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Mountains of Grief

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 71, which is available in our online store.–Ed.]

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park, California. [Photo] Jason Hatfield/TandemStock

On an October evening in 2015, Ethan Gillett and his partner Joshua Schultz finished the eleventh and final pitch of a climb up the south face of Yosemite’s Washington Column, an 1,800-foot granite prow across the valley from Half Dome. It was their first climb on a long ticklist–a warm-up for the storied, towering faces in the valley.

The pair was rappelling the route in the dark, and Gillett had their only working headlamp. At the anchors for the sixth pitch, the men encountered fixed lines belonging to a party bivying on a large ledge below–common practice on Yosemite’s popular big-wall routes. According to a report in Accidents in North American Climbing, Gillett called down to ask permission to descend on the other climbers’ ropes, and at around 8:45 p.m., he fed a fixed rope through his rappel device.

“Alright, I’m going to rap,” he said.

A few seconds later, Schultz heard Gillett scream. Then he heard a loud crash. He yelled into the darkness to his friend, but there was no response.

The next morning, a thousand miles away in Boulder, Colorado, Gillett’s girlfriend, Eliza Earle, woke up at the house they shared. They’d forged their relationship over the previous year, climbing in Eldorado Canyon and in the dusty, red-clay desert near Moab, Utah. Earle had just quit her job at a production company in preparation to meet Gillett on the road. She checked her phone, expecting a text from Gillett letting her know he was down from the climb, but she wasn’t worried when she hadn’t received one. He’d had a long day on the wall, she knew, and she presumed his phone was out of battery, or he was still asleep. Everything’s fine, she thought.

Earle went for a run and then drove to the supermarket to go grocery shopping–it was Halloween, and she wanted to pick up candy for trick-or-treaters. She sent Gillett a text from the store, Hey, are you back? Get in touch with me as soon as you can. Shortly after, her phone rang. It was Gillett’s brother. When he finally said the words, that “Ethan had passed,” she set down her groceries and the world went black.

When the mountain community–a robust group of some ten million climbers and mountaineers and nearly twenty-two million skiers and snowboarders in the US alone–grapples with the accidental death of one of its members, only one thing is certain: it’s going to happen again.

Between 1951 and 2019, the American Alpine Club’s Accidents in North American Climbing has chronicled 2,069 deaths and 9,303 accidents in the US and Canada. That’s an average of thirty deaths per year, though not every incident gets reported. And as the popularity of mountain sports rises, that number can be expected to increase in tandem.

Since the 1950s, the equipment, knowledge, forecasting and best practices in climbing and mountaineering have gotten markedly better and have increased the margins for safety. But death has always been part of the game, says Geoff Powter, a psychologist and Canmore-based climber: “There is blood in our sport, there absolutely is.” Powter began climbing in the mid-1970s. Within ten years, he’d already been to fifteen funerals for friends who died in the mountains. He watched a mother mourn her two children, and he buried his own lover. The number of losses he suffered continued to grow in the following years. And as his circle of climbing peers grew, the more he started to hear about the deaths of friends of friends. His peers in the climbing community had similar histories attending funerals. “When I was growing into climbing, the majority of people probably had had something pretty bad happen,” he says. “They’d either witnessed death or knew people that had been lost.”

Climbers pursuing a summit accept a certain amount of risk in the high mountains. The mortality rate for climbers moving above 6000 meters in Nepal’s Himalaya between 1990 and 2006, for example, was 1.10 per 100 people. Yet these numbers fail to account for the unevenness of death in the mountains, specifically in regard to Sherpa guides and high-altitude porters who have decidedly less choice in the amount of risk they accept. According to the Himalayan Database, between 1950 and 2018, a total of 275 Sherpa mountaineers have died while working in Nepal’s Himalaya, with avalanche and route preparation cited as the top causes of death.

As the losses mount, they build up into a weight that can become hard to hold, like the layers of snow that become thick, heavy ice and create glaciers prone to cracking wide open.

