How Death in the Mountains Affects Those Left Behind: Interview With Maria Coffey

It’s already been a tough year for the mountaineering community. Five lives have been lost on K2 and two more perished in an avalanche in the Italian Alps. The mountaineers left behind friends and families. Some had young children.

We spoke to author Maria Coffey about how families and climbers balance home lives with the risks inherent in high-altitude mountaineering. Coffey has authored or co-authored 10 books, including Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow, Explorers of the Infinite and Fragile Edge, which details her relationship with famed UK mountaineer Joe Tasker, who perished on Everest in 1982. Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow deals specifically with the effect of mountain deaths on families back home.

Our Comments section is divided over whether some of the missing K2 climbers have been “selfish” because they have children at home. Is climbing an inherently selfish act?

When I wrote my book, I decided to avoid making the judgment of selfish or addicted. But it was very interesting that most of the climbers I spoke to said, “Of course it’s selfish, how could it not be?”

They have this inherent need to climb and they make their own rationale for how and why they go. But as we drilled down, they often acknowledged that they weren’t doing this for their families; they had this deep need to climb. Particularly with something as dangerous as K2 in winter, there has to be some understanding that to go off and do this, you are putting your own needs above those of your partner, children, or parents.

After a mountaineering tragedy, the why of climbing is inevitably brought up. Is “because it’s there” enough?

It is a deep need for many climbers. Every human being needs transcendence, moments of stillness, moments of perfection. We all yearn for this and we all find it in different ways. Some of us get this from a beautiful sunset, from yoga, from running. But some people are wired in such a way that they can only find those moments doing something more extreme.

In my book Explorers of the Infinite, I interviewed a lot of climbers and was amazed that most of them didn’t balk at the idea of a spiritual need to climb. Many climbers have told me that they long to reach these moments of stillness when objectives are clear and life feels simple. I do wonder how much harder it is to find these moments now, with cellphones, sponsors, blog posts, and social media obligations.

What are the positives of pursuing a risky passion like climbing?

The world needs risk-takers. We are inspired by them. Inspired by their leaps into the unknown, pushing the boundaries of imagination and physical possibility, all those things that have always pushed explorers, from time immemorial, to explore. Discovering spiritual, physical, and mental territory is a deep need.

Would public judgments about Snorri, Mohr, and Sadpara be different if they were women?

Oh, absolutely. There was a furore regarding Alison Hargreaves when she died [climbing K2 in 1995] because she had young children. Her memory was ripped apart. Even before she left on her expedition, she was ripped apart in the press.

However, I think there is more discussion now, whether the climber is male or female. There is more equality in relationships too. There was a lot of blowback from mountaineers when I first published Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow. I felt like I was opening up the conversation and it’s been gratifying to see that these discussions are becoming more prevalent. Twenty years ago, you’d never have gotten the reactions you are getting on your website.

In your experience, what might the impact be on the families left behind?

It’s devastating. I think particularly when the person has died so far away and if the person has disappeared without a trace, it compounds the loss. If the bodies have been left on the mountain, there is no possibility of seeing the body to say goodbye. It can be hard to believe they have gone.

Of course, it is different for everybody. When I interviewed partners who had lost someone, many had found it very difficult to let themselves be angry. For me, that came a lot, lot later. You felt angry because the person had gone away but you don’t want to let that feeling in. But I think for me, there was the sense that there was another great love in my partner’s life. Partners at least have a choice, they have chosen to be with someone who is going to take these risks.

Likewise, for the children, there is no one pattern. There have been instances when a child has told me that the role of a parent was to protect them and that they couldn’t understand why their father or mother had put themselves before their child. Age can factor into the impact, but even very young children can feel the absence of the parent throughout their life. I had a very emotional interview with the daughter of Mick Burke who was lost on Everest in 1975. She spoke about problems in her relationships with men, a fear of being left. She described it as a shadow in her life.

We shouldn’t forget the parents either, the suffering for the parents is terrible too.

How do families deal with a major expedition?

These days, you can be in close contact during an expedition. I’ve spoken to people who have experienced expeditions before and after this technological change. Interestingly, they have said it is harder now, as you can’t switch off. Every time the phone rings or your phone beeps, it could be news. It can increase the stress level.

