Evan Buhler
“Ultimately,” says Adam Campbell, “the person you were before the accident kind of dies along with your partner.” (Photo: Evan Buhler)

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.”

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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?

There is no simple answer to this question, no easy way through.

Campbell would find ways to cope in what might seem like an unexpected place: a moment that nearly killed him three years earlier, another instance that rearranged how he saw the world around him.

In August 2016, he was blazing through the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia with fellow trail-running stars Dakota Jones and Nick Elson. The three were attempting to scramble the multi-day Horseshoe Traverse mountaineering route above Rogers Pass in a single day. As Campbell climbed up a subpeak called Sulzer Tower, a handhold popped off in his palm. He remembers the mountains turning upside down as he tumbled 200 feet. By the time his body stopped falling, he had broken four vertebrae, smashed his ankle, and sheared off the top of his hip bone. A mountain-rescue crew happened to be working not far away and saved his life. At the hospital, his digestive system shut down for three days. Doctors inserted metal rods throughout his body.

Campbell lived, but he was changed. The day before, he was one of the best athletes on the planet. The day after, he says, “I literally couldn’t wipe my own ass. I was relying on strangers.” Nearly dying changed something else about him. The accident erased his perception—his delusion—that he was a strong, self-reliant athlete who didn’t need others. For years, whenever life had gotten complicated, he had run away, headed for the hills.

“The more chaotic my life got, the bigger the goals I would chase,” he says. Some of his biggest accomplishments occurred during times of personal turmoil, when he fled rather than faced his problems, including an early divorce from his first wife, before he met Kosakoski. “I was just numb, like fully numb,” he says of those years. “I could run hard and fast all the time, and it didn’t impact me at all. I didn’t feel tired ever.” He was not happy, though. “I was emotionally dead, and I also didn’t get any real satisfaction from it.” That pattern of running away continued well into his relationship with Kosakoski.

One reason Campbell was on the traverse that day was that he and Kosakoski had hit a rough patch. Instead of facing the challenge and repairing things, Campbell took off. Out there he was independent, and confronted only with entanglements he knew how to deal with. Mountains were easy. People were hard.

Now, as he lay in a hospital bed in the small hours, too battered to sleep, he saw through the long lie that he was totally self-sufficient. The doctors and nurses who had saved his life came in and out of the room. Family members who had flown in from all over the world circled his bedside. Kosakoski was there too, of course; she took a month off work to help him. He had always been propped up by others; he simply chose to ignore it. “It broke that shell that I put around myself,” he says. And then something amazing happened. “The more vulnerable you allow yourself to be, the more vulnerable people are back to you,” he says, “and that allows you to have even deeper, more intimate connections.” He and Kosakoski grew closer than ever. They married a year later.

Don’t misunderstand: no wisdom, however steep its price, can prepare you for losing the person you planned to spend your life with. In the year since her death, the grief has hit Campbell in waves, receding one minute, overwhelming him the next. A few days after the accident, while walking over a railroad trestle, he looked down and thought how easy it would be to tip over the side, the water below it cold and embracing. But he didn’t. He thought about other people. He thought about the pain it would cause them.

If he learned one thing through all this, it’s that friends and family are a gift—their profound grace, and the solace that can be found in them. “The biggest thing for me is allowing myself to be open with others, to share what I’m going through and let them try to help,” he says. They call. They check in. People want to be there if you’ll let them. Campbell calls now, too, which he never would have done before. He leans on those he loves. He’s honest.

The changes Campbell underwent while dealing with his grief represent a shift in awareness that’s growing in the outdoor world. Mountain towns, and the risk-takers who populate them, long responded to loss with a hardman approach—­stoically, on their own, perhaps with a whiskey or three while seated at the end of the bar. Survivors of deadly events would often feel isolated. And even the caring communities where they lived didn’t know how to reach them. Hjertaas says he knows longtime ski patrollers who have seen so much tragedy that they can no longer even respond to accidents.

But that reaction is changing. Maria Coffey’s 2003 book Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow is about people left behind after such deaths, and it helped open the conversation. So, too, has acceptance of the truth that grief is not weakness, nor is it necessarily a plea for help. Tim Tate, a psychotherapist in Bozeman, Montana, began seeing mountain athletes in 2018 and now works with members of the North Face team, who sometimes visit him in person for intensive four-day sessions. Last year the American Alpine Club started the Climbing Grief Fund, which includes small grants for climbers in need of counseling services. The fund had ten applications in its first 24 hours.

Now, as he lay in a hospital bed in the small hours, too battered to sleep, he saw through the long lie that he was totally self-sufficient. “It broke that shell that I put around myself,” he says.

Late last year, Campbell began helping out with a new group called Mountain Musk Ox, the brainchild of a few Canmore residents, including Janet McLeod, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma treatment, and mountaineer Barry Blanchard, who has lost several friends and clients in the mountains over his storied career. (The group’s name refers to the tough-as-nails musk ox and its instinct to encircle vulnerable members of the group when threatened.)

The program is a series of group sessions for men and women who have experienced gutting loss in hard circumstances—it’s a chance to talk openly about their trials and to work through them. Hjertaas is involved, too; he told me that people keep contacting him, saying they wish the program existed when they went through hell. In time, organizers hope to expand to other mountain communities.

There is no road map to a quick exit from grief, though. Others can help—can be there to hold up a lantern in the limitless dark—but in the end, each must find their own way out. “You have to be really, really gentle on yourself,” Campbell says. “Ultimately, the person you were before the accident kind of dies along with your partner, because you’re just so deeply changed by it. And you have to accept that and learn what your new life is like.

“You have to be reborn.”

Campbell isn’t angry at the mountains. He doesn’t hold them responsible. He quotes Reinhold Messner: “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.”

Last summer, Campbell returned to the site of the accident. When he located his wife’s ski in a creek, he fell to his knees. But the mountainside was not windswept and cold. It was alive with bouquets of wildflowers and the thrum of running water. “I ultimately find my comfort and joy in nature,” he says. He has been among high peaks, skiing or climbing, almost every day since. His priorities have changed, though. Time outdoors is no longer about big goals. In part, this is because his body is no longer the same. But neither is his mind. He simply relishes being outside with others in a way he didn’t fully appreciate before. “The conversations I have with people out in nature are some of the best conversations I have. They’re the most honest and raw,” he says. “I find that that is where people are their genuine selves.”

One day over the winter, Camp­bell shared a story online about kintsugi, the centuries-old Japanese art in which cherished items that have been chipped or broken, such as a vase or a teakettle, are mended with a lacquer that includes gold dust. The result highlights the fissures that have been repaired. The analogy appealed to him.

“It treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object,” he wrote, “something to celebrate.” Those breaks help define us, and they give us a hard-won beauty. When we show them, and the ways we’ve healed and grown stronger, he says, we know where one another are coming from, what we’ve all been through. And our community is healthier for it.