Grappling with the Fear of Adventure After Loss
When the author's childhood friend died in a climbing accident last year, her favorite outdoor pursuits took on a new layer of anxiety
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One year ago this week, my friend Catherine Nix died while climbing Teewinot Mountain. Teewinot is the sixth-highest peak in Wyoming’s Teton Range; it’s a jagged, pointy peak with room for just one person on its summit.
Summiting Teewinot was just one item on Cath’s to-do list last summer; in September, she would move to New York to pursue a doctorate in child psychology at Pace University. For her last summer in Jackson, her home of five years, she wanted to tackle each of her favorite climbs, bike rides, and trail runs one more time.
Catherine ticked off her demanding bucket list items all summer, sharing them on Instagram with the hashtag #victorylap. After all, she was celebrating her outdoor life in Jackson—winters skiing the backcountry and summers bagging the highest peaks in the Tetons.
“Cutch” was what most of her friends called her, especially around the time I met her in fifth grade at our all-girls school in Greenwich, Connecticut, when we became good friends. At a time when pubescent egos were eggshell-fragile, Cutch was the nicest friend I had. Attending different high schools and colleges, we grew less close, but we remained in touch as she moved to Jackson and I moved to Aspen. We shared an affinity for the mountains and life out West.
On August 23, 2015, I woke to a voicemail from her cousin Emily, whose voice was thick with tears: “Cutch died.”
Catherine and two friends were climbing a mountain in Jackson on August 22. They had veered off course from their planned route into more technical terrain; Catherine and her friend Tyler Strandberg fell from a steep ledge and did not survive. The third friend called 911 and was rescued by rangers via helicopter.
The details of the accident have been recounted numerous times, up through international news sources. I don’t want to focus on the headlines and the postulations of what might have gone wrong. They’re all slashed by one simple truth: it was unfair to the maximum degree.
That I see Catherine’s death as unjust isn’t only personal. Objectively, it doesn’t make sense that Catherine and Tyler, strong and capable climbers, died going up Teewinot. Catherine was the kind of athlete who ran back-to-back weekend marathons and sprinted up the toughest trails in the Tetons at altitude. She was too smart to be reckless and she knew the mountains in her backyard like the back of her hand. She’s the person I would’ve wanted leading the way up any peak in the Teton Valley.
When the news of Catherine’s death hit, a part of me—separate from the grief—hollowed in fear. The climb up Teewinot was not unlike one that my friends and I might have attempted in Aspen. I’m not as skilled or ambitious a climber as Cath was, but I like challenging myself, especially when the reward is endorphins and a breathtaking view. I still grapple with willfully but still semi-consciously handing Mother Nature the reins during outdoor pursuits.
A few weeks after Catherine’s accident I was climbing Castle Peak, a fourteener in the Elk Mountains. After summiting, my friends and I linked over to Conundrum Peak, another fourteener accessible from Castle’s summit by traversing a short ridge. Soon after beginning our descent from the top of Conundrum, we realized the route wasn’t marked. I am going to buy better hiking shoes tomorrow, I promised myself as I teetered and skidded down the steep, gravelly terrain above the treeline. But maybe I won’t get the chance, I thought next. It happened to Catherine—it could happen to me. I shouldn’t have done this climb in my Nike Flyknits, but it’s too late now.
That’s when I fell. My feet slipped out from under me and then I was sliding down the face of the mountain, gaining speed until I butt-bumped over a large rock and rolled to a stop. Terror and gratitude seized me. Other than a few cuts, a watermelon-sized bruise on my right thigh, and a ripped pair of Lululemons, I was fine. But the rest of the way down the mountain I was shaking, thinking only of Catherine as I tiptoed the remainder of the descent, even when the slope flattened. Driving away from the trailhead, my heart still hammered inside my chest.
I don’t know what Catherine thought about the risks tied to an adventurous lifestyle. I wish that I could ask her. I do know that she wasn’t the kind of person who would let fear thwart her goals—she loved life too much. She was adept and brave, and what happened a year ago was a terrible accident that cannot be dissected to reveal sense.
As the dust continues to settle, I’ve come to know that what happened to Catherine didn’t teach me fear for the sake of fear. Fear is an integral part of growth—we use it as fuel for what we want to achieve. We can’t let it bench us.
Cath’s friends and family continue to pay tribute. Her brother ran her place in the New York City Marathon months after the accident; a friend completed a 100-mile run in Leadville last weekend in Cath’s honor; the Jackson Hole Marathon, which Tyler and Cath both ran, holds its marathon relay in their memory.
We’ve transformed Cath’s hashtag #victorylap into #forevervictorylap. There’s no cure for the grief we’ll continue to feel, but we’re channeling her spirit and positive energy into our own lives and out into a world that badly needs it.
And when the sun lowers on the Tetons, tangerine light slipping down the rugged slopes, Catherine is still there, too.