In a 2016 Alpinist article “Death and Climbing,” outdoor journalist David Roberts reflected on how the nature of climbing itself could be an obstacle to confronting the grief that follows the sudden loss of a partner. “To climb boldly,” he observed, “one needs to focus narrowly on the possible harm the universe can mete out only to oneself, not to the fuzzy constellation of one’s friends and relatives. But it is these same blinders that can render climbers so inarticulate when it comes to dealing with actual death.” Powter understands why it’s difficult for climbers, and people in general, to talk about grief. “It’s really hard to rationalize [sudden death],” he says. “And sometimes we don’t face things.”

Madaleine Sorkin, a sponsored athlete and a certified rock guide, has been climbing for more than twenty years. As she witnessed people in those two communities deal with grief and loss, she realized just how complex those emotions are. It made her wonder, when accidents happen in the mountains, what happens next? Sorkin saw loss after loss affect the climbing community, but didn’t see the community giving them the attention they needed. She was already reckoning with this idea of collective responsibility around death in the mountains in August 2017 when she and her climbing partner, Kate Rutherford, helped a woman hike out of the Wind River Range in Wyoming after she’d watched her climbing partner fall hundreds of feet to his death while scrambling unroped between rappels on Steeple Peak. The woman was on a trip funded by the American Alpine Club’s Live Your Dream grant, and Sorkin started to wonder if that same organization, in addition to helping people achieve their goals in the mountains, could also be there to help when things went wrong.

The year of 2017 was a time of heavy loss across the professional climbing community, specifically. In April, alpinist Ueli Steck fell three-thousand feet to his death from the north face of Nuptse. In early October, Inge Perkins died in an avalanche in Montana while skiing with her partner, Hayden Kennedy. Unable to locate Perkins in the debris, Kennedy left the scene and died by suicide. A few days later, Quinn Brett was paralyzed after a hundred-foot fall in Yosemite. Sorkin felt these losses keenly: she and Kennedy had been close friends, and Brett was one of her climbing partners.

Many climbers have reported that they either knew someone who had died or who had suffered a life-altering injury. The circle of loss, and of grief, is uncomfortably close. But for a community so adept at dealing with discomfort and finding a way through improbable terrain, the space of grief and loss has remained largely unexplored.

“I didn’t see us talking about how we were going to process grief,” Sorkin says. She felt that there was a lot of unaddressed emotion that the community allowed to accumulate under the surface. The recent accidents demonstrated to Sorkin a long-held need for resources and awareness around helping climbers cope with grief and loss.

Eliza Earle moved to Boulder in 2014. The following year, on Sunday, February 23–that date forever burned into her brain–she was at a climbing gym with a friend when she spotted someone wearing a Tufts University ultimate Frisbee T-shirt and hat–she’d gone to Tufts and played ultimate Frisbee, too. Who is this guy? she wondered. His name was Ethan Gillett.

The pair started dating and began to spend all of their free time with one another, running trails around town and roping up for climbs on the tree-lined cliffs of Lumpy Ridge outside Estes Park. Gillett had recently left a PhD program in chemical engineering at the University of Colorado to work full-time at a camp, where he taught kids how to rock climb. He had brown hair, an easy smile and a slow drawl that had Earle finishing his sentences. Before long, they were talking about marriage and a future together.

On that October afternoon at the supermarket, after the call came in from Gillett’s brother, Earle barely managed to get herself out of the store.

“I finally found the exit, walked outside and collapsed onto the sidewalk. I was just crumpled, crying in a ball,” Earle recalls. Two women–angels, as she calls them–went to her. “They appeared out of nowhere and grabbed me,” she says. “They knew, they just knew.” The women asked her where she lived, and then put her in their car and drove her home.

Ethan Gillett

Ethan Gillett in the Val Ferret above Courmayeur, Italy, in June 2015. “We were just head over heels,” Gillett’s girlfriend, Eliza Earle, told the author. [Photo] Eliza Earle

A few days later, Earle gathered with Gillett’s family in the town of Modesto, California, where Ethan’s body had been taken. There was paperwork and logistics to handle. When they made their way into the nearby Yosemite Valley, clouds whipped around the 3,000-foot granite monolith of El Capitan (Tu-TokA-Nu-La). The air was damp with the kind of cold that chills straight to the bone. Rain fell as the group gathered his remaining belongings from Camp 4. Nobody had seen it, so Ethan’s climbing partner Joshua Schultz showed them Washington Column. This can’t be my lasting impression of this place, thought Earle. Ethan loved this place.

