It is a place of stark contrasts, delivering solace and soaring success on one day and storms and defeat the next. It’s where life-long friendships are often forged in a frigid tent, a breathtaking vista, or huffing and puffing along unrelenting switchbacks.
Sarah Hueniken has felt it all through her years as an accomplished Canadian mountain guide and climber. But there’s one reality of living and working in the mountains that continues to grip on perhaps the tightest.
“The loss of a loved one is huge. It’s carried with you, your entire life, especially when it’s in the mountains in a place you also love,” said Hueniken. “It’s a hard contrast to sometimes bare.”
Nearly five years ago, her close friend Sonja Findlater died after being buried in an avalanche while ice climbing.
“It was on one of the camps I was running. She was with another guide. I saw the avalanche, and I ran to it and helped dig her out,” she said. “It was life changing for sure, filled with shame and grief and regret for years.
“Sometimes it feels like it was 100 years ago because those days were very, very long after she passed and other times it feels like just yesterday,” said Hueniken adding her life shifted 100 degrees after the avalanche.
She found support and healing among others who also experienced loss and trauma in the mountains. And she helped form Mountain Muskox, a support group for those who have suffered loss and trauma in the mountains.
“It helped me so much on my journey, just being around other people that understood that process and those emotions. I really wanted to make sure that other people who had near misses in the mountains or losses had a place to go.,” said Hueniken, who serves as executive director of Mountain Muskox.
The group has helped over 100 people, including certified guides, outdoor adventurers, search and rescue personnel, and first responders who work in mountain communities.
It now has a chapter in British Columbia and they are getting interest from people around the world.
It’s a community Calgary’s Sandy Fransham wishes would have existed 20 years ago. She lost her boyfriend when the pair were climbing in the Ghost Mountain region.
She said it was difficult to find people who could relate.
“Because a loss in the mountains is judged by some as maybe I can even use the word inevitable, it can be very, very isolating.” said Fransham.
She first joined Mountain Muskox when it was first a pilot project.
“I hope that anybody who has a traumatic event in the mountains or a really bad day, that someone is whispering in their ear that Mountain Muskox exists and you don’t have to be alone,” she said.
A bench perched high above the Alpine Club of Canada’s headquarters has recently been installed overlooking the legendary peaks of the Bow Valley. It bears the names of those who have died in the hills.
It was a dream Sarah Hueniken made into a reality.
“Appreciate the beauty you love to go into, and also mourn and grieve the people we’ve lost there,” she said while sitting on the bench that represents a strong muskox.
The sun beams off the small metal plaque with her friend’s name etched on its surface.
“She’s been with me every step of this journey,” said Hueniken.
The group is raising funds and awareness with a goal to open up chapters in mountain communities around the world to help people break the silence on their suffering and guiding many through the toughest climb of their lives.