We don’t know exactly what draws us to the mountains, or the ocean, or the sky.
BY MEGAN MICHELSON & BRIGID MANDER
PHOTOS COURTESEY OF ANNIKA RONER, ZAHAN BILLIMORIA, ASHLEY BEDELL, RED BULL MEDIA HOUSE, WADE MCKOY – JACKSON HOLE SKIER MAGAZINE, JENNIFER LOWE-ANKER
VIDEO BY WES OVERVOLD & JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
We don’t know exactly what draws us to the mountains, or the ocean, or the sky.
For some, it’s the beauty and serenity, the wild that surrounds us and the chance to exist in places where few feet have trod or skis have descended; the thrill of speed or flight; the knowledge that a positive outcome is not assured; the desire to push oneself to the brink.
For others, it’s thrill and fame and hunger: to go bigger, faster, higher. It’s a whirlwind of sponsorships and pressure and risk. The noise is loud, and the hype pervades and it’s one more trip to ski the Italian Dolomites, or BASE jump off Tahoe’s Lover’s Leap or skydive from a helicopter, or surf Mavericks. It’s all in and it’s nonstop and a rush and exhilarating and fast.
And then it stops. All is quiet. The noise silenced. And what is left?
Wives, mothers, husbands, fathers, sons and daughters.
The greater mountain community grieves for those who perished—Alex Lowe, Doug Coombs, Shane McConkey, Rob Ranieri, Luke Lynch and Erik Roner along with a long list of others—but this feature focuses on the women and their children who remain.
The following stories represent one demographic in various stages—from most recent loss to furthest out—of the grieving process as they attempt to move forward with a life forever altered.
That grief comes in waves. At least that’s what Emily Coombs says.
Her husband, renowned freeski pioneer Doug Coombs, passed away 10 years ago while attempting to reach a fallen comrade in La Grave, France.
Emily says these waves are unpredictable, varying in frequency and size. But every so often, and even now a decade later, a monster swells and swells. And it feels like it might never break. And then it does. And it almost kills you.
The six women on the following pages talk of the moments they remember most vividly about their loves, and about the second they learned it was over. They talk of crippling fear, of sadness like a vice. They talk of hope and support systems, and of how difficult it can be to accept help. They offer words of wisdom.
“Love is the greatest risk you can take in life,” says Jennifer Lowe-Anker, whose husband, Alex Lowe, perished in a 1999 avalanche in the Himalaya.
Six athletes died doing what they loved: mountaineering, skydiving, skiing, BASE jumping. Six widows are left in the wake. Each woman has a different story, but they exhibit a shared strength. The sun rises and sets and rises again stronger each day. These are stories of love and fear, risk and loss. These are stories of resilience. – The Editors
[ Less than one year ]
The day Erik Roner died, he offered to watch their two kids while his wife, Annika, went for a pre-dawn waterski on Lake Tahoe the morning after a lunar eclipse. When she got home, Erik was at the kitchen counter with Oskar, 5, and Kasper, 1. It was September 28, 2015.
Erik gave Annika a long kiss, and said, “I love you. I’ll see you later.” He was off to a charity golf tournament at Squaw Valley, California, where he and three others were skydiving out of an airplane to kick off the event. When Annika’s sister called later and said Erik had been hurt, Annika rushed to the scene, her body numb and convulsing in tremors on the drive over. “I think that was Erik squeezing me as he passed away,” Annika says now.
Erik, 39, a professional action sports athlete and a star of MTV’s “Nitro Circus” show, had hit a tree on what should have been a routine skydive for the experienced jumper. “I told Oskar the next day that Erik was gone,” Annika says. “He still thinks his dad is here, like a spirit on his shoulder who’s always there for him. When I’m having hard days, he says, ‘Come on, Mom, just ask Dad to help you.'”
For weeks after Erik’s death, friends and family gathered at the Roners’ dining room table around the clock, offering sup- port and home-cooked meals. “This community, my friends— they’re unbelievable,” Annika says. “I’ll be in the grocery store and people will come up to me and say, ‘If I can help, let me know.'”