Earle drove Gillett’s old, dark blue minivan that he’d driven to Yosemite, packed full with his camping and climbing gear, back to Boulder. They used to take his van on climbing trips to places like Vedauwoo and Rifle (though Gillett always preferred to sleep in a tent) so she wanted to make a trip out of it and stop at their favorite places on the way home. In Castle Valley she decided she’d cook herself dinner the way they used to, but couldn’t figure out how to put the backpacking stove together–Gillett had always done that. Earle stared at the unassembled stove and cried.

A few months later, after the memorials were over, Earle looked around and saw that her new life bore almost no resemblance to her old one. She’d lost her partner, and she no longer had a job. One night after she made herself dinner, she sat at the table in a chair facing the front door and immediately broke down. Gillett would always come home from work at around half past five, busting through that door, and she realized she’d never see him do that again. Her pain was deep and sharp. And it was everywhere, touching all the corners of her life.

Northeast face of Howse Peak (3295m). [Photo] Ed Cooper

Northeast face of Howse Peak (3295m). [Photo] Ed Cooper

In the 1969 book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross proposed five psychological stages that terminally ill people experience in their grieving process as they face their own death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The emotional states Kuebler-Ross outlined in this text were ultimately popularized as the five stages of grief. And though she never intended for them to be a linear sequence of events, they’re often interpreted as such.

As research around grief and loss evolved in the field of psychology, the thinking shifted away from these more predictable emotional journeys and toward the idea that there are multiple trajectories through grief. According to Margaret Stroebe, Henk Schut and Kathrin Boerner in a 2017 volume of the Journal of Death and Dying, the five stages are detrimental to the bereaved because they create an expectation that everyone should go through each stage of emotion, but not everyone does. The idea that the bereaved must “let go” of the deceased in order to move forward was once widely accepted in the psychology community, but was later rejected in favor of studies that found that staying connected to the person you lost is a healthy, even necessary, practice. Today, many grief counselors maintain the critical importance of reconstructing meaning in your life: figuring out how to make sense of your life and discovering some type of meaning after loss.

Grief wreaks havoc on the brain, particularly immediately following a loss. The brain perceives the pain caused by losing a loved one as a threat to survival, something it’s hardwired to protect against. Neurological research shows that the pain of the loss acts as a stressor and triggers the brain’s defense mechanisms: the pituitary gland sends a signal to the adrenal gland and tells it to release the stress hormone cortisol, which manages how the body uses energy; works to regulate your blood presure; and controls your sleep cycle. Loss and the chronic stress of loss results in a sensitized and overactive fear center (amygdala) that causes anxiety, hypervigilance, ruminations and sleep disturbance.

Understanding what happens to the brain of someone who is grieving is one way to help normalize the experience of going through loss. Dr. Lisa Shulman, neurologist and author of Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain, explores how grief and loss affect the brain. Shulman wrote the book after she lost her husband to cancer in 2012. Someone who’s grieving may feel that they’re having an experience that no one else has had, and that their thoughts and processes aren’t normal, Shulman says. “When the fear center is overactive, reasoning and logic are sidelined, resulting in a feeling of brain fog,” she explains. But in terms of brain chemistry, all grievers experience the same thing. “We are all having similar, even virtually identical, experiences,” Shulman says.

Jess and Alli Roskelley

Jess and Alli Roskelley get ready to attend a “Pray for Snow” party. “Grief is inevitably uncomfortable, no matter what,” Alli told the author. [Photo] Allison Roskelley

When we sleep and dream, our brains file away the events of our lives into our memory banks and connect them to our previous experiences. A brain wrought with grief has difficulty filing away disturbing emotions and memories. “From the brain’s standpoint we aren’t ready to handle the very disturbing content of our memories and emotions surrounding these events, and so a lot of the memories around these events are suppressed into the unconscious,” Shulman says. Instead of these traumatic memories being filed away, they just sit there. This causes things like ruminations during the day and disturbed sleep and nightmares at night. Author and artist Jennifer Lowe-Anker lost her first husband, world-famous alpinist Alex Lowe, in an avalanche on Shishapangma in 1999. In her memoir, Forget Me Not, she reflected on the initial months of pain and the disorienting nature of loss: “Morning was almost as shocking as the previous day, as I awoke and momentarily thought that it really had been a bad dream…. So for many weeks, each time I awoke I had the same experience of confused panic. I heard [my sister] stirring in the kitchen and remembered my grim reality. I didn’t want to get up.”

