Colorado group aims to connect mountaineers dealing with grief

The sunlight captures the mighty layers of the Dolomites in Italy, as photographed by Henna Taylor on a trip in 2018 with her partner, Madeleine Sorkin. The Boulder women have started the Climbing Grief Fund to help struggling alpinists and raise awareness of mental health in the climbing community. Photo Courtesy of Henna Taylor.

In the summer of 1997, Marcus Garcia is two days into living on a portaledge high on El Capitan, he and his mentor, Jimmy Forester, under an unrelenting barrage of rain and sleet.

The climbers eat peanut M&Ms and drink frost to get by, but their spirits are unwavering. They are in their element, suffering.

“This is a message to my wife,” Forester says to a camera, fake crying as Garcia chuckles. “The thought of you is the only thing that’s kept me going the last couple days. I know you’re worried, I’m sorry. Mom, I’m coming home. I’m coming home.”

Flash forward to 2006. This time Forester doesn’t come home. He perishes attempting a vaunted ridge in northern Mexico.

Garcia gets the news back home, where he’s with his wife and their newborn girl. He should’ve been there, he feels, but his wife had asked him to stay. He feels unspoken anger toward her. The anger festers with the guilt.

Flash forward to 2016. Garcia wakes to find his wife and daughter gone. They’ve left. The pain deepens.

“I didn’t understand the grief process,” Garcia says now from his home in Durango. “I didn’t know how to explain what I was feeling; therefore, I felt ashamed, like I would be judged.”

That’s the thing about being a professional climber, he says: “We assume we have to be this fearless person because we’re doing these things that show strength. And by showing any sign of emotional weakness, it makes it seem like we’re weak.”

But then last fall he found himself at an event organized by grassroots nonprofit Climbing Grief Fund.

At Oregon’s Smith Rock, climbers had come to do what they do best while also practicing something unfamiliar: expressing the mental toll that their sport takes.

That’s where Garcia learned he was wrong about his so-called weakness. “It was a perception made up within myself,” he says.

Into its first full year as an organization backed by the American Alpine Club, Boulder-based Climbing Grief Fund aims to break a stigma within a growing sport.

It was built with the understanding that loss and post-traumatic stress disorder pervade climbers who’ve been in the game long enough, who’ve spent their lives chasing dangerous glory.

While mental health awareness spreads across society, there was work to be done in climbing circles, the fund’s founder felt.

“We hope this can be a missing link,” says Madaleine Sorkin, a 2004 Colorado College graduate now in Boulder. “A resource hub to better equip our community.”

The fund has so far issued 10 $600 grants, she says — modest sums meant to start recipients on a path to therapy. The goal is to increase money and, perhaps even more importantly, Sorkin says, to bring the discussion to the forefront.

She felt it was lacking in 2017, when the alpine community was rocked by a Montana avalanche that killed 23-year-old Inge Perkins, an accomplished climber. Hayden Kennedy, her boyfriend who’d similarly made a name for himself, had escaped. The next day, he committed suicide.

They were the next in a line of athletes Sorkin knew whose passions were intertwined with their demise. But this moment “especially brought the question in my mind,” she says. “What responsibility do we have at a community level?”

For decades the question went unasked, says Colorado Springs’ Stewart Green, who started climbing locally as a teen in the 1960s. He tagged along for some of the West’s most daring ascents of the day.

It was always scary, but that’s what made it fun, he says. “You don’t really think about the consequences of your actions. So when things go bad, it can certainly spiral out of control.”

As it did for a climbing friend back in the ‘80s, whom Green saw struggle with survivor’s guilt. The friend attempted suicide twice, succumbing to alcoholism as Green saw others do.

Sorkin has seen “numbing out” as an all-too-common recourse for fellow climbers. “And they know it’s a disservice to themselves, but they just haven’t found another way,” she says.

Climbing Grief Fund could help change that, says Kitty Calhoun, whose 40-year mountaineering career saw her achieve some of woman’s first ascents in the Himalayas.

“We need to know how to help each other,” Calhoun says. “We need to recognize that therapy shouldn’t be looked upon as a weakness but actually something somebody does to proactively help themselves.”

She wanted to get that message across in sharing her battle with depression for Climbing Grief Fund’s story archive — a project showing how some of the sport’s mightiest take on their troubles.

The more stories the better, Garcia says. He’s gone around sharing his, speaking to audiences of “The Mentor,” the 2019 short documentary about the loss of Forester and life after.

Garcia’s daughter, now 17, was there to watch the premiere.

“It was the first time I talked to her about everything,” Garcia says. And together, the two had a good cry.


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