Some people build up a wall, I know I did this. It’s almost like a defense each time the person goes away, just to be able to deal with it emotionally. One woman told me that each time she built up this wall, she built it slightly higher and that eventually, she thought the wall would be so high her partner might not be able to come back in over it.

There is an element of denial. You have to block out the risks and believe that they are going to come back. Maybe some people are pragmatic enough to prepare for the loss of a loved one, but you can’t know how devastating it is until it happens.

How do climbers mentally separate their home life from the risks required in their professional life?

I was surprised how many mountaineers didn’t have wills, even those with children. Some would actually say, “Well, I’m not going to die.” They didn’t want to face that possibility. There were all these rationalizations. But the question that always stopped them in their tracks was, “What do you say to your children just before you leave on an expedition?” Without fail, they found the question very hard. Some broke down. It was a question they almost couldn’t bring themselves to answer.

I think that anybody who embarks on something so dangerous has to compartmentalize. In my book, I called them masters of denial. Climbers told me about how they change their focus away from home and toward the mountain. Joe and I didn’t discuss the risk of death often, because he didn’t want to talk about it, but I remember him saying once, “if I really think about what would happen to you if I die, I wouldn’t be able to go and climb, so I don’t think about it.” I think that sums it up really.

I’ve often been asked if mountaineers have a death wish. They definitely don’t, they have a life wish! They are among the most life-affirming people I have ever met.

Is family life ever really compatible with life as an 8,000m climber?

I’ve never had any regrets about my relationship with a mountaineer. But I was young and had a life ahead of me, and we didn’t have children.

Passing judgment is very difficult. I never wanted to take a hard line on that. If a climber survives, it is OK, right? Some climbers get away with it. Many famous mountaineers have families, have children. If they survive, there is no judgment. Unfortunately, there are those who don’t get away with it. Climbers risk breaking the hearts and shattering the lives of those who love them the most.

+1

About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam.

A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon.

He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon.

His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.

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dgn
dgn
21 days ago

Thank you for bringing us this thoughtful interview. I do think that part of being a parent is living an inspired, purposeful life that you love and showing your children what that looks like. Not being a professional mountain climber, from the outside it seems clear that mountaineering is a bit of a Russian roulette: even if you are skilled and don’t take risks, the challenge is such that there is always a very real danger of not making it back. But I also understand that it is difficult to know where to draw the line between doing something you… Read more »

Kiper
Kiper
21 days ago
Reply to  dgn

Here is a theory: in some cases (not always!) the problem arises when you turn mountaineering into a job. When your success in the mountains drives your income (from sponsorships, presentations, coaching etc.), the pressure increases. When your family depends on you for that income the pressure is even higher. Also, as you age, there is less and less opportunity to build a strong resume that you can capitalize on in the later years (like Messner for example). This probably increases the amount of risk that one is willing to take especially among older climbers (over 35). You need sponsors… Read more »

MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
20 days ago
Reply to  Kiper

I think you raise a very important point. The potential financial rewards including sponsorships add an additional layer of complication to already driven personalities. Not sure how this can be mitigated, but this really merits serious discussion. For example, in 2014 Clif Bars changed their sponsorship program and dropped 5 climbers because they feared the sponsorship was driving athletes to take too many risks. From the NY Times: “We concluded that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go,” Clif… Read more »

Francisco DM
Francisco DM
21 days ago

Great article. Such an interesting approach to the matter.

0
Denis Fitzgerald
Denis Fitzgerald
21 days ago

if you have children, you take a responsibility to raise them until they are 18/ Going on a dangerous “adventure” is selfish , foolhardy and a complete abdrogation of parental reponsibiliy. Someone else will climb the mountain or do the windsuit thing etc . Get it out of your system before you become a parent or do not be a parent. These people are incredubly selfish and self centered and dowmright cruel to their children.

+2
No sence
No sence
20 days ago

Ahyeah? Whatabout american soldiers with small kids going to Afghanistan and dont return cuz they get killed from an IED or ambush? Americans honor those guys cuz its your job!they are heroes.

