BOW VALLEY – Bob Krysak was looking through the contents of a package dropped off at his doorstep in Canmore a few weeks ago when his jaw dropped.
In it were at least a dozen plaques, engraved with names and dates. He was expecting the package and reading and learning the story behind each name has become a ritual, but one stood out among the rest.
“It was the name of a friend of mine who died in 2006 in an avalanche,” said Krysak.
“He was an outdoor guy. We used to ski tour together, we used to hike together. He was an avid outdoorsman, and in 2006, he got caught in an avalanche and died.”
His name appearing out of thin air 17 years later stirred Krysak, who, years later, survived an avalanche while ski touring in Jasper National Park in 2011.
“I was at his memorial. … It makes you realize that these are names, but they’re people and there’s family connected to these people, and there’s a history connected to these people. It’s pretty powerful.”
Each shiny, little rectangle represents a person whose life was cut short in the mountains. Behind each name are the person’s loved ones, left at odds to deal with the grief that comes with an often sudden and unexpected loss.
When the weather warms, Krysak plans to carry the plaques up a trail near Alpine Canada’s Canmore Clubhouse to carefully measure and firmly bolt each one on a new bench overlooking the Three Sisters.
A dozen names already mark the 300-pound, locally carved log bench, manually carted about 300 metres up the trail by members of Bow Valley-based support group Mountain Muskox and the Alpine Club of Canada in October last year.
Mountain Muskox co-founder and professional ice climber Sarah Hueniken called the bench a “labour of love.”
“When you’re sitting there, it’s hard not to appreciate the beauty around you. I think sometimes we have this separation between loving the mountains and celebrating them, and grieving the loss of someone, and I think this is a way to kind of symbolize both in one,” she said.
The name of one of Hueniken’s best friends, Sonja Findlater, who died in an avalanche during a guided ice climb near Field, B.C. in 2019, was one of the first to be added to the bench.
“We can lose a lot, but we can also share that love of being in the mountains and share that grief together. As a community, when we do that together, it’s so much more healing than doing it on our own,” said Hueniken.
Danielle Weiss spent the summer of 2022 living in a van climbing around the Rocky Mountains. In September of that year, a friend she was with was killed in a rock climbing accident in Jasper National Park.
Weiss, who later became part of the committee that spearheaded the memorial bench, said she finds some solace in knowing her friend’s name is honoured and seen among other outdoor adventurers.
“I feel like he was doing so much and had so much going on. I just don’t want people to forget about him,” she said. “I don’t think they will but it’s reassuring to me to have something there in his memory.”
She said she was struck by how many names are on the bench, many who died young.
There’s a 29-year-old man from Squamish, B.C., who was killed Nov. 11, 2023, in an avalanche at the base of an ice climb in the Ranger Creek area of Kananaskis Country; a 26-year-old man killed in a climbing accident near Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park in 2020.
Other plaques mark people gone for decades, remembered by close friends and family near and far.
But a loss isn’t always confined to death. It can also manifest as a loss of self, place, purpose or a loved activity – a common thread connecting those involved with the bench project.
“The mountains are, for many, a place people go to find themselves or be close to nature, be close to their friends and a community,” said Hueniken. “It very much becomes a part of someone and so when you’ve had an accident – big or small; a near miss; whatever it is – it can really shake you up and really make you question if you belong there anymore, or if you still belong in a community that loves it so much. It leaves you with a lot of questions.”
Lorna White is lucky to be alive.
A boulder the size of a minivan came crashing down on her while hiking in the Bugaboos in B.C.’s Purcell Mountains in 2015.
“It kinda landed to my left, which took the general impact and then the boulder broke into the size of like a smart car and just decided to plop on top of me,” she said.
“My legs were pinned under the boulder; my right arm was crushed and my head was under the boulder as well.”
Her left arm was free and White, still conscious, was able to signal to her friend Krista that she was alive.
The pair were hiking near Bugaboo Glacier and other hikers, as well as a CMH Heli-Skiing helicopter were nearby.
White spent two hours under the boulder during a rescue that utilized three car jacks to pry her free of its crushing weight.
The CMH helicopter lifted her to nearby Bugaboo Lodge, where two paramedics tended to her injuries before STARS air ambulance arrived to take her to hospital.
“Krista exchanged a couple of numbers with people that had rescued me wanting to know the outcome because they weren’t sure if I would make it through the night even,” said White. “We called them the next day and they were pretty amazed.”
The Calgary woman sustained a fractured sternum, a large gash on her right leg, two broken bones in her right forearm – which collapsed, and numerous stitches on her left hand. Three fingers on her left hand also had to be amputated. She was in hospital for 12 days and spent several months rehabilitating movement in her hand and fingers.
“Then I started wall climbing to kind of strengthen that again,” she said.
It wasn’t long after she also started hiking again and then rock climbing.
“The mountains are still, at times, hard for me, but I’ve gotten much better at going out and I kinda make myself go out sometimes,” she said.
“It’s more kind of accepting what my new normal is in regard to physical capabilities and my new normal in terms of emotionally being in the mountains, and my new normal of loving the mountains in a different way and being kind of scared but still really happy to be among them.”
White stressed the importance of finding mental and emotional support in community. She was also part of putting the bench project together.
“It’s an amazing spot right by a tree overlooking the Three Sisters and the township. It’s gorgeous,” she said.
A pin and more information on the bench is available on Mountain Muskox’s website: www.mountainmuskox.com/memorial-bench.
“We welcome everyone to come visit it, have a seat, appreciate the mountains, appreciate the community and their loved ones,” said Hueniken. “It’s a beautiful place to remember beautiful people.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.