Although Erik was calculated with his risks and often backed away from stunts that didn’t feel right—especially after having kids—Annika still worried. “I would never tell him no. If he’s not the man he wants to be, he’s not going to be the father or the husband he wants to be,” she says. “But I was very vocal about what I was scared about.” Ask about her biggest fear and she’ll pause, then half in tears, say, “I was scared of him dying.”
Annika and Erik’s first date was spent BASE jumping in Idaho. They got married after skydiving out of an airplane onto a Lake Tahoe beach, and in her wedding vows, Annika said to Erik, “For being extreme, you’re the kindest person I know.” Erik lived his life fully—some would say on the edge—but Annika says he longed to live a simple life at home with his family. “He was ready to tone it down,” she says.
Two nights before he died, Erik told Annika he couldn’t believe how in love with her he was. “I miss his face, his expressions, his being. I miss him holding me and his kids,” Annika says. “I’m in love with someone who isn’t here anymore.”
Now, Annika is learning to cope with her new reality. “At first, it was shock. Now it’s deeper. I cry every day,” she says. “I’m a single woman with two kids. They are my focus. That is my future.”
Annika says it often feels like Erik is still with them. His ashes rest in a wooden box in a canoe-turned-bookshelf at their Tahoe City home that Erik helped build. Annika took Oskar skiing at Squaw Valley this winter and on their way to the lift, Oskar said, “Dad’s right behind us. He’s going to come skiing with us today.” Just the thought of it made her smile.
“You have to believe that one day, I’ll be a stronger woman because of all of this,” she says. “But I’m not there yet.” – Megan Michelson
[ One year ]
On May 17, 2015, a Teton County sheriff pulled Kathy Lynch out of her afternoon yoga class. He didn’t need to speak: she knew why he was there.
Early that morning, Kathy’s husband Luke Lynch, a Jackson, Wyoming resident and experienced ski mountaineer, had set out with three other highly skilled alpinists to climb and ski the Sickle, an exposed and committing couloir on Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park. There had been an accident in the mountains, and Luke wasn’t coming home.
A young couple with three small boys, the Lynches hadn’t discussed the possibility of either one dying in the mountains: Kathy hadn’t married someone who made a living as an extreme athlete. Luke was the Wyoming state director of the Conservation Fund, and served on various community boards.
“We both [were] adventurous people and loved to be in the outdoors,” Kathy said. “[Ski mountaineering] was dangerous but I never asked him not to go. It filled his soul. Occasionally, I would get a little worried about it, but that’s not how our marriage was—we really respected each other’s activities. If you love someone you want them to be their best self.”
Kathy found herself wholly embracing the grief, and accepting the accident in order to keep going. “I’m not angry at him … I would take him back in a heartbeat. But I believe that Luke’s death was always in the cards … Fate, as you might call it,” she said.
“I don’t have any judgment for the type of activities that he did. Luke and his ski partners weren’t being risky in my opinion—everyone has a different level of acceptable risk. They were trained and experienced—they just had a really bad day in the mountains.”
At barely a year since the accident, Kathy hasn’t been able to do much beyond care for their three children, and carry on from day to day. “The biggest surprise for me in grief is that it can be both simultaneously excruciating and happy. Every single day I miss him. But we still laugh and dance, my children and I have a lot of fun. You have to be intentional and fight for it.
“I used to complain, but what did I have to complain about? Nothing. When I get nervous about something now, I think: I sat my kids down and told them that their dad died. How hard could this be, compared to that?”
In her home, Kathy pointed out a quiet little corner hidden away from sight. On a small table are mementos, a cryptic collection of pieces of Luke’s legacy. A twin frame shows two photos: one of Luke beaming up at his ski partners standing above him on the steep bootpack in the Sickle, taken not long before the slough swept Luke and ski partner Stephen Adamson to their premature deaths. The picture opposite shows Kathy spreading ashes into the autumn mountain air from the summit of the Grand Teton, months later.
