Love and Loss in the Mountains
“You always think you’ll save the ones you love when the moment comes. But he didn’t save her.”
How do you keep going when you’re convinced you can’t?
When the mountains that brought you joy now echo with your grief, how do you return to them?
Adam Campbell thinks about these questions every day. At 42, he has experienced more hurt and loss in high places than most who spend a lifetime there. His body has been smashed. He lost his wife.
He has a story he wants to share, about what life looks like afterward. It does not offer Five Easy Steps to Bury Your Pain. He knows how deeply loss can cleave a person. But he also learned that we need other people to help pull us clear of the wreckage.
Campbell, a lean and chatty Canadian who lives in the mountain town of Canmore, Alberta, was a podium athlete in the outdoor world. If it was sweaty and hard, he excelled at it. He was a member of five Canadian national teams, in sports such as ski mountaineering and trail running, and a national champion in duathlon. In the summer of 2014, he made international news when, on the summit of a fourteener during Colorado’s famously grueling Hardrock 100 trail race, a lightning bolt knocked him and his pacer off their feet and fried Campbell’s headlamp. The duo picked themselves up and scampered over the pass. Campbell finished third.
It was typical of Campbell, who was in many ways puer aeternus, eternally youthful—that species of smiling mountain man endemic to North America’s high lonesome places, most often glimpsed moving fast over big country and more comfortable out there than back here. Out there was simpler, stripped down, hard, and gratifying for its hardness. “Suffering in beautiful places”—that was his mantra.
In 2015, Campbell met Laura Kosakoski. They started dating. She was remarkable, he told me—beautiful, athletic, so smart that she applied to become an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency and survived the first few elimination rounds. Kosakoski was also deeply empathetic: after years studying to become an anesthetist, she chose a lower paying position with a family practice instead. “She wanted to feel that she was able to help people in their day-to-day life,” Campbell says. Like him, she chose to live in the lap of the mountains.
It took the two men 45 agonizing minutes to uncover her face, which was blue and unresponsive. To keep Campbell focused, Hjertaas lied to him and said that she was still breathing.
One January morning in 2020, Campbell and Kosakoski met up in Banff with friend Kevin Hjertaas for a quick ski tour in nearby Banff National Park. The weather was stormy and grim, but the trio were experienced. Hjertaas is a ski guide and a former avalanche forecaster. Kosakoski and Campbell had both completed numerous avalanche courses and done lots of backcountry skiing; Campbell sits on the board of directors of the Avalanche Canada Foundation. For the day’s final run, the three stood above a small bowl. Kosakoski went first. Hjertaas waited, then followed. Above them, Campbell edged forward onto the ridge, keeping an eye out. Right then, the world cut loose beneath his feet.
The avalanche was enormous. It ran for more than a third of a mile, was deep enough to expose the mountainside, and threw a massive cloud of snow skyward. When the slide ended and the air cleared, Campbell could see Hjertaas, who had avoided the onrush of debris, but Kosakoski was missing. The men immediately started searching with their avalanche beacons. What the devices told them was horrifying: she was buried more than 12 feet below the surface.
This was so deep that they couldn’t dig straight down from their position above her on the steep slope, but had to start shoveling 30 feet away and at an angle.
It took 45 agonizing minutes to uncover her face, which was blue and unresponsive. To keep Campbell focused, Hjertaas lied to him and said she was still breathing. It took another 45 minutes to extract her body completely. Doctors later revived a weak heartbeat, but Kosakoski died the next evening.
There was grief—the staggering sadness of losing a wife and partner. And then, too, there was the deep violence of the moment, having to reckon with that experience. The group had made errors in judgment, the men later agreed. Moreover, Campbell believes he kicked off the avalanche that buried Kosakoski. Which brings us to the guilt—of surviving and of not rescuing her. You always think you’ll save the ones you love when the moment comes, Campbell told me. But he didn’t save her. Whether this judgment of himself is fair doesn’t really matter. He lives with it.
When multiple traumas occur together, they layer atop one another and accrete under pressure. The effect is geologic. Mountains are built of such layers. Continents sink. Experts call it complex PTSD. What does a person do under weight like that?