Gifts of mountain life countered by the pain of its take

No outdoors guide covers loss of loved ones
May 18, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
The sun looms behind Alaska's Chilkat Range, west of Juneau. Life in the mountains is often interrupted, sometimes rudely, by death in the mountains, CDN outdoors columnist Kayla Heidenreich laments.
The sun looms behind Alaska's Chilkat Range, west of Juneau. Life in the mountains is often interrupted, sometimes rudely, by death in the mountains, CDN outdoors columnist Kayla Heidenreich laments. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Heidenreich)

CDN Contributor

This piece is dedicated to all those affected by the loss of loved ones to the mountains.

I was standing at the toe of a glacier when I got the phone call. A quivering voice whispered through the phone asking me to sit down. I felt dizzy. I melted into the sopping moss, tears brimming my eyes, as I got the news one of my friends had died in an accident in the mountains that morning.

I didn’t know how to respond. I was transfixed on the peaks erupting from the ice field. My eyes repeatedly traced the deep gullies carving their way down the mountain slope, as the gut-wrenching details of my friend’s passing were softly explained to me.

So many of us outdoor folk hold onto an unwavering fear of losing those we love to the mountains. It sits like a weight at the top of your stomach, clouds your brain and nibbles in the depths of your heart. Sometimes, no matter the expertise or conditions, bad things happen. This is hard to sit with.

I hung up the phone and continued to allow my body to be absorbed into the wet moss. I watched a storm system angrily crawl its way out of the depths of the mountains right toward me. The light drew flat, and the once stunning mountains turned grotesque. I stood up and left.

The dichotomy of the connections we hold with mountains has been at the forefront of my mind in the aftermath. Beauty and disgust. Strength and fear. Inspiration and pain. How can I devote my life to playing, working and learning in the alpine while also knowing the reality of the terrors that come with this lifestyle?

For the first time this season, I moved my backcountry snowboarding gear into the garage, organizing it into its off-season home: plastic bins. As I rustled around the garage, I noticed the “pit-pat” of rain on the roof soften. I stepped outside and the spring showers had frozen. The peaceful sound of snowflakes settling into the earth remind me of sweet honey.

Relationships between humans and the mountains are so complex and ever-changing. It is a constant effort to balance the dreamlike adrenaline of chasing the next big line with the calculated, conservative and respectful decision-making it takes to exist in this environment.

Some days are sunny and you overcome challenges, while others are socked in and fear guides your every move.

The want to keep those I love on a leash continues to creep up on me; to never let them out of my sight. Or to give up playing in the mountains entirely, avoid the risk altogether. But could you imagine how many mountains would be missing their people? How many hoots and hollers would be stifled inside our fearful bodies?

Instead, I am reminded to tell those you love, you love them, and to always hug your friends goodbye. I am thankful I did.

CDN Outdoors lifestyle columnist Kayla Heidenreich writes monthly, of late from Juneau; heidenreichmk@gmail.com.

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