British Columbia

They died doing what they loved: when words meant to soothe fail to comfort

High-alpine mountaineers, climbers and skiers accept the inherent risks because the pursuit of adventure is worth it.

'None of these extreme adventurers want to die,' says author of Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow

Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman went missing on Mount Everest in 1982. Here, the high-alpine climbing team sits atop Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. (Boardman Tasker Charitable Trust)

In the days after the deaths of three hikers at B.C.'s Shannon Falls Provincial Park earlier this month, many friends and family described Alexey Lyakh, Ryker Gamble and Megan Scraper as an adventurous trio who died doing what they loved.

It's an old saying that's often tossed around when an untimely death occurs among those who take risks in the outdoors.

While it may offer a level of comfort to some, others feel the phrase is a tired, oversimplification of the emotional toll extreme adventure can take on those left behind after a tragic accident.

In the 36 years since Maria Coffey's boyfriend disappeared on Mount Everest, she's grown to despise the phrase, though she understands why it's used.

"It's so painful you have to find some reason, some justification," Coffey said referring to the deaths of her boyfriend Joe Tasker and climbing partner Peter Boardman in 1982.

Hearing those words repeated after Tasker's disappearance made Coffey angry; she felt it misrepresented the pain often felt by family members of outdoor risk-takers.

"None of these extreme adventurers want to die. None of them have a death wish. They in fact have an intense life wish," she said, explaining that wish is about wanting to live life to its fullest.

Coffey now runs her own adventure travel company, Hidden Places, on Vancouver Island.

Children feel abandoned

Between 2000 and 2002, Coffey interviewed 120 mountaineers and family members of deceased climbers for her book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure.

Many climbers told her how they were torn between a pull to be at home and a pull to be in the mountains.

"When they were in the mountains all they thought about was their families." Coffey said, adding, "as soon as they got back to their families, they wanted to get back to the mountains.

"It was a struggle for them all the time."

The conversations with children of climbers were the most revealing, said Coffey.

"They did talk about feeling abandoned, saying that the mountains had come first and they felt as children that they should have come first."

Phil Tomlinson had the opposite reaction when his father died.

Tomlinson is a mountaineer who frequently skis in B.C., but now lives in Alberta.

While on vacation, he convinced his father to try downhill skiing. He became obsessed with the sport for the next decade, eventually volunteering for ski patrol.

It was while on patrol, in 2005, that his father died.

While skiing his favourite run near Ontario's Collingwood, north of Toronto, he caught the edge of a ski on the snow and fell, breaking a rib which punctured his aorta.

The death of his father in a freak skiing accident deepened the resolve of Phil Tomlinson, pictured above, to be in the outdoors. (Phil Tomlinson)

"I drew an incredible amount of comfort from the fact that he died skiing. To me that was so, so much better than if he had died in a car accident or something like that."

The death deepened Tomlinson's resolve to spend more time skiing, but the accident had a different effect on his mother.

"I think my mom lives in perpetual terror of the day that she gets a phone call that I'm not coming home," said Tomlinson. He tries to assure her he's doing his best to die of old age.

"At the same time, I've tried to explain to her that if I don't come back due to an accident in the mountains . . .  I'd like her to remember that I died doing what I loved," he said.

The Great Wide Open is an outdoor column that airs on CBC's The Early Edition. Listen to it here:​


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