Our brains are constantly rewiring themselves based on our experiences. Healthy brains have rich connections between nerve cells, and life experience strengthens these connections. This is called memory. But the chronic stress experienced by the bereaved actually weakens those connections and instead strengthens nerve connections resulting in fear and anxiety.

David Lama and Hadley Hammer

David Lama and Hadley Hammer pictured after a day of skiing the Newc Couloir in the northern Tetons. “Sun burned faces, tired legs, happy hearts…[and] about to have a ton of pasta and red wine,” Hammer recalled. [Photo] Hadley Hammer

When certain memories repeatedly activate the fear center of the brain, it’s like a constant alarm bell going off. “You feel like you’re under threat. It causes us to be in a really bad loop because as time goes on we’re not reconciling any of [those memories],” Shulman says. “The work of grief that people talk about is to resurface what has been buried.”

Alli Roskelley was first drawn to the man that became her husband, alpinist Jess Roskelley, because of his humor–he could make a pun out of anything. He had a predilection for growing his hair out, cutting it into a mullet and then pulling it back into a ponytail. He didn’t take himself too seriously, Alli says.

But what he did take seriously was climbing. His father is legendary mountaineer John Roskelley, and they climbed Chomolungma (Everest) together when Jess was twenty, making him the youngest person to summit the peak at the time. Jess grew to prefer technical alpine climbing and made numerous first ascents in the Alaska Range. Alli and Jess had talked about the possibility of him dying in the mountains, and she understood the risks involved in his career. When they married in 2015, Jess–happily sporting a baby-pink newsboy cap chosen by Alli–reiterated his devotion to living a life at the limit in his vows.

In April 2019, an avalanche on British Columbia’s Howse Peak killed Jess Roskelley, along with alpinists David Lama and Hansjoerg Auer. In her conversations about death with Jess, Alli would tell him she didn’t think she’d be able to move forward without him. “Because I accepted the possibility that this could happen I equally need to accept the responsibility because it has happened,” Alli says. Still, she felt like her life was over.

In the early stages of navigating her grief, Roskelley felt like she had some type of virus–people didn’t know how to deal with her and her pain. While many people immediately stepped in to support her, she recalls that some of her close friends didn’t reach out for weeks. She doesn’t judge them for that; she knows that they simply had no idea what to do. “I think if more people can be more open to talking about grief and talking about death and having those conversations, we’ll all be better equipped to deal with loss,” she says.

In addition to coping with a deep loss, the bereaved must also navigate how others respond to their grief, which can sometimes mean unwelcome opinions, perceptions and judgments that make it harder to carry. People told Roskelley what she should and shouldn’t do: don’t make any big changes for the first year. Don’t start dating again. Don’t sell the house–the olive green bungalow in Spokane, its porch strung up with prayer flags. “If you’re not going through it, you don’t know what you would do and can’t predict how it should go,” Roskelley says.

Professional skier Hadley Hammer also lost her partner, David Lama, in the same avalanche that took Jess Roskelley. To the world, Lama was an accomplished climber, known for his solo winter ascent of the previously unclimbed peak, 6907-meter Lunag Ri, and for making the first free ascent of Cerro Torre’s Compressor Route. But to Hammer it was the little things–like the soft, deliberate way he spoke–that endeared him to her. Obsessed with the weight of gear, he was always taking scissors to Hammer’s things, cutting off unnecessary straps. And he loved her, too. He told her that before their first kiss. “I don’t know why David and I met right before he died, but I do think that it was really beautiful despite how fucking painful it is,” she says. “It was the best experience I’ve ever had.”

