Kate Baecher and her mountaineering group were being guided over a dangerous traverse in Europe a few years ago when a climber in the party ahead of them fell hundreds of feet to her death. Baecher, a Sydney-based psychologist, military veteran, and avid mountaineer with a background helping people perform in high-stress situations, kept her cool while the body was recovered. But Chris, a climber in her group, began showing signs of distress. (The climber’s name and some of the details of this incident have been changed to protect his privacy.)
Stunned by what he’d witnessed, Chris stopped speaking and moving, and he appeared disassociated, Baecher recalls. She and a guide had to physically pull him to his feet to get him to continue to camp, which was located at 12,000 feet. When they finally reached it, Chris began crying and couldn’t stop. Panic, fear, anxiety, shock, distress: he exhibited it all. “He completely broke down,” says 37-year-old Baecher.
The guides weren’t sure what to do. But once everyone was safe, Baecher attempted to coax Chris out of his embattled state. Sitting by his side, she encouraged him to take slow, deep breaths until he stopped hiccuping for air. She suggested discussing what was on the agenda for tomorrow, which gave Chris something concrete to focus on. Baecher stayed with him until he had made a decision: he would descend in the morning and not continue to the summit.
Baecher came off the mountain a few days later, after she was turned around by whiteout conditions. She reached out to Chris, who was still struggling.
Baecher’s experience was one in a string of events that led to a realization: outdoor guides and athletes often don’t know what to do when mental health becomes an issue in the field. Drawing on her love of adventure and her psychology background, she saw an opportunity to fill a void.
While a psychological emergency in the outdoors may seem less urgent than a physical one, the consequences can be just as devastating, Baecher says. When you’re staring down a big wave, a Class V rapid, or an exposed climb, overwhelming anxiety or a panic attack can put lives at risk. On an expedition, an adventurer in the grips of mental distress may be unable to operate at full capacity, may lose focus, and could make dangerous decisions without someone along who’s been trained to help.
The very nature of some outdoor expeditions—living in tight quarters for extended periods of time under high-stress conditions, often while sleep-deprived—can lead to mental strain. Then there are the harrowing encounters with extreme weather, natural disasters, venomous animals, or, worse, the death of an expedition member, which can be difficult to manage emotionally, especially with a long way still to go on a grueling trip. Baecher points out that the mishandling of extreme wilderness experiences can affect long-term psychological well-being, motivation to return to the outdoors, and the ability to work and to maintain healthy relationships at home.
Whether you’re an amateur or a professional athlete, mental distress in the wilderness is a common experience. “Everywhere I go, I see people who are having trouble coping,” Baecher says. “That includes tough climbers on big mountains.”
Yet while guides and outdoor athletes usually learn how to treat physical injuries, they’re far less likely to be taught what to do when psychological injuries occur in places where hospitals and mental health professionals aren’t just a 911 call away.