It was supposed to be just another climbing day. On a windless, warm Saturday in September of 2003, Sandy Fransham, her partner, John Ionescu, and their friend Gerry Drotar headed into the mountains west of Calgary. They weren’t planning to push the limits of their capabilities, or to court danger. All three were experienced recreational rock climbers and the route they had selected, a climb called Bonanza, was moderate for their skills.
It was remote, though, in a wilderness area north of Banff and Canmore that was not accessible by car. And it was long: 260 metres high, or seven pitches to a climber—roughly speaking, seven lengths of the long rope they had carried with them on the short hike from the trailhead.
Ionescu, a 35-year-old engineer, grew up leading an adventurous life in his native Romania. His approach had been DIY by necessity: climbing with friends on homemade gear and sewing his own down clothing for expeditions. Fransham, a 30-year-old high school math teacher, had come to climbing in her 20s. The pair met through the Calgary chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada, a national group that connects like-minded outdoors lovers for events and excursions. They had met Drotar, who worked for Greyhound, through the group, too.
In traditional rock climbing, members of a group take turns as the lead climber, ascending using their hands and feet to find leverage on the irregularities in the rock and inserting specialized gear into the cracks they find along the way. They clip their rope into each piece of gear as they climb, and when they fall, they count on the gear to catch them.
Fransham and Drotar led the way up the first two pitches of the route, and then it was Ionescu’s turn to climb first. He went up and to the left of the other two, who waited and watched on a small ledge below. He was working his way through a particularly smooth, flat section of rock. Fransham could see that he was struggling. As his position became tenuous, and he looked around for somewhere to place another piece of gear, she whispered: “He’s going to fall.” Moments later, Ionescu came unstuck from the rock wall and plummeted.
When his weight hit his highest piece of gear, it ripped out from the crack where he’d placed it. He fell further, tumbling and slamming against the wall’s rough edges, and when the next piece of gear finally caught him, he was dangling below the ledge where Fransham and Drotar stood. He was semi-conscious and bleeding from his nose, but he was breathing.
They were high enough up on the rock face that Fransham’s phone found a couple of bars of service. She called 911 for help, and then Drotar secured her rope while she climbed down to where Ionescu hung in his harness. He was tall, and she was only five foot two, but she was fit and strong. “It’s amazing what you can do, physically, when you’re trying to save the life of the man you love,” she says.
She slung Ionescu’s dead weight across her back and climbed laterally, hauling him to another ledge below the one where Drotar stood. Soon, he stopped breathing. She began CPR and waited for the helicopter to arrive.
It took two different attempts with two different helicopters before rescuers were able to reach them on the steep terrain. During that time, another pair of climbers came over to help. At first, Ionescu occasionally stirred and tried to speak in Romanian, but as time passed he faded further. Fransham estimates that she performed CPR on Ionescu for two hours—too long to have any real hope of a good outcome, as she and anyone else with first-responder training knows. But neither Drotar nor the other climbers were going to tell her to stop.
When the helicopter lifted Ionescu away into the evening light and Fransham prepared herself to rappel down and follow him to the hospital, she shoved down any thoughts about the time that had passed, or his deteriorating condition. It was only when she arrived at the hospital in Banff and his two best friends met her at the front doors that the shock hit her. John was gone.
In the months that followed, Fransham moved through a fog of grief. At school, she found that speaking in front of the class forced her to focus her mind, but lesson planning and marking were hopeless. Eventually she took a stress leave and saw a series of counsellors. There were painful tasks to work through, like arranging for travel visas for Ionescu’s family in Romania so they could attend the funeral. And then there were the unexpected jabs of hurt, like the day his certificate of Canadian citizenship came in the mail. He had passed his test and completed the process not long before he died.
She returned to climbing quickly, but carefully, choosing companions who would understand if she became emotional. She struggled to explain her choice to head back into the mountains to her family. She had sympathy and support from the people around her, but sympathy, she found, didn’t teach her how to get through the fog. “I was so scared of being so damaged emotionally that I might as well just be dead,” she says. She was terrified of remaining stuck in grief—stuck, in a way, on that rock ledge.
Every year in Canada’s vast wild spaces, people out having fun or seeking adventure are killed or seriously injured. Those who survive these events are left with a particular flavour of trauma, one that is often mingled with feelings of guilt and shame. Some have been able to access traditional counselling or try out the various new therapies that are being developed for post-traumatic stress disorder. But many, suspecting that no one would understand their situation, have tried to move forward alone.
A new group based out of Canmore, Alberta, is trying to bridge that gap. They call themselves Mountain Muskox, referencing the shaggy Arctic herd animals that protect themselves by forming a tight defensive circle. The idea is to provide a peer support group for people who’ve experienced trauma while they work or play in the mountains: guides, first responders, athletes and anyone else in need. Mixing weekend warriors with some of Canada’s most accomplished mountaineers and climbers, the group is tearing down the silence that has traditionally shrouded trauma in outdoor sports.