The experience of suddenly losing your partner can be isolating, but there’s a community of grievers out there who want to welcome new members to the best worst club there is: the Fucked Up Club. In 2013 climber and base jumper Steph Davis lost her husband, Mario Richard, during a wingsuit jump in the Dolomites. Davis jumped first, and Richard followed, but on his flight he hit a cliff and died on impact. As Davis grappled with her pain, she reached out to Sean Leary, a friend who’d lost the love of his life seven years earlier. Davis later recounted her conversation with Leary. She’d wanted to know how Leary had made it to the other side–how he’d managed to find love and happiness again. “It gets better and you’re not alone,” Leary told her. “You’re part of this fucked little club now, and the other members will come to help heal your pain with empathy and promise,” he said.

For the first couple of months after Gillett died, Earle would walk through town and think, No one understands anything I’m going through, not a single person on this Earth understands. But about three months after Gillett’s accident, Earle was packing up her things at the climbing gym when Jen Rapp–the longtime girlfriend of a climber, Dean Potter, who’d died nine months earlier–approached her and wrapped her up in a huge hug. Rapp told Earle to let her know if she ever needed to talk. Earle began to sob. “[She] was the first person from The Club who had reached out to me. I hadn’t been able to find anybody,” Earle says.

Professional climber Angela VanWiemeersch also felt alone after she lost her partner, Scott Adamson, in 2016. Adamson had been climbing Pakistan’s Baintha Brakk (Ogre II) with Kyle Dempster, who also perished. The men were never found. Five months later, while filming a climbing video in Scotland with one of her sponsors, VanWiemeersch started to get emotional and went into another room where she began sobbing hysterically. Another athlete came in to comfort her, and through his own tears, told her about holding his girlfriend in his arms as she died in the Himalaya. It was a pivotal moment for VanWiemeersch– she didn’t know anybody else who’d gone through what she had. “It was really hard for him to share, but I know that he shared it because he knew it would help me, and I assume that he knew that because somebody had done that for him,” she said. She saw that he was deeply affected by his loss, but he’d gone on to marry, have a child and live a life of adventure in the mountains. “He got through it somehow…. It made me feel like maybe I could do it.”

Reaching out to others after they’ve gone through loss and being vulnerable with your own experience are key tenets of The Club. In 2018, after Earle heard that alpinist Marc-Andre Leclerc had died, she reached out to his partner, Brette Harrington, with a simple text to let her know she was thinking of her. And in 2019, when Hammer first got the news about Lama’s death, she texted Harrington. Whatever you need, I’m here, Harrington replied in support. Hammer arrived in Canmore while the search for the men on Howse Peak was still ongoing. Harrington came to her and Roskelley’s rented apartment and rarely left.

Hammer has noticed a deep, raw pain in the women like her who’ve lost their loved ones unexpectedly in the mountains, one that doesn’t ever go away. It both scares her and buoys her–their pain doesn’t seem to be any less, but they are able to carry it and still have beautiful lives. One day, Hammer asked Harrington if she was happy. She said she was. “That was so nice to hear because you could see her pain, too,” she says.

Roskelley saw the same thing. “It brought back a lot for her, and just seeing how raw those emotions still were has been helpful for me,” she said of Harrington, who was about a year into her own grieving process at the time. “I’m allowing myself to be OK with still feeling all of those raw emotions and knowing that that’s going to last forever. And honestly? I want it to last forever.”

Earle didn’t know Hammer personally, but she got her number from a friend and sent her a message a few days after Lama died. They’d both been with their partners for about a year, and the relationships were important parts of the women’s lives. They both knew they’d found the person they’d marry. Hammer took solace in being able to message Earle, Harrington and VanWiemeersch. They made her feel less alone and allowed her to explore her grief in a way that felt safe. “For those weird, unexplainable moments, or really difficult moments, they just get it,” she says.

One day Hammer woke up and couldn’t make herself get out of bed. She texted Earle, who told her it was actually OK to just stay there. “Why don’t you feel as if your sadness is David’s sadness for not being there?” Earle told her. “That was so helpful to flip the guilty side of grief around and not be so hard on myself. As athletes we process things so much through moving and through typical versions of strength,” Hammer says. “She was the first person that gave me permission to be with the grief itself.”

Hammer has stuck to the plan that she and Lama made before he died: to live together and split their time between Austria and Jackson Hole, though she feels that Austria is home now. She’s learning German and living in Lama’s former apartment. She spends a lot of time with his parents and friends. “I’m living life here. I’m creating it and forming it every day, whereas if you try to go back to your old life it’s so different. It’s almost like you’re faced with, ‘This is what you used to be like, this is what life used to be like for you,'” she says. “Here it’s like, ‘This is what life can be like.'”