She holds the frame in her hands, losing herself for a just a moment in the vivid picture of life on the right. “Oh, Luke,” she says, her tone a soft mixture of chiding and resignation, but most of all, love. Then Kathy puts the frame back down and looks up from the little table, back into the light and the business of life and raising her boys. – Brigid Mander
[ Four years ]
Ashley Bedell and Rob Ranieri didn’t have a typical wedding. The theme at Burning Man that year, 2008, was the American Dream and Ashley and Rob decided the best way to celebrate that dream was by getting married jumping out of an airplane over the Nevada desert. A video capturing their wedding shows them skydiving through the air holding hands then landing on the sand and exchanging rings and an exhilarating kiss.
“We got married how we wanted to, where we wanted to. It was us,” Ashley says. “We did it our way, like the Sinatra song, our whole relationship we did our way.”
A couple of years prior, Rob and Ashley had moved from their home state of New Jersey to South Lake Tahoe, California. Rob worked as a ski patroller at Kirkwood Resort before launching an IT business. He was always a magnet for attention, with his wild, electrified hair and the unicycle he loved to ride. Together, he and Ashley started rock climbing and Ashley, who’d always wished for the ability to fly when she blew out her birthday candles as a kid, introduced Rob to skydiving.
“Rob made me believe in love,” Ashley says. “Here was this guy who accepted me for my quirky personality—I’d never had that before.”
Their daughter Willow, named after Ashley’s favorite tree, was born in late 2011. Ashley quit skydiving once they had their baby, but Rob worshipped the sensation of flying. Six months after Willow’s birth, on May 22, 2012, Rob, then 28, went skydiving over Lake Tahoe with some friends.
The winds changed when Rob jumped and he was swept toward the frigid waters of the lake. Trained for emergency water landings, he tried to escape his gear and swim to shore, but it was too cold, too far. According to the GoPro camera he was wearing, he struggled for about 45 seconds before his body shut down. Rescue teams spent hours locating him, while Ashley waited at the hospital for news on her husband’s condition.
After Rob died, Ashley’s world crumbled with shock. “Honestly, I turned myself off,” she says. “That was my idea of resilience—to strongly and independently face something like that and not show emotion. That’s what I had to do.”
It’s taken years for her to open up again. “It took that long to see what I was actually dealing with—Rob’s gone, he’s not coming back,” she says. “Now I actually have to deal with this.”
She and Willow, now 4, recently moved to Gardnerville, Nevada, outside of Lake Tahoe. And Ashley has been given a second chance at love—she and her new partner are now expecting a baby. “Willow is going to be the best big sister. Even though her family was halted, it’s now going to continue again,” Ashley says.
Rob is still very much in their lives and their hearts. Willow wears a locket around her neck with a photo of her mom and dad, and Ashley’s willow tree tattoo on her calf includes an “R” for Rob, and a parachute. “Rob will always be the love of my life,” Ashley says. “Anybody who knows me knows that.” – MEGAN MICHELSON
[ Seven years ]
Shane McConkey was supposed to call his wife, Sherry, after every jump. But on March 26, 2009, it was Shane’s friend and BASE-jumping partner JT Holmes who called Sherry from the Italian Dolomites. He said two words: “Shane’s dead.”
They’d been filming for a Matchstick Productions ski movie when Shane’s ski BASE jump had gone terribly wrong. Sherry went silent, then screamed. Their daughter, Ayla, just 3 years old at the time, sat next to her scared and confused. Shane was 39 years old.
Sherry was in Southern California, at Shane’s dad’s place, when she got the news. On her flight home to Tahoe, the grief began to sink in and she had a fleeting morbid thought: “I remember thinking, ‘I hope the plane goes down so I don’t have to deal with any of this,'” she says.
Seven years later, the wounds feel fresh when Sherry talks about that day. But she also radiates with the glow of a woman still in love when she remembers Shane, a pioneering professional freeskier. The two married on the beaches of Thailand in 2004 and lived a vivacious, adventure-filled life in Squaw Valley, California. “He used to stare at me and smile. He just had that loving look,” Sherry says. “His eyes showed everything.”
Shane was a goofball, as well. He’d pull pranks like stuffing rocks into his friends’ backpacks or stealing cash out of their wallets. Sherry, who grew up in South Africa and left home in search of adventure at age 21, was drawn to Tahoe for the same reason Shane was: the mountains. “Being around him was nonstop entertainment,” Sherry says. “I loved him for his adventures and the way he wanted to invent things. He was the most passionate human I’ve ever met.”
When Sherry would get angry with him, Shane would look at her and say, “You’re so sexy when you’re mad.”
The month before he died, Shane wrote Sherry a Valentine’s Day card—which she’s since read hundreds of times—in which he described what he loved about her. Before he left for Italy, Shane had a dream that he died, which shook him deeply. “I couldn’t sleep when he was gone because I worried,” Sherry says. “I knew the consequences. We knew he could die. We spoke about it alot.”
At his memorial, Ayla danced amidst the throngs of people and asked, “When is Daddy coming back?” Now age 10, Ayla says goodnight to her dad before bed and although she doesn’t remember him, she often looks through the photos and footage that captured his talents and spirit.
Sherry, a quiet athlete with a stout sense of humor, has used mountain biking and yoga as therapy, but she still has hard days. “You don’t want to be without the guy you love. The pain doesn’t go away. It comes back and you can’t breathe,” she says. “But I’ve learned how to cope.”
Sherry’s also become a philanthropist: She launched the Shane McConkey Foundation two years after his death, which has since donated more than $250,000 to causes like the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Tahoe-area schools and environmental initiatives, all things Shane believed in. She helped produce a documentary about Shane’s life and mostly, she’s dedicated herself to raising her spirited young daughter, who she says inherited Shane’s empathy and goofiness.
“As a mother, I have to show resilience. I have to teach her everything that’s right in life,” Sherry says. “There are times when I feel like it’s too much and I’ve had enough. But I always try my hardest to show Ayla that life is beautiful and we’re so lucky. Life goes on and we need to be strong.” – MEGAN MICHELSON
[ Ten years ]
Ten years after her husband, iconic big-mountain skier, mountaineer and professional athlete Doug Coombs died, Emily Coombs has turned her personal tragedy into motivation to help others. For Emily, it has been a long and difficult path. Doug and Emily owned and operated a global steep-skiing camp, and were pioneers in the world of heli-skiing and guided ski trips.
Doug’s untimely death in a skiing accident in La Grave, France in 2006, left Emily devastated, without her husband, a source of income, and alone with their 2-year old son, David. “Doug wasn’t one to discuss risks; he was such an optimist. He always saw the path and the solution, not the danger. He thrived on risk, and pushed it all the time, but he had such a high level of ability,” Emily says.
“I always thought I [would] die first, because I wasn’t up to his level but was going where he was going and skiing the same things. Maybe if I hadn’t had David I would be dead by now. I wouldn’t have wanted Doug to change, though.”
When Doug did pass away after falling in an attempt to save his ski partner, Emily nearly fell to pieces.
“It was tragic; it was horrible. I was a complete mess,” Emily says. “My mother told me I had to find strength to go on, and I thought, ‘How do you find the strength?’ Then I realized you get it from other people. And you have to live your life so that you do things for other people. Thinking that way really changed me. You have to leave this earth knowing that you did something to make it better.”
Although it took some time, Emily eventually found a way to help others and to honor Doug and the sport he loved so much. In 2012, she began the Doug Coombs Foundation, a nonprofit that engages low-income children from the Jackson Hole community in skiing, soccer and climbing. The beneficiaries are mostly Mexican families, and Emily finds she can draw strength and inspiration from their perseverance in the face of hardship.
Today she runs the foundation from her home in Jackson, Wyoming, a cheerful hideaway with dogs and cats, horses, and chickens. On the walls, photos of La Grave as well as Doug and Emily’s ski life celebrate their adventures, but the foundation holds Emily’s passion these days.
“I’m attracted to these people,” she says. “To me, what they have gone through, to come to this country for a better life for themselves and their children, to me that is resiliency. Compared to them my life was not hard. So what if I lost my husband when I was 46? These people don’t complain, and I don’t feel sorry for them or they for me.
“But Doug’s death changed me. I wasn’t born a giver. I think I had to have tragedy before I became a giver.” – BRIGID MANDER
[ Seventeen years ]
Jennifer Lowe-Anker knew when she married professional climber Alex Lowe that his job, and his passion, was risky. Yet as a climber herself, she understood both the dangers in the mountains and the draw of mountaineering. Alex was known as one of his era’s most extraordinary and prolific mountaineers, and traveled the globe to far-flung ranges and high peaks as a successful, sponsored athlete.
“I thought about the risks occasionally, not a lot, but we did discuss it. Nobody that takes risks thinks they are going to die,” Jenni says. “Alex thought of mountaineering as a traditional thing, not an extreme sport. He always thought of himself as a risk manager. He used to say things like, ‘You know, extreme skiing is kind of crazy.’”
But in 1999, Alex was killed in an avalanche while climbing in the Himalaya. His partner, Conrad Anker, survived.
At the time, Jenni was home in Montana with their three sons, ages 3, 7, and 10.
“[The children] were my first responsibility,” Jenni says. “My sister came and helped, my friends stepped in and helped; I had an amazing community. The wave of support that came to carry me along was pretty phenomenal.
“I was devastated when Alex died. When you lose someone you love, your life changes overnight, you go into shock. I think our minds are programmed to think we are going to be OK, but when something happens to disrupt that, it takes a while.”
The great-granddaughter of Montana homesteaders, Jenni drew some strength from her ancestry. “[Homesteading] was dangerous. It was a crapshoot whether they’d be alive from week to week. I like to think that I have some of that pioneer spirit, where you just persevere. You don’t always want to, but you just don’t have a choice sometimes.”
In the months following Alex’s death, Jenni found a measure of peace in creating the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, which benefits indigenous mountain people and the Khumbu Climbing Center in Nepal.
“I think from my perspective now, the thing in my life that has brought me the most joy has been reaching out and caring for other people, and other things and places. Starting the foundation and working to help other people who were much less fortunate than me helped me realize my situation was not as bad as it can be.
“Grief is a real thing. You have to walk through it. Everybody grieves differently but at the same time it opens you up: How can I make the best of it?”
Jenni also chose to write a memoir of her life with Alex and of starting over, titled Forget Me Not, published in 2009. “I wrote it for myself and my children, mostly,” Jenni says. “The book was a huge relief, and closure for my life with Alex.”
In the book and in life, Jenni makes no apologies for the risks she and Alex lived with, or for his career choice. She married Alex’s former climbing partner Conrad Anker in 2001, and stands by the idea that risk is inherent in living a fulfilling life. “What do you want in the world?” Jenni asks. “A bunch of couch potatoes who never do anything in their safe lives?”
Ultimately, from Jenni’s viewpoint, dangerous jobs or passions are not the most perilous choices a person can make.
“When you love people, love is the greatest risk that you take in life. What you are risking is losing someone who means a lot to you. It’s a greater risk than anything you are ever going to do.” – BRIGID MANDER
A former editor at Outside, Skiing, and ESPN.com, MEGAN MICHELSON is now a freelance writer who lives in Tahoe City, California. After interviewing three of the exceptionally strong women featured in “In the Wake,” about the most profound loss in their lives, she came home and gave her husband and young daughter an extra long squeeze.
BRIGID MANDER is a skier and a writer based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Her work regularly appears in publications ranging from The Ski Journal to The Wall Street Journal.