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The Aftermath of Mountain Tragedy

THE AFTERMATH OF
MOUNTAIN TRAGEDY

By Kevin Hjertaas, with Meghan J. Ward

We all know things can go wrong in the mountains. We prepare ourselves by taking courses, gearing up, and carrying our emergency beacons. But are we prepared for what comes after a trauma?  


Photo by Paul Zizka.

Editor’s Note: This article contains content regarding trauma and suicide. If you require support call Crisis Services Canada at 1.833.456.4566.

Launching bombs into the mountains to cause avalanches is a fun job, and I was lucky enough to do it with a great crew of people from 2010 to 2015. We worked hard and mostly enjoyed it. But, we were always acutely aware that things could go wrong. 

One co-worker would often tell us, when we were shooting targets near million-dollar chairlifts, for example, that if something went “horribly wrong” he would ski to the bottom, jump in his car and drive right to the airport. Next stop: Mexico and anonymity. It was meant to be funny and take the edge off of stressful situations like handling explosives or cutting avalanches. I don’t think it was ever meant to be a real plan.

But that Mexico idea looped through my suspended consciousness numerous times last winter when things were going wrong. I was skiing with two friends when one was buried deep in an avalanche. For over an hour, we tried to get her out, executing learned and more practical plans automatically: transceiver search, probe, shovel, SOS calls. It wasn’t easy in the moment, but years of training were keeping us on track and efficient, even while we were overwhelmed internally. 

An emergency response can be trained repetitively until it can be performed even under duress. We were unable to save her life, but we were closer than we would have been without those practiced responses. The plans helped, all except the Mexico one. Why was it coming up?

Looking back now, months later, it seems that my mind, even amidst the chaos, was jumping ahead to the next problem. It was running its list of tactics. It knew that even beyond the gut-wrenching scene, I needed a plan for when we returned to the valley. So, it grabbed for the first one it could find, maybe the only life plan I had for “if things go horribly wrong.”

FINDING A BETTER PLAN

If you follow mountain activities you have read plenty of obituaries, celebrations of life, or remembrances of people lost in the hills. An accident in the mountains usually means that people are taken from us in a swift manner; there is often no time to prepare or say goodbye. They set off in the morning and don’t come home. 

So, it’s a simple fact that if you choose to live a life in the mountains, you are likely to see tragedy at some point – perhaps at arm’s length, but one day it may hit closer. With that knowledge, it’s typical for people to prepare for what can go wrong. We take rescue courses, first-aid courses, avalanche courses. We carry emergency communications and specialized gear to deal with accidents. 

Mountain enthusiasts plan to deal with the worst-case scenarios that their activities present. But we rarely prepare for the aftermath

Janet McLeod is a Registered Psychologist in Canmore, Alberta, where she specializes in helping professionals who have experienced trauma and tragedy in the mountains. She’s guided many people through the aftermath of traumatic events. 

McLeod recommends a few things for people to do immediately after a traumatic event. “Reach out as soon as you can to a professional,” she says. “Trauma gets stuck in the body and we want to move it through quickly.” At the time, you likely won’t recognize your need, so make it a default or a promise to yourself that you will see a therapist after an event, like a box on your checklist to cross off. “This can be a radical move in our self-reliant culture,” she adds. 

As with any life-changing event, there will be panic or anxiety that calls you to action – perhaps dramatic action. McLeod cautions: “Slow down! We don’t want to go fast. Speed and fixing are part of the trauma terrain, an automatic survival response. We need to slow down. There is no quick fix.” Often after a traumatic event, people are riding on adrenalin, but that can’t last and they will eventually crash.

McLeod has experienced this firsthand. In 2002 she was at the front of a horrific twenty-two car pileup on the Trans-Canada Highway. Cars were literally flying around her, smashing and shattering. There were serious casualties. But in the immediate aftermath, she was so jacked up and happy to be alive that she felt no pain whatsoever and told her colleagues she’d be at work after the weekend. By Monday morning she was in acute pain and having thoughts of suicide.

