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Feature - Seeking refuge

Building the Jim Haberl Hut

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When I die, forget about my body. Leave the carcass to be carrion. Build me a hut on a ridge I have loved to shelter mountainfreaks year-round. And they’ll whisper my name as they trace a route on a map. That will be honour enough.

Deaths in mountain towns and mountaineering communities can rock a place like the shifting of seismic plates. Many a local watering hole has hosted a wake, a memorial service – packed to the gills with the people left behind, wordless and wondering how to make it more meaningful. Or at least make some sense out of it.

Sometimes, as with Dave Sheets, a hat is passed around, to raise money for acute head trauma care at the clinic. A forthcoming fundraiser will raise money in Dave’s name for the CAA. Kelty Dennehy’s parents chose to start a foundation to research teenage depression-related suicide. Neil Falkner’s mates have applied to have an unnamed peak bear his name. Ultimately, we’re striving to keep a name alive. Trying to turn our grief into something beyond that numbing paralysis.

"Life is like a train, just rolling along. And something like that happens, the sudden death of someone you love, it’s like, wham, you’re off the train. Everyone else is rolling by, but you can’t seem to pick up any steam. You’re just watching them all go by," says local guide and outdoor educator, Sue Oakey. Sue would know.

Sue Oakey became a widow at age 34. Her husband, local mountaineer, Jim Haberl was climbing with two fellow-guides on an unnamed peak in Alaska. A slow-moving slab avalanche released and swept Jim past his colleagues, off a 400 metre cliff, to his death. Four years ago, this week. He was 41. Jim and Sue had married only two years earlier. Just finished building a home in Whistler together. The future suddenly becoming clear to them. And wham! Sue is watching the train rolling by, realizing she’s not going anywhere at all.

The last decade of Jim Haberl’s life reads like the itinerary of a whirlwind trip where the aim is to squeeze as many continents into days as physically possible. He became a fully certified international mountain guide, successfully ascended the planet’s second highest peak, K2, with partner Dan Culver, becoming the first Canadians to do so, self-published two best-selling books, became a motivational speaker, freelanced as a photojournalist, ran his own guiding business, examined for the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and instructed for the Canadian Avalanche Association.

His second book, Risking Adventure, recounts journeys undertaken across the globe, from K2, to the Himalayas, to South America, to Africa. His passport was bleeding stamps from exotic locales. But it was his first book that packed the real punch. Such a punch that, although self-published, it became a national bestseller.

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