Hiking Through Grief

angels-landing-1September 2015 was one of the most devastating months of my life. First, I was hospitalized with a DVT in my leg, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse that month, the bottom completely fell out as the shocking news of a tragedy involving some of my most treasured hiking companions unfolded.

I was at work going about my usual daily routine when a strange email came in from one of the hiking group co-organizers asking for details of who was on a Zion trip. Apparently, a small segment of the main group got together and planned a trip to Zion National Park in Utah, a trip I wasn’t aware of, so the email took me by surprise.

Figuring something must have happened back at home, I dismissed the message and went about my day. Then, various reports started coming in regarding flash floods in Utah and at Zion National Park and it all began to make sense. I wondered if some of my friends may have been caught in some type of peril. Whatever happened, I knew they would all come out on top of it, because that’s just who they were. Because that sort of thing just didn’t happen to adventurers like them.

By the next day, I knew who was on that Zion trip. Five of them were my friends, including the main group leader. Two of them were friends I had not yet met. Later that afternoon and evening, there were reports of casualties being pulled from the flood waters at Keyhole Canyon. At that time, names had not been confirmed, but from the description of the people in the group rescuers were searching for, it was either one big coincidence that a group of the same size and description were in the same canyon at the same time, or these were really my friends being pulled out of those murky waters.

By Thursday, it was confirmed that all seven friends from the hiking group that inspired most of my hiking adventures had perished in the flash flood at Zion National Park. It was the most horrific thing I could have ever imagined. My hiking world was shaken to its core and I didn’t know how it could ever be set right again. One thing was certain: the trails would never be the same.

When you’ve shared the trails and so many of your life’s most memorable experiences with dear friends who departed from your life so suddenly and tragically, it is tough to move on. As I was in the process of overcoming a separate traumatic situation around the same time, it was a couple of months before I could hit the trails again. When I did get back on the trails, it was hard not to think about The Seven.

Hiking is an inherently dangerous sport, as our late hiking leader always put in his disclaimers. Every hiker knows that and we do our best to prepare for things to not go as planned. Sometimes, things just happen, despite our most careful precision and preparation. When we go out into the nature, we seldom think about the very real possibility that we may not return home that night. The awareness is there, but it’s more of an afterthought, one of those things we’d rather not think about for fear that the very thought might draw it into reality.

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We train, we research, we acquire all the right gear and sometimes our best efforts are not good enough to shield us from imminent disaster. We know all of these things the moment we go out, and yet we still hike. Knowing and understanding this about myself and my friends that lost their lives in the flood was one of the best comforts for me in dealing with the tragedy. I also found much comfort in revisiting some of the places I had previously hiked with those friends and by sticking close to my other hiking companions that share in the loss.

Seven years prior to the Zion tragedy, I experienced another gut-wrenching loss, the loss of my mother, who was my treasure. Not long after that, I moved to LA where I was introduced to hiking. The pain of losing my mom was unimaginable and I wouldn’t have wished anything like it on anyone. I didn’t realize how wounded I was until I started doing extreme hikes.

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The tough hikes pulled more out of me than sweat. I found that with each grueling ascent, more of the tears I didn’t shed at my mother’s funeral broke free. I think about my mom often on the trails. My entire body grieved her loss to the point where I felt physical pain like muscle soreness all over for about a month after her passing. Hiking healed and carried me through that grieving process. I have had conversations with friends on the trails who shared similar stories of hiking through grief.

The grief process never ends, but you reach new stages of it as your life’s journey progresses, and you find new and innovative ways of dealing with the loss or tragedy you’ve suffered. When it’s all said and done, you begin to realize that the one(s) you’ve lost are never truly lost. They are with you always in your heart, and being on the trails helps make the crooked places in the process a lot straighter.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

-John Muir

Hike on!

~J

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