KNOW WHAT’S COMING

Depression, substance abuse and destructive behavior are all common after trauma, and while there’s stigma attached to any mental health issues, our community seems to be chipping away at them. Suicide, on the other hand, is often danced around. It’s a terribly uncomfortable topic, but ignoring it does not help. According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention, “People who have experienced trauma are also at a greater risk for suicide.” This includes traumas experienced as a result of accidents in the mountains. 

Statistically, mountain towns see higher rates of suicide than the national averages. The cause is debated and continues to be researched. Is it financial disparities, lack of familial structure, increased substance abuse, lack of oxygen, or a combination of all these factors? Regardless, this statistic predisposes mountain dwellers to a higher risk of suicide should a traumatic event take place. 

In Canada, and in the Bow Valley specifically, we’re fortunate to have access to help. Look below for resources and reach out early. It seems universal to all survivors that talking is helpful. It also helps to know that others have been through those same lows and have come out the other side. Like other injuries, you will heal, though it may not seem possible at first.

BE PREPARED

There are other ways to be prepared for the worst. Improving your mental health beforehand can help build resilience and prepare you to deal with trauma (mountain-related or otherwise), not unlike training your body to prevent injuries. Yoga and meditation, regular exercise, strengthening relationships and building a support network: these are tools that are easier to build up before a crisis and ones you’ll likely lean on heavily afterwards. The key is not to live in fear, but rather develop a healthy relationship with the realities of the mountain experience.

Barry Blanchard is a mountaineering legend and has seen the best and worst of the mountains in his storied climbing and guiding career. An entire generation of Canadian mountaineers has followed his lead in the mountains. Perhaps we can follow his lead in the valleys as well: “The most basic thing is to realize that mountains are dangerous. Full stop. Even hiking in the mountains has risk,” he says. “If you are aware that tragedy can happen, at least it doesn’t come out of the blue.”

When talking about mountains, we naturally skew toward the highs. Barry believes that the media focuses too much on those scenes. “It’s all smiling, sunny faces, but that is such a small part of our lives.” He describes life as a mountain with a sunny side and a dark side. “Most human life happens in the grey, but there will be sunny-bright moments and dark, broken-hearted ones.” Recognizing that puts you in a better position.

There are more tangible things to do as well. First of all: be prepared for an incident to occur in the mountains by amping up your own knowledge, skills and gear in case you’re the first to respond. Next, what if you’re the one who is injured? Is there a way to keep working with a broken leg? Do you have insurance or can you fall back on other career paths for a while? All those same plans will help you with mental trauma injuries, too. Does your insurance cover psychological therapy? Can you save a few months wages in case you need to take time off?

Again, it’s a matter of planning for the lows and knowing others have gotten through similar.

COMMUNITY BONDS

When McLeod says that these events “happen to the whole community,” she’s right. Concentric waves swell out from a single event. Along with survivors, family and friends are always hit hard. Less visible are the first responders, hospital staff, bystanders, witnesses and volunteers directly affected by these incidents, along with their friends and family. Some mountain goers who aren’t directly impacted can feel the ripples as their past traumas are triggered. 

So, if these truly are community events, how do we help each other? Every survivor’s experience is different, but giving them support always starts by reaching out. For me, every message of support or condolence felt like a tiny dagger, yet together they held me up. Like muskox circling herd members, having people rally around you feels safe and is appreciated.

McLeod repeats: “It’s too much for one person to bear. It’s a community event.” It seems natural to avoid victims or someone who is grieving. Perhaps you want to give people their space. Honestly, that’s probably what they think they want, too, but as McLeod points out: “People can feel very isolated. It’s important to fight that. Trauma can’t be carried by individuals. The community needs to disperse these incidents so more people can carry the weight of these stories.” So, send that text, leave that note, or bake that cake. Better awkward than silent.

ESCAPE

I didn’t end up running away to hide in Mexico. But, two months after the accident, my wife, daughter and I went together. We spent a week with each other away from the mountains, surfing and laying on the beach. It was a chance to regroup and gain perspective. Friends sent us there, which was a humbling act of support and caring. 