The strength that Hammer saw Earle demonstrate in not only being able to hold her own sadness, but also the sadness of others, inspired Hammer to do the same thing. After climber Nolan Smythe died while climbing El Gigante in Mexico [in March 2020], Hammer texted his partner, Savannah Cummins, hoping to offer her the kind of comfort she’d received from Earle and the rest of The Club.

“If I can turn this horrible experience into anything positive, it’s just being there for other women right after they go through it,” Earle says.

For those grieving a lost friend or partner, talking to others who intimately understand what they’re going through can be cathartic; however, those relationships aren’t necessarily a substitute for the help of a professionally trained therapist. That said, for some people it can be difficult to build a good relationship with a therapist who doesn’t understand climbing and the complicated emotions that ensue when something you love is the cause of losing someone you love.

Angela VanWiemeersch began seeking a therapist to talk to after she lost Adamson. VanWiemeersch had become fearful of things that never used to bother her in the mountains, and she couldn’t make it stop. One day, as she and her climbing partner were working on establishing a new multi-pitch route in Potrero Chico in Mexico, the wind suddenly kicked up into a violent gale. Her hair stood on end. “I fucking lost my mind,” she says. “I just envisioned Scott and Kyle’s bodies falling off the mountain.”

VanWiemeersch began looking for a therapist to help her work through the deep pain associated with her loss. Over the last four years, she has invested thousands of dollars to see four different therapists. But she says that none of them have felt like the right match for a productive long-term relationship that she could rely upon regularly, which she knows is linked to successful mental health outcomes. One of the therapists she found was through an online counseling program, where she struggled to even explain climbing and the role it played in her life.

“They were like, well, why do you still climb?” she recalled in a video interview with the American Alpine Club. The person on the other end of the phone was associating her continuing to climb with self harm. She tried to explain the element of accepted risk that exists in climbing and the irrational fears she’d been trying to work through, but her therapist couldn’t grasp the concept. “They were like, ‘You should probably just stop climbing then,’ and I was like, ‘Well, that’s not gonna happen.'”

She still struggles with the fear that wind evokes in her, even though she perceives that fear to be an irrational one. “It’s really hard to work through [things related to Adamson’s death] when they’re associated with trauma and triggers,” she says. “And it’s increasingly difficult to work through them with someone who blatantly doesn’t understand.”

Powter agrees that whomever a grieving individual talks to should understand that what they do is important and gives them great purpose in life. “If I have a chronic elbow injury, and I go and see my doc and he says, Well don’t climb anymore, that’s different from going to see a doctor who says, OK, I’m going to get you fixed and still be able to do what you love doing.” That’s not to say that a therapist totally unfamiliar with climbing can’t help–they can.

The language of grief is not exclusive to climbers, to be sure, but rather the grief of climbers is somewhat unique. Often death comes suddenly and catastrophically, and it happens within a specific context–a vertical world where people ascend cliffs by their fingertips or centimeters of steel. In understanding this context and its nuances, a therapist can understand the complexities of a main source of joy suddenly becoming a main source of pain.

Beyond finding a therapist you connect with, there are other hurdles involved in accessing one–namely, being able to attend weekly sessions and being able to afford to pay for them. Right after Adamson died, VanWiemeersch spent all her spare money–what she didn’t need for food and gas–moving out of the room she’d shared with him in Provo, Utah. His dirty socks were still on the floor, and she needed to give herself space, she said. But counseling sessions can cost anywhere from $75 to $150 per hour, and even people with health insurance can still find themselves paying out of pocket. VanWiemeersch found income-based counseling programs, but all of them required a commitment to weekly or biweekly sessions, which made them inaccessible to her because she traveled frequently for work.

At one point she called a crisis hotline–she was feeling down and didn’t know what else to do. She wasn’t at risk for harming herself, and once the people on the line determined that, they directed her toward a local program that had the same commitment conflicts as the first one she’d found. “I felt so hopeless,” she said in the video. “If there were better resources, I think they would be utilized.”