There are a lot of ways to be hurt or killed in the outdoors. Hikers drown, climbers fall, skiers hit trees or are buried in avalanches. Rock climbing, ice climbing and mountaineering generate enough dangerous events that the American Alpine Club has published a book, Accidents in North American Climbing, every year since 1948, analyzing each disaster. Avalanches alone have killed more than 500 Canadians since 1970. There are risks from rockfall and snow slides, the adrenalin rush of whitewater and the slow creep of hypothermia.
There are also rich rewards. For many people, there’s no substitute for the sensory experience they find in the mountains: the crisp quality of the air, the way light plays on a snow-covered slope in the distance, the distinctly satisfying full-body exhaustion of a big day out. Adventurers thrive on the closeness of the bonds formed between climbing or hiking partners, and the way the physical and technical demands of mountain sports can clear and concentrate their minds. The inherent risks are often connected to all these things that make outdoor sports so appealing—and this can complicate a person’s recovery when things go wrong.
Geoff Powter is a veteran climber who was also a practising psychologist in Canmore for many years. “When I was counselling, I heard time and time again that people coming in were thankful they had a climber-therapist who they could talk to because they hadn’t had so much luck with ‘civilian’ counsellors,” he says. “Why? Because in their minds, the people they were talking to were criticizing mountain sports and trying to get them to explore things like leaving the sport, or questioning the community’s cultural norms around death as part of the game.”
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That disconnect is part of the reason therapy hasn’t traditionally been part of the culture of mountain sports, even though the risk of loss and trauma is baked in. Barry Blanchard, a climber and long-time professional mountain guide in the Canadian Rockies who’s one of the co-founders of Mountain Muskox, never heard about mental health care from the older mountain guides who mentored him. Blanchard, now 63, first found his way to therapy in 1986, after an accident killed two of his clients on a guided trip. The anchor holding him and his group on a steep snow slope sheared through the snow, sending them sliding. Their long fall brought an avalanche down with them. “I was probably one of the first mountain guides to be involved in therapy,” he says. He only wound up in counselling because a close friend connected him to a psychiatrist who had been a climber himself.
More than 35 years later, Blanchard is still working through the things he’s witnessed and experienced in the mountains. In 2019, he was seeing Janet McLeod, a Canmore-based psychologist, when he learned he was just one of a handful of her regular clients with similar stories: professional guides who had suffered losses in their work. McLeod suggested they get a group together. Initially it was just the four of them: McLeod, Blanchard, the accomplished ice climber and guide Sarah Hueniken, and another veteran mountain guide, Todd Guyn. “We’d meet every couple weeks and just talk,” says Blanchard. Speaking to people who shared similar experiences helped break through the isolation that can build up, and McLeod was able to help them process their emotions. “It was definitely something that helped us all, and we thought, ‘Yeah, it would be great if we can formalize this and bring it to a larger group of people,’ ” says Blanchard.
With logistical support from the Alpine Club of Canada, which signed on as a partner, they prepared a pilot program. They started with a dozen people from various backgrounds, gathered through their networks, along with two facilitators with experience leading sessions for each group meeting. The idea wasn’t to dwell on the details of the losses that had brought each person to the group. Instead it was about looking forward. What happens after the incident? What’s next?
After trying a few different therapists in the wake of John’s death, Sandy Fransham eventually joined a support program for people who’d lost their spouses, which included one-on-one sessions and group work. “That is where I finally felt like, okay, I got the help I needed,” she says. Even though most of the people in the group were much older—she was only 30 when John died—and most had lost their partners under very different circumstances, they still understood her situation, her moods, her sense of alienation. One day, she was in the grocery store, surrounded by people picking up milk or bread, and was filled with the urge to puncture the normalcy, to scream into the quiet aisles: “My boyfriend just died!” She didn’t, of course, but she did tell the group about it later. There was nothing that felt better, she says, than sharing a thought or feeling that might have seemed strange or inappropriate to someone outside their group and having the people in the circle around her nod their heads.
Thanks to the support program, Fransham found her way out of the fog. She stayed in Calgary, kept on climbing, continued to be an active volunteer in the Alpine Club of Canada chapter where she had first met John. Eventually she married another man she met through the Alpine Club—he was more of a skier than a climber, so they had things to teach each other—and they had two children, in 2008 and 2011.
Her kids grew, and soon they were able to participate in more and bigger outdoor adventures with her—and learn to climb. Wanting to refresh her old skills, she signed up for an ice climbing course, and that’s where she met Sarah Hueniken. She had heard about Hueniken’s recent loss: in March 2019, during a women’s climbing camp, two guides and their clients were finishing their day when an avalanche descended. One of the guides, a close friend of Hueniken’s and her camp manager, was killed. When Fransham approached Hueniken, asked about her loss and shared her own story, Hueniken told her about Mountain Muskox.
“This is a gift being given to me, right?” Fransham remembers thinking. “This was a perfect fit for me, to be able to help others and share my experience.” She had long wanted to find a way to pay forward what she’d learned, and here was the best opportunity she could have imagined. In early 2021, along with Blanchard and Hueniken, she became a member of the first Mountain Muskox circle. At a ranch on the outskirts of Canmore, they would meet biweekly for three-hour sessions.
