Barry Blanchard has spent much of his life scaling rock and ice, traversing sharp ledges at heights that would make some dizzy just thinking about. He is one of North America’s greatest mountaineers, clocking 7,000 days recreating and guiding people to great heights.
“The vast number of those days are in the sun. They are magnificent days that involve moments of grace., he said “Also, the darkest days of my life have been in the mountains and they have been very few.”
But he admits those days are imprinted on your soul for the rest of your days.
“You get in the bottom of the pit and you feel like you’re there by yourself and despite the best love and attention of those around you, you don’t have anyone who knows where you’re at,” Blanchard said, standing in the shadows of Canmore’s famous Three Sisters.
1986 is the year the alpinist calls the darkest of his life. Two people were killed on a trip he was guiding on Mount Baker at Wapta icefields.
“While descending that flank of the mountain, we had a snow anchor failure and all five of us slid about 400 feet down the side of a mountain, landed in a crevasse and the snow that our body scoured off the slope, a very bizarre form of avalanche came in and totally buried two people and partially buried three of us,” he said. “By the time we uncovered the two who were totally buried in the snow, they had asphyxiated.
“It was basically my decisions that led us sliding down a mountain slide. I carry that responsibility,” he said. “It’s an event that has never left, it’s still part of me, part of my history, part of what I carry in the world.”
Adding to the trauma, the death of a very close climbing partner that same year. He took time off and with the help of a psychiatrist, was able to claw his way out of the “pit” he was suffering in.
Now, 34 years later, he wants to make sure nobody else has to sit in that space alone.
Blanchard has teamed up with two Canmore psychologists, fellow guides, skiers and other community members to form Mountain Muskox Mentorship. It’s a peer support group designed specifically to help those who have been impacted by mountain tragedies.
“When a person goes through a critical incident like a fatality or avalanche, it’s a very unique experience. What’s important is to bring people together with this similar experience, be able to create a safe community to process grief and at the end of it, give back to the community,” said Janet McLeod, a clinical psychologist at Mountain Therapy in Canmore.
“Someone might be at the beginning stages of their journey and then we have Barry Blanchard, who is in a very different stage of his recovery. So that modelling is so helpful and so affective. It is the hands up from the place of despair, it’s really hopeful,” McLeod said.
Adam Campbell lost his wife last January following avalanche. He is already drawing strength from people in the pilot program, which is set to officially launch in January.
“While we all walk our own path, having peer support from legends like Barry Blanchard and Sarah Hueniken and others who have faced their own traumas helps me better understand and interpret my experiences,” Campbell said.
“Their support, wisdom, compassion, friendship, love and understanding has guided me through the fog of much of the past year.”
Currently, the group is made up of 12 people. They will meet bi-weekly for two six-week semesters. The hope is to one day branch out to mountain towns across Canada and even the world. The name muskox is symbolic of what the group hopes to create.
“The muskox has this amazing ability to keep animals in their group safe and the vulnerable will be in the middle,” said McLeod, adding they are currently raising funds to pay for costs of the first-of-its-kind program.
Blanchard said he wishes he had an set peer group to rely on back in 1986.
“To be able to go into that pit with someone and to hold their hand and to tell them they are not alone and there’s a way out of this place is.. .I don’t know, it’s critically important. It can be the difference between living and not living,” he said.
“I’m at the point now in my life, I’m able to go into that pit with Adam and I can hold his hand and when you hold someone’s hand, communication goes both ways. I can help Adam with that time and that place and he helps me too.”
For more information you can visit www.mountainmuskox.com.