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Mountain Muskox - A Community of Help

We talk with pro climber and guide Sarah Hueniken about recovering from trauma in the mountains.
moutain muskox

Even if you aren't a climber, skier and or don’t work in the “outdoor industry” - we know you still read the stories of accidents in the mountains. The analytics show us this. This isn’t to call out anyone, in fact it is the opposite, because people, in their hearts, relate to trauma and loss.  

It is the same for those who are involved with these accidents, though the details might not be the same, the feelings are very similar. That is the core of what Mountain Muskox, a peer-based support system for mountain related trauma, is tapping into.

Mountain sports are in some respects a “team sport” but with a strong emphasis on personal accomplishment and individualism. Endurance is a great asset for mountaineering, but is not a sustainable coping strategy for living with trauma, especially when it is done alone. 

“This is a hole in our community,” Sarah Hueniken, an alpine guide and professional climber with the Association Of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG), tells us. "Just being open and compassionate to people's stories and understanding that we all love these mountains and they are a part of us but they also can be a really painful place after something goes wrong or unexpected."

Screen Shot 2021-04-12 at 10.30.32 AMSarah Hueniken . By John Price

Hueniken, along with fellow mountain athletes and guides like Barry Blanchard, Kevin Hjertaas and Todd Guyn teamed up with registered psychologist Janet Mcleod and the Alpine Club of Canada to formalize a support system for those affected by accidents and critical incidents occurring in the mountains. The name Muskox refers to the defensive circle that muskoxen make to protect their injured. In this case, the idea is that those on the “outer circle” (who are further away - timewise - from their trauma) can support those who are experiencing more recent effects from trauma. 

“Definitely feeling supported by a group is what I learned is the major cultivating factor for this. A major cultivating factor for the Muskox is the importance of feeling supported by a group who understands or has experienced something similar" Hueniken tells us. ”It is one thing to talk to your therapist and work on yourself, but you can only do that so much. There is power and healing in a group that supports you, and that's what we hope  to transfer to mountain communities somehow through this.”

Their pilot program starts on April 14th and although they are still navigating the process, the basic model has been developed. 


202002_VerticalIce_Quebec_JohnPrice_DSC3983shrp_rdSarah Hueniken, guide, athlete but most importantly - human.  By John Price

“The first part is our own personal dealings within the group. And then the second part is to learn how to - hopefully - facilitate meetings ourselves, or at least co-facilitate with a therapist with the goal to learn how to regulate our own healing, our responses, and be able to listen to other people's experiences so that we can handle that,” says Hueniken. “The third goal is to help change the dialogue within the mountain community, or at least give back in some way to the community in terms of learnings, ways to remember people, panel discussions, writings and films. As a mountain community we know how to share in the rewards and highs we get from our mountain environment, but we still could improve on how we share the load of the lows. We don't know exactly what that'll look like but we will be coming out with some more tangible things for the greater community as well.”

After the pilot program is done, the Mountain Muskox team hopes to bring their program and learned experience to other places.

“We can hopefully take the format, learnings and process and be able to offer smaller groups throughout mountain communities. That's part of what we want to work towards - how to take one's experience, move forward with it and help lift others up.” 

Learn more about Mountain Muskox here: