A Space to Breathe: Recovery for Mountain Trauma
If you do an image search for “Banff avalanche 2020,” you won’t find many of the slide itself. Instead, you’ll scroll through pages of pictures of a beautiful young woman, Dr. Laura Kosakoski, running on trails, standing atop summits, skiing in the trees. Her casual, relaxed smile demonstrates her comfort in the mountains.
Then comes one photo of her and her husband, Adam Campbell, on top of a mountain, which appears on her celebration of life announcement, that hits particularly hard. In it, her eyes are squeezed shut with laughter, and Campbell, also laughing, grabs her arm as if to keep her from falling. She is so full of life, and the moment is so candid, it makes you feel the tragedy is your own.
Kosakoski was caught in an avalanche while skiing with her husband and their friend, Kevin Hjertaas, on Jan. 10 in Banff National Park. The slide swept her from the edge of the safe zone and buried her 3.7 meters under the surface. It took Campbell and Hjertaas an hour and a half to dig her out. She died the following day.
Every loss is unique and singular. Yet the experience of losing is not: Nearly everyone who has built their lives around backcountry skiing has been touched by the death of someone they knew or loved in the mountains. These deaths cause deep craters in small, close-knit communities, where a sudden void feels more tangible than in more populous places.
Yet in these mountain towns, there are few resources to help people heal from mountain trauma. It’s a support-group desert of sorts, which Sarah Heuniken and Barry Blanchard, both renowned alpinists based in Canmore, Alb., acutely discovered when they suffered losses of their own.
Heuniken and Blanchard, along with psychologist Janet MacLeod, founded Mountain Muskox in 2021, an organization run through the Alpine Club of Canada that supports those affected by tragedy in the mountains. Named for the Canadian Arctic muskoxen that form a circle around injured members of the herd to protect them, the organization incorporates group meetings led by a trained professional facilitator along with individual therapy and community work to help people cope not just with grief—but with the kind of grief specific to mountain tragedy.
Both Campbell and Hjertaas found their way to Muskox after the accident. Hjertaas, who now acts as a mentor and board member, says these deaths are particularly complicated to process.
Often the victims are experts in the outdoors, elite athletes who are at the top of their game. These are people who knew the risks and took them anyway, because they were doing what they loved. This raises complicated questions, not the least of which is, “Is it worth it?” Death is death, regardless of whether it happens while driving to work or skiing the best line of your life.
For the survivors, this also leads to further questioning about their own passions for the outdoors. Those same mountains that previously represented freedom and refuge become a terrifying place. That question of how to rationalize their own risks haunts them and, in the case of Hjertaas, the former head coach for the Rocky Mountain Freeriders who now owns MTN Guiding, threatens to end careers.
“As a ski guide, that made life difficult,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it anymore. And as a life-long skier to not want to do that, well, it changes your life.”
Hjertaas ended up taking an entire year off from his career after the accident. “I learned just enough to know you’re not in a good decision-making place when you are having that reaction,” he says. “I’d seen other guides who had gone through tough things, and your decision-making can be erratic. I didn’t want to end up there.”
In mountain communities, there’s also what Hjertaas refers to as a “mindset issue,” which becomes another hurdle for survivors and mourners to overcome. The mountains tend to draw and create people who are individualistic, Hjertaas explains—people who put a huge value on their ability to face things on their own. In the backcountry, being independent and self-sufficient is, at times, paramount to your survival. But when bad things happen and you need support to heal, that independence becomes an Achilles heel.
“Everything you get celebrated for in the mountains is what you’ve done individually, how you’ve conquered your fears, and your inner strength,” he says. “Those attributes don’t do you any favors when dealing with traumatic challenges. We need to fight that isolation that comes after accidents.”
The founders of Muskox knew they had to try to break that mindset down and gather a community around those who need help. To figure out how, they reached out to other groups who deal with trauma, like firefighters and the military, for ideas. That’s how Muskox came to incorporate group therapy and peer support. “From what I understand, it’s been proven in other realms. It’s just a matter of bringing it to the mountains,” Hjertaas says.
Catherine Allen is a trained counselor who acts as the facilitator of the Revelstoke Muskox group. She specializes in somatic therapy, which focuses on the mind-body connection. The idea is that talk therapy addresses only a fraction of the trauma—the body holds the rest.
When Hjertaas first came to Muskox, he could not have put into words what his body was experiencing. Every time he heard stories about avalanches or climbing accidents or anything related to avalanche rescue—basically everyday aspects of his job as a ski guide—his heart rate and breathing would quicken, his gut would tighten, and his brain sort of shut down.
This is a sympathetic nervous system response, Allen explains. Trauma can present itself as an adrenal reaction, a fight-or-flight reaction. We all have these reactions every day, say, when you’re at the grocery store and someone drops a glass bottle. Most people experience a moment of heightened awareness and a flood of adrenaline, but they’re able to calm down immediately once their brains recognize they’re not in danger. For a soldier suffering from PTSD, on the other hand, that glass bottle can be an event that puts them in that heightened state for hours, which can then lead to other problems.
“They have to rest way longer to recover, and to be able to hear, for example, what their wife just said or whatever,” she said. “And they don’t like that feeling, so they may have to drink or do drugs to check out. They need something external to make their blood pressure drop.”
Avalanche survivors often have a similar reaction, Allen says, which Hjertaas now recognizes in himself immediately when it happens to him. Allen’s job is to teach them how to get their parasympathetic nervous system—the one responsible for the rest and recovery—to kick in so they can return to their baseline state.
“Everyone’s different,” Hjertaas said, “but usually recognizing it and doing something as simple as taking a breath is enough to make me less reactionary. It puts me more in control.”
To that end, Muskox focuses more on how the accident is currently affecting the survivors’ lives and how they’re moving forward rather than recounting the accident itself, which can bring up the trauma and put them right back in that heightened state.
“Too much debriefing causes PTSD and zero debriefing causes PTSD,” Allen says. “Where I’m coming from is to bring people together to support one another but not have this ‘big, cathartic experience.’ Emotions have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we need to experience all the stages.”
In mountain trauma, there also tends to be a tremendous guilt around the event, which, if left to fester, can plague survivors to the point of becoming paralyzing. “There is the ‘should have, would have, could have…’” Hjertaas says. “There’s obviously tons of regret and shame. In my case, it is just true that we made mistakes. I had to accept that I was the most experienced one in that group, so I think a certain amount of the decision-making is on me.”
That’s where the community aspect of Muskox can be incredibly healing, Hjertaas says. For him, just sitting in a room full of other people who felt the same helped him win half the battle.
“If you’re just alone, that’s when you beat yourself up over it. Having a group of other people that you really respect and who have your back does help you be more compassionate with yourself.” He pauses briefly and takes a breath. “I’m not sure I would have been able to come to this place without it.”