about kintsugi, the centuries-old Japanese art in which cherished items that have been chipped or broken, such as a vase or a teakettle, are mended with a lacquer that includes gold dust. The result highlights the fissures that have been repaired. The analogy appealed to him.

“It treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object,” he wrote, “something to celebrate.” Those breaks help define us, and they give us a hard-won beauty. When we show them, and the ways we’ve healed and grown stronger, he says, we know where one another are coming from, what we’ve all been through. And our community is healthier for it.

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