Sue Oakey-Baker felt compelled to write about her husband's untimely death soon after he was killed in an avalanche in April 1999.
Jim Haberl, one of the country's top climbers, was the first Canadian to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world after Everest. He was respected, well liked and a celebrity of sorts, especially in the climbing community. "I thought quite early on, even within a year of Jim being killed, I wanted to write the story down," says Oakey-Baker, a Whistler author, painter, teacher and guide. "Maybe at that time it was grasping and trying to keep him alive, give meaning to his death."
But it wasn't until the Whistler Writers Group (a.k.a. The Vicious Circle) invited her to join their ranks in 2004 that she first considered turning her personal story of love and grief into something more than journal entries. "It was very difficult at that point," she says. "When my turn would come up to submit (writing) it was really hard to put all of that out there for people who, at the time, I didn't know very well, to read it and give feedback on it."
Eight years later, the writing group is no longer made up of strangers and her book, Finding Jim (Rocky Mountain Books), is slated for an October release, with a launch party at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival. The book chronicles the couple's relationship — which began when she was just 16 — and delves into Haberl's K2 trip, his death and the painful aftermath. "It's a little difficult (to label) in a way because people ask, 'What's it about?' and I say, 'It's a grief memoir,' which is a conversation stopper," she says. "How I describe it is it's a book about my love for my first husband, our adventures together and how we became close through those adventures. Then it's a book through my journey of grief and loss and how wilderness travel helped me through that journey and how I was able to face it."
Oakey-Baker has kept her story private throughout the writing process. When she reads a portion of her work at the upcoming Local Literary Libations at the Library March 28 it will be the first time some of her close friends — even those featured in the book — will hear it. "I'm going to read a section that is more an adventure section of the book. It was before Jim was killed, but it also holds some foreshadowing of the future. It will be a little less intense with the grief. So that makes it easier, but it does feel a little like unveiling a painting you've been working on for years and years," she says.
It's "terrifying," releasing such an intensely personal story into the world, she adds. Ultimately, she hopes sharing her experience will help others who are grieving. That might not have been her goal initially, but while writing the book she realized it held a universal message.
"I've really had to go back to the original reasons why I wrote the book," she says. "Obviously, I'm not doing it for the money. In the beginning, (the reason) was trying to make sense of what happened in my life. Then it was trying to come to some sort of peace and accept what happened. It helped me when I was grieving to know other people have been through what I was going through. It (became) this need to connect to other people and hopefully make a bit of a difference that way. I've had to go back to those objectives several times because I think, 'Oh my gosh, what am I doing?"
One thing she hasn't worried about: what her late husband would have thought about the book. "He was a very pragmatic fellow and non-judgmental," she says. "I know in my heart he would be happy for me to do anything to be happy again. That would be his main message. He did things with such grace and love all the time. I don't think he would read it with any feeling of judgment. It's as honest as I could be."
Catch the free reading March 28 starting at 7 p.m. at the Whistler Public Library. Three other local authors — including Mary MacDonald, Graham E. Fuller and Danny Peart — will also be reading from their books. A question and answer session will follow each reading.