Getting back to the mountains after fatal accidents

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  • #43266

    Not sure whether this is the right place for this question – and so apologies if it would be better elsewhere. It’s partly a question about injury and recovery (but of the mental not the physical type), and partly one about risk and mental approach to climbing – but all in the context of mountaineering.

    Within a six week period last year I lost eight friends and my husband in mountaineering accidents (2 incidents, in the Himalaya and Alps). I thought I was getting over it and was ready to start climbing seriously again, but recently I’ve realised I haven’t even started to process this. I have a general question about any recommended resources for dealing with this sort of ‘mental mountaineering injury’, but also a specific one of whether there are any networks out there for mountaineers who have lost people to the mountains. I’m hardly the first person this has happened to.

    Thanks very much for any thoughts.

Posted In: Mountaineering

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    Anonymous on #43272


    Thanks for writing in with your question. That’s a huge burden that you are carrying. I’ve not heard of networks like you are seeking but you’re right that there is probably a need for such a thing. Perhaps forming such resource might be a way for you to focus some of your grief in a positive way. I’ll talk with Steve about how we might support an effort like that by promoting it on our site.

    Death is the unhappy cousin to all the joy that the mountains bring. Most of us have had close brushes with death and lost friends in the mountains. In my personal experience, while you will recover from the mental trauma, you will carry those scars with you. They’ll impact mainly your risk tolerance in the future. But they may affect your joy too. Our mortality comes sharply into focus after these events.

    Don’t force things. Take baby steps back into that world. You do not need more trauma even if it is just a self imposed irrational fear that you would not have experienced prior to your loss. You need to seek the joy of moving through the mountains without the fear and anxiety you have been experiencing. Maybe you will start with simple mountain hikes/runs. There are other ways to get the benefits of the mountains without venturing into steep alpine terrain.

    I wish you luck and I hope others on this forum will chime in with their thoughts.


    lucye on #43274


    My heart goes out to you. Others here undoubtedly will know more, but these articles below describe a growing movement to acknowledge the terrible trauma that many like you carry and profile the mental health pioneers who are exploring avenues for therapy.

    I hope you find peace and strength in your journey.


    Survivor’s Guilt in the Mountains

    Alpinists are intimately familiar with death and grief. A therapist thinks he can address the unique needs of these élite athletes. (focus on Conrad Anker)

    Backcountry Magazine v. 133: THE BOUNDLESS ISSUE – OUT OF THE WOODS


    Trauma isn’t just physical—a broken bone, a severe laceration. It cuts deeper. In the mountains, where there’s a fine line between taking risks and suffering consequences, we’re often exposed to the types of scenarios that can cause emotional harm, which can manifest in post-traumatic stress and mental health struggles. But in a mountain culture that prizes toughness and expertise, it can be difficult to break the silence surrounding emotional trauma. Now, however, industry leaders are beginning to speak up about their own experiences facing issues with mental health and are working hard to end the stigma.

    Anonymous on #43283

    Hi Kate,

    I was going to link the article above, but lucye beat me to it! I don’t know if it will help, but it was certainly thought-provoking.

    I don’t know how to process the loss you describe. All I can offer is a moment of reflection, and a long, distant, across oceans and continents moment of compassion and empathy for the pain you must feel.

    I was once involved in a traumatic cycling accident where one of my friends was killed and several others were badly injured. That was a life-changing event, and my experience guides the suggestions below.

    People to talk to
    I’ve told the story of that accident many times over the years, to friends, therapists, doctors, and so on, but the person who I most connected to was an intake nurse when I first visited the hospital. She just sat there, and listened to my story, and offered what I senses was true compassion and feeling (as well as a hug!). Finding people like that that you can share your experience with, and, most important, feel a genuine human connection to, is really important.

    Tribute and transformation
    I really like what Scott wrote about getting back to the mountains slowly. Eventually, when and if you’re ever ready, you might consider going to some of the places where these accidents occurred, not necessarily into high alpine terrain, but simply to be there, absorb the feeling of the place, and try to aid your progress and transformation.

    Rick Ridgeway wrote a relevant book, Below Another Sky, about traveling back to the Himalaya, many years after a fatal avalanche, to find and pay tribute to the body of a friend who died, accompanied by the deceased daughter. It’s a moving book, and, perhaps, you might find some meaning therein.

    Good luck on your path.


    Thomas Summer, MD on #43284

    Hi Kate!

    The mountains give us so much, but they can take away everything.
    2 years ago I saw my brother fall to his death. At first, I thought I could handle it well, and process it in a good way. But half a year afterward I had to realize that it’s much harder to deal with such a loss than it seemed at first. There are so many different feelings involved. Also feelings and thoughts you probably don’t want to talk about with family or friends. At least that’s true for me. So I got professional help and a good therapist. This has helped me a lot. It’s good to talk to someone who doesn’t judge you or tries to protect you. Getting help from a psychotherapist was a very important step for me. Maybe it’s also something for you? Every loss is unique and you have to find your own way. But it helps to have someone to point to the right direction.

    alles Gute!

    Thomas Summer, MD on #43285

    …I just realized that I’m wearing one of my brother’s t-shirts today. “Skateboarding is my therapy” is written on it;-)

    katejarmstrong on #43308

    Scott, Lucy, Bruno, Thomas,

    Thank you all so very much. It would be incredible if this site could host such a group. I shall read through those articles. I am seeing a therapist, though she doesn’t know anything at all about mountains, which means that all the questions about mountain risk management that are coming up for me are not questions she can engage with.

    Bruno and Thomas – thank you very much for sharing your experiences. My sense is we don’t talk about these things enough, and it’s easy as a result to feel alone.

    One benefit of the lockdown has been no access to rock or high terrain, so I’m hiking and running but not doing anything more serious. The timing of it is in that sense good for me. I am driven to get back to ‘real’ mountains, but some enforced time away enjoying hills may be exactly what I need.


    Jared Casper on #43329

    I’m so sorry for your losses. You might be interested in listening to Episode 34 of the Sharp End Podcast. That episode description links to the AAC’s Grief Fund page that has links to more resources that might be useful. Best of luck!

    DominicProvost on #43352

    The American Alpine Club has the climbing grief fund, it might be worth having a look at that.

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