A mountainguide with passion go to a Mountain and fall or get killed from an avalanche…. Hes a selfish,what a cruel monster…. He let her daughter alone.. no its his Job but dont get honored. Deal with it.

+2
All Sense
All Sense
20 days ago
Reply to  No sence

Soldiers who go to war are delusional and are often patriotic rednecks. There is nothing glorified about them. They’re equally as selfish as mountaineers. All about the ego.

0
jonesnori
jonesnori
20 days ago
Reply to  All Sense

I believe a substantial majority of people enlist because they have few other financial opportunities. Many are from minority communities. As to the officers, you may be closer to right.

+1
Tina
Tina
20 days ago

Totally 💯 agree with you. It’s the ones that they leave behind that suffers not them.

+1
Elena
Elena
20 days ago

When I was 13, my young and handsome father met his last avalanche in the mountains. To say that it was a tragedy for me.. is to say nothing! But.. I knew from birth that my father is happy only in the mountains. I didn’t like hiking. but I loved seeing happiness on my father’s face. And never in my life have I reproached or condemned him for his choice.
I see no reason to reproach John Snorri, Ali, J.P. and others who remain forever in the mountains, in selfishness. They just couldn’t live differently.

+3
gustav
gustav
20 days ago
Reply to  Elena

Well said!

0
Sean
Sean
20 days ago
Reply to  Elena

Except they could live differently. We have choices.

+1
nick
nick
20 days ago

Thank you for this interview.

0
barbara
barbara
20 days ago

thanx very much for this interview & the lively and inspiring articles and discussions

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Jodie
Jodie
20 days ago

“The world needs risk takers”

Is that what the parent left behind tells the young crying and grief-struck child when they ask why daddy/mommy isn’t coming home?

I think if you are someone without kids then it’s fine to go ahead and play Russian roulette with your life by climbing “killer mountains” if you want. But if you have young children at home or children at all for that matter, and you choose to go climb K2 especially in winter you’re just selfish. Plain and simple.

+2
Donal O’Brolchain
Donal O’Brolchain
20 days ago
Reply to  Jodie

Risk is part of life eg. Cycling on city streets, driving a car. Yes, some activities have higher risks than others and are widely acknowledged as such, eg. climbing 8000m peaks. Other high risk sports (engaged in voluntarily) do not get the same publicity eg. diving, skiing, horse riding(in all its forms), skiing off piste, recreational climbing by people who earn their living doing other things and various forms of non-powered “flight”. When we do something risky, most of us think we can manage and mitigate the risk. When we misjudge and/or fail – wholly or partially – it is… Read more »

MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
20 days ago

When talking about risk it is easy to forget how much the risk varies by activity and other circumstances, and easy to become comfortable with risks we take on frequently. For example, check out one attempt to characterize the levels, using a concept called micromorts, a unit related to the risk of death. You can quibble with how these particular calculations were made, but nothing would bring 8k mountaineering close to any of the other activities. It is off the charts.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micromort

0
dgn
dgn
19 days ago
Reply to  MuddyBoots

This is a great point. People are not good at quantifying risk or reasoning about quantities that differ by many orders of magnitude. We can talk all about this and that activity as also being risky as if they are comparable with mountaineering, but few really are.

0
Jay
Jay
20 days ago

Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow is one the best books I have read on mountaineering.

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Michaela
Michaela
20 days ago

Thanks for this interview! What halpened at K2 pushed me back to 2012 when 3 climbers got lost on Hiddenpeak including a pakistani climber. It was like a flashback as I lost my boyfriend. For those who are left behind its the hardest thing you can experience. Hope to find them alive never dissapear! As time goes by you start hoping to find just his bod. Just to know (and tell your brain) that he‘s death. Otherwise hope will remain amd you go on google earth and studying it every day figuring out where they potentially could climb down. Hope… Read more »

Sean
Sean
20 days ago

The world needs risk takers? Well, I’ll tell you what the world doesn’t need. MORE FATHERLESS CHILDREN!

