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Trauma in the mountains is often cloaked in a culture of silence
One hundred and eighty seconds seems like a blip in time, but the impact of a mere three minutes can stick with you for a while. “I could tell I wasn’t fully buried. My legs were out, but I couldn’t move. I could see my arm and my hand and I knew I wasn’t choking or paralyzed. I was like, holy shit, I’m breathing fine and they will be here in a minute.” That’s the last thing Ryan Van Lanen remembers during an avalanche outside the boundary of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. He doesn’t remember losing consciousness, being dug out, or the fingers that cleared the snow from his airways. The next memory he has is watching the ski patroller who found him ski away and being in the care of 10 other people. Van Lanen said he wasn’t sure if he was dying or dreaming.
Although he survived the event unscathed, for Van Lanen, snowboarding changed. “I think about that all the time, not a day goes by. I was just lucky there was no physical trauma, but for me there’s definitely some PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] in there.”
Today, when Van Lanen finds himself on avalanche terrain, “the whole fucking run I’m picturing it sliding. A lot of people get in these slides, then get out of them, and it gives them more confidence just to keep pushing it. I’ve lost confidence in the mountain. It’s nerve-racking.” Indeed, the experience of a single negative event can have lasting impacts.
At some point in their lives, 8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD following traumas like the loss of a loved one, car accidents, assault, childhood abuse or natural disasters. Among the symptoms are nightmares, avoidance of situations that bring back the negative experience, heightened reactivity, anxiety or depression.
Evaluation from a mental health professional is essential to know if and how an experience has impacted a person. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one out of five Americans is diagnosed with a mental illness each year. But the persistent stigma of mental illness and subsequent barriers to seeking treatment suggest the numbers are much higher. Van Lanen, for one, said he has not sought help.
Negative experiences can impact sleep, eating habits, and general motivation to do the things we usually do. As a result, the brain gets deprived of what it needs to function. In addition to talking with a professional, it can be helpful for people who are struggling to do a quick check-in: How’s my sleep and eating? How’s my social life? Am I hydrated? Are little things that don’t normally piss me off getting to me? Am I drinking more alcohol than usual?
“The only people that can get what I’ve been through are people that have experience dealing with this.”
A 2015 New York Times article suggests that people with mental illness are less likely to seek the treatment they need due to “mind-set, born long ago of necessity, dictating that people solve their own problems.” In a small Western town like Jackson Hole that is steeped in values of rugged individualism it is not difficult to see how this notion takes deeper hold. The problem is compounded in a ski town where the emphasis is seemingly placed on physical health. There is no shortage of discussion about ski injuries—sprained ankles and broken bones, but how often do people discuss the ailments we cannot see?
After losing three people to avalanches in one year, Starr Jameson, of Crested Butte, Colorado, identified two major obstacles in processing loss. She noticed she no longer enjoyed the same activities and from that came a loss of community. “We form these communities and I felt like I lost my community because I didn’t want to ski. What’s happening is you are losing a good thing, like exercise, and then you are losing your day-to-day connections with people.” Jameson founded the nonprofit Survivors of Outdoor Adventure Recovery (Soar4life.org) to help people access resources after traumatic incidents. Soar4life’s website includes a communal blog, referrals for different types of therapy, safety information for outdoor activities and info on scholarships for outdoor safety education.
As for getting back out there, if that’s something you want to do, Jameson said “it’s important to have 100-percent headspace when in the backcountry.” Otherwise, your ability to make good decisions is likely compromised. In the outdoor sphere where survival hinges on decision-making, symptoms of PTSD, like, say, trouble sleeping or lack of appetite, hinder brain functions. A study by the National Institute of Health explained the critical link between sleep and brain function: when a person gets a good night’s rest, cerebrospinal fluid flows into the brain and helps wash away toxic proteins that build up during the day. Meanwhile, when glucose levels drop, the part of the brain responsible for emotion regulation and impulse control functions at a compromised level.
While Van Lanen has returned to his mountain environs, the three minutes he spent under the snow placed him in a certain category of skiers and snowboarders. “The only people that can get what I’ve been through are people that have experience dealing with this,” he said. “Before this happened to me, I didn’t get it. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.”
Now he understands why many “bad-ass old timers” stay in-bounds. “Riding in avalanche terrain is risky and ultimately selfish because if something happens to me, other people will have to deal with it.” Van Lanen, though, said he is not quite ready to hang up his backcountry gear. He said his out-of-bounds experiences, then, will remain both a source of release and anxiety.