Death and injury are a part of climbing, much more so than most other sports. A group of Coloradans think it’s time to learn how to talk about it.
For the climbers pushing boundaries in the sport, death is all too familiar.
In 2017, top alpinist Ueli Steck fell to his death while acclimating for an ambitious ascent in the Himalayas. Six months later, Rocky Mountain National Park climbing ranger and accomplished speed climber Quinn Brett took a 100-foot fall on El Capitan and became paralyzed from the waist down. A few days before Brett’s fall, Carbondale local and pro climber Hayden Kennedy ended his life after witnessing the death of his partner, Inge Perkins, in an avalanche in Montana.
All four were tight with the Colorado climbing community, and the string of accidents inspired Boulder climber Madaleine Sorkin to do something.
Sorkin knew Kennedy, though they weren’t especially close. She knew he’d experienced his share of tragedy; his friends Scott Adamson and Kyle Dempster passed away during an attempt on Oger II in Pakistan the previous August. But she had always seen Kennedy as an example of resilience. Combined with the fall of Brett, her longtime friend and climbing partner at El Capitan, his death felt catastrophic.
“His death and Quinn’s accident really laid bare what I needed to be working on with my own grief, and how I really longed for support,” Sorkin remembers.
Sorkin, a professional climber with a track record of difficult first ascents in some of the most remote ranges on the planet, contacted the Golden-based American Alpine Club and a team assembled to begin planning what would become the Climbing Grief Fund.
“You eventually know someone who’s had an accident, or who has died”
The AAC had been having similar conversations when Sorkin approached them. Vickie Hormuth, who took charge of the fund inside the AAC, was a friend of Ueli Steck.
“We all knew that we were close to the individuals, and we were having a hard time talking about it, knowing what to say to somebody else or how to offer support to them,” Hormuth said. “If it’s impacting us, think about how many people in the climbing community these accidents and these deaths are impacting.”
Hormuth began to scout around and discovered there were no resources specifically targeted to climbers dealing with the loss of other climbers. The Climbing Grief Fund will support a website with the aim of connecting struggling climbers across the nation with resources. One of its goals is to create more space for discussions around mourning and loss, and the site will include video discussions from professional climbers sharing their own experiences and how they were able to get through them.
“I think if you’re in climbing or any extreme sport long enough you eventually know someone who’s had an accident, or who has died,” Hormuth said. “It’s a different tragedy, and a lot of people don’t understand that lifestyle, or the consequences on your life, or your ability to go out and do this thing you love when you know that somebody you hold really close to you has died doing it.”
Climbing partners put their lives in each other’s hands. Literally.
On April 16, three of the world’s most accomplished alpinists, Hansjörg Auer, David Lama and Jess Roskelley, climbed a difficult line up the east face of Howse Peak in Canada. The three climbers died in an avalanche as they descended the mountain. Their deaths again sent ripples across the community, and the climbers’ faces dappled social media feeds as friends and acquaintances attempted to explain how the dead men had touched their lives.
While its website will be available to everyone, the Climbing Grief Fund also is working to raise money to help connect climbers to therapists who are experienced in the outdoors. “You don’t have to explain the impact this sport has on your life, or the lifestyle that you lead. It’s a connection,” Hormuth said. “That’s what we love about this community, is that we connect with each other through this sport.”
Many members of the AAC are young and lack health insurance. “We want to make sure there’s not a barrier for people to be receiving some professional help,” Hormuth said.
Adventure therapist Aleya Littleton is a therapist and rock guide. Based in Golden, she provides talk therapy in outdoor settings, helping to dispel the anxiety of working with a therapist. Littleton believes the tangled emotions of loss in outdoor sports present a specific challenge. “The dopamine rush of being in the most majestic and beautiful place, and having overcome and conquered your fears, and then having that so closely laced together with death and loss and fear, it’s a unique combination.”
Loss in outdoor settings has intricacies that can be difficult for climbers to explain. For many climbers, the sport goes beyond pastime and becomes a building block of identity. For a person whose self-identity is tied to climbing, it can be difficult to reconfigure their relationship with the sport after losing a friend to the risks they confront every time they climb.
On top of that, climbing partners are often especially close. Their friendships having withstood trying and dangerous situations. Littleton said the nature of relationships in climbing can further complicate the grieving process.
“I would compare it to having survivor’s guilt. You have this contract between the two of you to keep each other safe,” Littleton said. “A climbing partnership is an intimate relationship. You’re putting your life in the other person’s hands. You’re trusting them in a way you don’t have to trust other people.”
While death in climbing affects the friends of the lost individual the most, the effects often ripple through the community. “Whether or not you knew Ueli Steck personally, his death, his life, how he lived his life will impact you when you go climbing next,” Hormuth said. “When you experience a loss in any community, it’s grieved collectively by that community. We don’t have to know the person in order to feel the impact of that loss.”
Questioning the sport after a death
For Sorkin, the loss of a group of climbers leads to a period of questioning about the sport itself. Colorado’s climbing community is tight, and the loss of any climber will reverberate through the community. When the bad news keeps coming, like in 2017, the community’s foundations begin to seem unstable.
“I think on a community level it can be destabilizing,” Sorkin said. “What are we up to? There’s this questioning phase.”
Through the Climbing Grief Fund, Sorkin hopes to begin a shift in the way climbers talk to each other about death and injury. Climbing culture is largely driven by content promoted by outdoor brands, and stories typically revolve around constant stoke, obsession and overcoming obstacles to push the sport to new levels.
These stories inspire climbers and lend energy to their pursuits, but do little to help people deal with the all-too-common reality of friends not coming home. Sorkin believes that the brands that profit from athletes’ accomplishments and incentivize them to pursue big objectives have a responsibility to provide resources to a grieving community. One of her own sponsors, Outdoor Research, is contributing to the Climbing Grief Fund.
Not a full solution, but an important first step
“I hope this program can destigmatize the idea that you need help,” Littleton said.
The AAC is funding the program entirely with the help of Outdoor Research and fundraising by Sorkin. While the group doesn’t expect to be able to put every climber who has experienced loss through years of therapy, they do hope to be able to introduce community members to counselors best able to help them.
“I think working with a professional is not going to be for everybody, but creating a community where we’re able to have these conversations is really important,” Hormuth said. The AAC plans to start implementing the program in September.
For Sorkin, the fund is about giving the community options that didn’t exist when Kennedy died and Brett was paralyzed. “I just really felt like there wasn’t a tidy package for my grief, and saw a lot of other people carrying a lot of weight around. I don’t know what the answer is but I want there to be resources,” she said. “I really want there to be a place for energy to go that’s on a community level.”