Their experiences spanned decades, from Blanchard’s accident in 1986 to much rawer, more recent pain. Some members of the group, like Fransham, were dealing with a singular, catastrophic event; others had faced a more gradual accumulation of trauma in the mountains. Marc Lomas was one of them. He’d moved to Banff soon after high school and worked his way up from washing dishes in a local restaurant to working on the ski patrol at a major resort. In 2005, on the opening day of his second season on patrol, he high-fived a buddy at the top of a run. They skied off in separate directions, but a short while later, Lomas was called to an accident site. The patient was his friend, who had fallen and hit his head. He didn’t make it. It was the first of many fatalities and serious injuries he would respond to.
He spent another decade as a ski patroller, and eventually as an avalanche forecaster, but increasingly, he struggled to force himself to take calls he’d once jumped at. He experienced panic attacks, nightmares and flashbacks. Eventually he was diagnosed with PTSD and realized he could no longer function effectively as a first responder. “Even in 2015,” he says, “the attitude was still very much, ‘You cry into your corn flakes and go to work.’ You didn’t talk about it.” He didn’t know anyone else who had taken time off to recover from trauma, and he felt cut off from the community that had been his world since high school.
After several years of working with a few therapists and struggling to return to work as a fully functioning ski patroller—or even to return to skiing at all—Lomas found his way to Janet McLeod’s practice. He’d been seeing her for a year when she introduced him to Mountain Muskox. He describes his work with the group as life-changing. The power was in the group members’ shared experiences—there was no need to dwell on the worst moments, or explain himself. Lomas doesn’t even know the details of some of the other members’ accidents or losses. The fact of their similar backgrounds provided a baseline of trust and understanding. “Anybody who’s been in a good friendship or relationship or therapy knows that the ability to be vulnerable is when some of the real magic happens,” he says. Opening up about his present and his future, without wallowing in the past, helped him work through his symptoms. “I don’t go out and ski crazy couloirs or anything like that anymore,” he says, “but I can go out for a day of ski touring and enjoy it, and not just be in a state of panic the whole time.” There are still hard times, but he has the tools to enjoy the good moments, and to sit with the discomfort when it comes. Now, at 38, he’s retraining as an electrician.
Aline Garant, who has volunteered on a search-and-rescue team near Calgary for a decade and, as a result, witnessed some hard scenes, calls the group a lifeline. Every member has already attended one-on-one counselling—that’s a prerequisite for joining—and Garant says that kind of individual therapy has a crucial role in the early stages of trauma. “And then what?” she says. Months pass, years pass. The crisis is behind you, but healing from trauma is not as simple as getting the cast off a broken leg. “That support becomes so sporadic that you can easily fall down the crevice again and lose your bearing.” The group serves as a bridge that carries its members back into everyday life.
One thing each Muskox member agrees on: the group works in part because it offers them the chance to help each other, not just themselves. Oakley Werenka is a 29-year-old recreational climber who joined the group after witnessing fatal climbing accidents in two consecutive summers. “Initially, I was reaching out more for myself,” he says. “But as it progressed, it changed into something more than that.” He found satisfaction in being able to help the other members of the group, answering their questions or simply offering support and solidarity, and that in turn helped him. That effect was intentional. “Part of the recovery process is this transcendent experience of being able to give back to other people in the community,” says McLeod.
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That was what Sandy Fransham was seeking when she joined the group. It’s now been 19 years since Ionescu’s death, and she feels she has something to offer others who were newer to their losses. Sometimes the group’s work is hard on her—a reminder that nobody is ever fully healed from these sorts of events. “My heart hurts, my chest physically hurts, when I see other people hurting,” she says. Still, it feels good to talk openly about the terrain she’s already covered, to be able to answer hard questions like: What was it like for you to enter into a new relationship? How does your grief for John live alongside your love for your husband and your kids?
The first cohort still gathers when they can. At one recent meeting, their first informal one without a therapist present, Fransham stepped into the lead as a facilitator for the first time. It was a subtle shift from her role as a group member—their approach has always been collaborative, rather than top-down, but this time she found herself tracking the conversation, and the emotions flowing below it, more closely. Was anyone in particular struggling? Was there something they hadn’t quite managed to say that she should bring up again at a better moment?
The group’s work emphasizes emotional self-awareness: participants learn to observe their feelings, their trauma responses, and to manage their capacity in their daily lives accordingly. Fransham has come a long way and it is empowering to realize that she now has the capacity, the emotional space, to focus on other people’s grief, and to give back.
She hopes to keep serving as a facilitator as Mountain Muskox welcomes new cohorts and launches regional circles in other mountain towns, as do other members of the pilot group. The plan is for each group to provide the seeds for the next. Trauma can ripple outward from its initial source, touching people in a spreading ring of pain, but so too can healing.
This article appears in print in the May 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The hardest climb.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.