+1
Sophie Hall
Sophie Hall
20 days ago
Reply to  Sean

Nailed it Sean

0
Vedrana
Vedrana
20 days ago

In this kind of discussions, people often have a very narrow point of view. Firstly, the definition of risk-taking could be very different. Is it smoking the cigarettes, for example, risk-taking? Science proved that many smokers die prematurely from diseases directly caused by smoking two-pack of cigarettes per day, you have terrifying photos on the cigarette packaging telling you it is risky, but you hardly ever hear the discussion in the public focused on why somebody continues to smoke after having children. Same goes for, I don’t know, driving fast cars or powerful motorcycles – which is all attributed to… Read more »

MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
20 days ago
Reply to  Vedrana

Warnings on cigarette packages don’t stop people from smoking, warnings are an attempt at “full disclosure”, so people are reminded of the risk. The problems are different for amateurs on commercial expeditions, because much of the advertising and promotion leads people to believe that the risks are managed by the operator and are under control. Remember Scott Fischer’s “yellow brick road to the summit” of Everest? Or any operator touting their high success rate without disclosing deaths and injuries on their watch? Or any climber believing that tents and ropes are in place for their commercial climb, so they don’t… Read more »

Vedrana
Vedrana
19 days ago
Reply to  MuddyBoots

My point was something else, although if you want to take it literally and take a look at the numbers you will probably see that per cent of the people who die prematurely because of smoking (in terms of a general number of smokers) is much higher then you think. And per cent of deaths compared to overall climbers on Everest and other 8k peaks is getting smaller in the last 20 years because of the larger number of people who now climb Everest, Cho Oyu, Manaslu… But you cannot simply say that because of that real risk is decreasing… Read more »

Mickael
Mickael
20 days ago

Thank you for making this interview, I read it as a form of an outlet, somewhat catharsistic and very considerate from Explorerweb to commit for its readers. Thank you!

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Greg Mortenson
Greg Mortenson
18 days ago

Thanks Martin for this excellent interview with Maria Coffey – of whom I have great admiration and respect for! Between John Snorri, Ali Sadpara, JP Mohr, and Sergi Mingote who perished on K2, one should not forget the widows at least 16 children they have left behind. It is hard to grasp the extent of the pain, loss, hurt, (possible) anger, and trauma they are having now. My heart and prayers goes out to them. Although we revere and respect the brave mountaineers, lets not forget about the low altitude porters who made it all possible. I’ve worked in remote villages of… Read more »

barbara
barbara
18 days ago
Reply to  Greg Mortenson

there’s on utube the excellent docu “the invisible footmen” – about pakistani porters on their way to k2 – cruel in itself, a deep insight of modern forms that one can without exaggeration call modern slavery. after watching i thought it must be immediatly be forbidden to repeat any of such expeditions under those condition. heartbreaking and making you speechless. all efforts must be done that there will be never ever any repetition of any scene in this documentation!

0
Miha B.
Miha B.
18 days ago

People i can’t believe what I’m all reading. Who are you that you can judge others and they’re why of life. What they do is their personal thing and what they do, they do professionally and not with the intention of staying on the mountain or anywhere else. We live from today to tomorrow and there is no guarantee that when we decide to have children we will be able to live at least until they are 18 years old, of course we all want that …. but can we choose that? Live full life and teach your children that… Read more »

Staying Alive
Staying Alive
17 days ago

Only a miracle can make you come down alive from K2, above all in WINTER. To leave your family, spouse, children, parents etc knowing how high the risk is for you to encounter death is an 100% selfish and irresponsible decision. You definitely need to be in complete denial, motivated by financial and accomplishment ambitions. The trauma you leave behind, nightmares, anger, obsession to recover your body is unimaginable. What about these horror sightings of frozen bodies left on the mountains ? To make your family go through this is horrifying. Moreover, such climbs and disappearances put the lives of… Read more »

Tara
Tara
1 day ago

I was a climber and a skier (also difficult routes where a mistake could be fatal). When I was pregnant with my first baby I still thought I’d never quit climbing. I was not a professional climber but I still couldn’t imagine life without it. But when the baby came, everything has changed. I can’t explain what exactly, because it was not rational. Something has changed very deep inside me, my feelings, my perception of reality, the risk taking, emotions, the centre of my world somehow shifted… And from that point of my life I’ve never climbed nor skied anything… Read more »