In November 2017, Sky Yardeni lost his best friend and climbing partner, Sela, in a climbing accident. He’d walked out of a yoga class and saw five missed calls from Sela’s wife, who was two-and-a-half months pregnant. Maybe something’s wrong with the baby, he thought. When she told him what had happened, he collapsed in tears. He was overcome with guilt: if he had been there, he thought, he might’ve been able to prevent the accident.

A few months later, Yardeni, who works as a therapist, was having dinner with two other climbers, Madaleine Sorkin and Eliav Nissan, in Boulder, Colorado. They sat on Nissan’s living room floor and shared stories of life and grief late into the night. It was cathartic, and in Yardeni’s case, revelatory. Because his friend’s death had happened in the context of climbing, Yardeni believed he needed to find support within the same context. That night at Nissan’s house was the first time since Sela died that Yardeni felt like he could breathe. “I immediately understood that there was something going on, it felt big and important,” he says of their conversation. He knew that a lot of other climbers probably needed something like that, too.

By then, Sorkin’s plan to create the Climbing Grief Fund (CGF) in partnership with the American Alpine Club was already in motion. When the fund launched in the autumn of 2018, it started out as a way to give out grants to climbers for therapeutic sessions. Over the last few years, the aims of the fund have grown much larger. In the spring of 2019, Yardeni joined the fund as the program’s therapeutic director.

Today, the CGF website hosts a range of resources to help support people who want to educate themselves about grief. The website also offers a variety of mental health resources, such as a directory of fifty-three therapists across nineteen states who’ve self-selected as understanding the climbing community.

The CGF has also created a series of some thirty videos, most nearly half an hour long, of recognizable people in the climbing community–Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Lynn Hill, John Roskelley–talking openly about their experience with grief and loss. “The videos are normalizing and destigmatizing grief by making stories and conversations accessible,” Yardeni says. This past year the CGF held group counseling workshops at the AAC’s Craggin’ Classic events across the country.

Across the climbing community, others are also working to expand conversations around grief and trauma. In her podcast, “For the Love of Climbing,” Kathy Karlo and her guests talk openly about emotion and vulnerability. Both Yardeni and VanWiemeersch have been guests on the show.

Last winter, a climber was looking at the CGF’s psychoeducation page entitled “What is Trauma?” and came to a sudden realization. In a post, they reflected: I realized I need help and that I could heal from this. Until now, I had given up hope that I’d ever enjoy climbing again. They were able to find a therapist on the site’s mental health directory and pay for it with a grant from the fund.

Sela Deutsch (left) and Sky Yardeni (right)

Sela Deutsch (left) and Sky Yardeni (right) in between climbs in 2015. “Grief affects everyone, it does, that’s just the reality,” Yardeni told the author. [Photo] Sky Yardeni

Like Sorkin had envisioned, the CGF is gaining traction in their effort to encourage more conversations about grief and loss, and to offer more guidance around what happens next when something goes wrong in the mountains.

Earle left Boulder a year after Gillett died. It was too difficult for her to be there. She moved into her station wagon and set off on an extended road trip, which ended up launching her career as a freelance outdoor photographer. For the first time since Gillett died, she went back to Yosemite.

It was hard for her to look up at the protruding granite block of Washington Column that was visible from many spots in the valley, but eventually Earle found her own community there and started to return nearly every season. “Now it’s like Yosemite is my place. I share it with Ethan, but I don’t go there and immediately think, This is the place where he passed away. I think of it as my second home,” she says. “Yosemite is where his spirit lives, and where I want to keep coming back to.”

After spending the past few years living on the road in her van and traveling internationally for her work, Earle moved back to Boulder last spring. It’s not easy for her to be back, but, she’s realized, no other place feels like home quite the way it does there. She wanted to find a therapist to talk to when she got back to town and found one through the Climbing Grief Fund.

After years of navigating her grief, Earle’s noticed the surprising ways in which her life has expanded. The worst pain she’s ever felt created the space for a much deeper sense of joy–she calls it one of grief’s gifts. “Obviously I’d give them all back to get Ethan back, but I can’t,” she says. A tiny “E” in Gillett’s handwriting tattooed on her left wrist offers a daily reminder.

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 71, which is available in our online store.–Ed.]