Less grand gestures from friends and support from peers have been the biggest help, but therapy and some of the resources below have been crucial for me as well. Don’t underestimate the value of a bike ride or time spent in nature, either.

The mountain community is a small, tight-knit group of amazing people. Perhaps it makes the risks we face worth it. Either way, together we can help each other through damn near anything.


EPILOGUE

The stories of tragedy continue through the summer of 2020. A number of lives have been lost in the Canadian Rockies and many more have been affected. Some have witnessed fatal falls or tragic rockfall accidents. At the toe of the Athabasca Glacier, a group of five mountain guides were first on scene when an Ice Explorer bus rolled off an access road. You will hopefully never be faced with those types of mass casualties (3 dead and 24 injured), but it’s a dramatic exclamation point to our discussion.

Mike Trehearne, an IFMGA Mountain Guide, was one of the first on scene. Early on, he reached out to his peers about the emotional aftermath. Trehearne has learned through other tragedies what to do after an incident. “You need to get to a calm and safe place so that, as much as possible, you can allow your parasympathetic system to engage,” he explains. During an emergency, your body is on high-alert and your sympathetic system is driving. A lot of people who have trouble after traumatic events are stuck there.

Trehearne knows from experience that a person can’t survive like that for too long. “The brain builds new neural-pathways that make it worse over time,” he adds. “That’s why professional help is so important.” 

Blanchard ends his autobiography, The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, with this: “A dark lake of sadness underlies human life and we skate on thin ice. Most of us break through at some point and it is solely human hands that bring us back to the surface. Hopefully, we bring truth back with us, and share it.”

RESOURCES:

Climbing Grief Fund (US-based) – Mental Health Directory
Centre for Suicide Prevention
Bow Valley Victims Services (403) 760.0197

CRISIS LINES: 

In Canada

Crisis Services Canada + 1.833.456.4566 (Suicide Phone Line)

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention also provides a list of crisis centres across Canada

In the Bow Valley: 

If you are in need of urgent mental health care visit the Canmore General Hospital or the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. No appointment or health care card is required.

If you need help outside those hours you can call the local distress centre 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 403-678-4696 extension 1.

For more information about mental health services that are available in the Bow Valley call Access Mental Health at 403-943-1500.

In Alberta: 

Anyone having thoughts of suicide can call Health Link at 811 or the Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642 seven days a week twenty-four hours a day.

24/7 on the Distress Line of SW Alberta, 1-888-787-2880 (This service is free and confidential).

In British Columbia:

Anyone having thought of suicide can call the Crisis Centre at 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE)


An ex-stone mason turned avalanche technician, Kevin Hjertaas balances his time in the Bow Valley between parenting and squeezing in any ski adventure he can.

Writer, adventurer, outdoorsy mama and summit cartwheeler, Meghan J. Ward is the editor and co-founder at Crowfoot Media and lives for backcountry getaways.

The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.

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2 Comments on The Aftermath of Mountain Tragedy

  1. Tyler Carson // August 21, 2020 at 8:34 pm // Reply

    Thank you for this article. It is thought provoking and moving. As a worker in the avalanche industry and someone who manages risk, both personally and professionally in the mountains, communication like this invaluable. It helps me to reflect upon my career and my life of near misses, close calls, and tragedies. Looking back at these points in my life and my use of the keep it inside “stiff upper lip” defense mechanism, I realize it has not served me well over the long haul. We all need to speak up more, and worry less about what is said, and worry more that something is said. This article reminds me that no one is an island and that we need to work together when dealing with these types of events. I will take to heart your words and try live the ideal of “Better awkward then silent”
    Thank you Kevin and Thank you Meghan

  2. Grahan Smith // August 24, 2020 at 11:36 am // Reply

    Thank you for yuur honest reply. So many of us have understood that “stiff upper lip” is needed, but I have never heard the reference to “get help asap” after such tramas. I will remember it well.

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