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Here in the heart of me

Those left behind after Jim Haberl's death gather together in the Tantalus Range to launch an elevated tribute to the multi-talented photojournalist, speaker and mountain guide.
"Then we all gathered on the snow and shielded our eyes from the sun as we peered down the glacier for signs of the whirring machine." Sue Oakey-Baker at the site dedicated to Jim Haberl, photo submitted.

Keep him alive. Don’t let him die. Whatever it takes. I will do anything. Just don’t let my Jim die…

I went to Alaska to where he fell. I searched the Queen Charlotte Islands, where we first met. I struggled to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, where we had journeyed the year before. I scoured the hills around our Whistler home, I skied the same Haute Route in France that he had skied. My feet followed my heart.

I climbed ice, snow and mountains to find him and to bring him back. And still he did not come home. Death is so final.

Jim’s family and friends talked of a memorial; perhaps a scholarship fund for aspirant guides, a library or maybe even a hut in the mountains. People’s lives got busy and the ideas floated aimlessly. I pushed for action but momentum was lost and the current of life was too strong. My battle to live in the past was my own.

When the Alpine Club of Canada called to say they had been thinking of building a hut in the Tantalus Range, near Squamish, and that maybe we could go into partnership, I wedged my whole being into this crevasse of hope. I wrapped my heart around keeping Jim alive, around getting my old life back and I hung on.

In 2001, the Jim Haberl Memorial Hut committee was founded, comprised of Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) members and of friends and family of Jim. Our passion, emotion and fund-raising capabilities gelled nicely with the skill, dedication and available volunteer labour force of the ACC.

Almost five years later, on June 29, 2006, six helicopter loads of committee members and of Jim’s family, a total of 22 people, congregated to celebrate the official opening of the Jim Haberl Memorial Hut: Jim’s parents, Bill and Margaret Haberl, Jim’s sister Susan and her family, Sri, Rajesh and Kiran, Jim’s brothers Pat, Mike and Kevin and Kevin’s family, Vicki, Jaslyn and Connor, myself and my husband Joe Baker, Alastair Foreman and his wife Janice, Liz Scremin, Peter Taylor, Blair Mitten, Capt. Dale Thingvold, Sgt Rene Pelletier and his son Mathieu.

My husband Joe and I had flown in the night before with Jim’s brothers and joined the work crew already there. As the helicopter circled to land, I looked down at this beautiful hut with the rust-coloured trim and bright silver lettering shining in the sun, "THE JIM HABERL HUT", and something expanded inside of me. When I walked through the door, I gazed at the crisp blond finishing wood, the steel countertops, the tongue and groove ceiling, Peter’s smiling face, and all I could say was "wow". Then I felt tears come to my eyes and everyone was smiling and laughing. It was so beautiful. What a beautiful honouring of Jim and, as Alastair said, Jim sure deserved it.

Joe and I worked for three hours that night to assemble a wall display. We continued the next morning for another two hours. With tears in her eyes, Vicki watched Joe as he patiently held pieces in place so I could see what they looked like. When the last piece was nailed to the wall, I stood back and smiled. It looked full of love.

As 9:30 a.m. approached, there was a flurry of activity. The guys turned off the generator and hauled it out of sight. Tools were stashed under beds and Vicki swept the floor. I changed into clean clothes and put on earrings. Then we all gathered on the snow and shielded our eyes from the sun as we peered down the glacier for signs of the whirring machine.

In a pair of Jim’s old hiking boots, Mom Haberl tread carefully away from the cutting helicopter blades. There was something about the slow and purposeful manner in which she moved that filled my eyes with bundles of love. As we wrapped our arms around one another I told her how glad I was that she was there. And I thought to myself that she should never have lost a son. Dad Haberl’s cheeks puffed up and he blew the air out and shook his head slightly in wonder and commented what a beautiful flight they’d had.

After three more loads, everyone had arrived and there were hugs and handshakes and people were milling about on the rocks chatting. Ten or 15 minutes passed and there was a certain holding, a tension. Jim’s mom had stalled at the bottom of the stairs to the hut. Jim’s dad was picking up small pieces of building waste in the rocks. Liz suggested that we go inside. Jim’s mom hooked her hand onto my elbow and the creases around her eyes were mixed with excitement and apprehension.

They hesitated on the threshold as their eyes searched the vestibule and their necks strained to see further. Then their feet followed. There weren’t many words but the room felt full and thick. I smiled and followed their gaze as they roamed the maple-paneled walls, the tongue and groove pine ceiling, the birch kitchen cupboards, the sleek steel kitchen counter tops, the solid wood dining tables and chairs and the multi-shaped windows offering a 270-degree view of mountains: Black Tusk, Wedge, Diamond Head, Serratus, Dione, Tantalus. Mom Haberl pointed out of one of the windows at the first mountain Jim had climbed, when he was about 14 years old at Camp Potlatch. Dad Haberl ran his hand down the wall and asked if there would be finishing batons on the paneling. Yes.

Then their eyes came to rest on the display and their mouths opened as they moved closer. First they scanned the photos around the outside: Four Haberl brothers in Prince of Wales high school football uniforms sporting shoulder-length blond hair, six Haberl siblings and their parents standing together in almost identical posture, a family photo at our wedding, Jim skiing, climbing, exploring, taking photos, laughing…

Then they settled on the different pieces housed inside:

• Jim’s smiling face set in front of his large photo of K2 and words describing him as a teacher, guide, mentor and a man of grace and humility;

• Letters from the Governor General, the Mayor of Vancouver, the Premier of British Columbia and the Prime Minister of Canada, congratulating Jim for receiving the Meritorious Service medal for being the first Canadian to summit K2, the second highest mountain in the world;

• A picture of the team members from his 1993 K2 expedition;

• A framed award from the Canadian Alpine Journal for "best article" entitled "Dan, K2", written by Jim;

• Mounted copies of his best-selling book covers K2, Dreams and Reality and Risking Adventure .

Three of Jim’s climbing axes and a handful of his climbing nuts filled in the spaces.

I stepped back again, looked at the display, and smiled. I gave Alastair a high five and said "Thank you, we’re done." His smile just got bigger and our chests puffed out a bit. Five years of hard work.

People wandered, peered, ran their hands on the new surfaces, chatted and then settled down to eat their bag lunches. Jim’s mom passed around poppy seed cake and the nieces and nephews sat around the table playing cards and others meandered outside. When it seemed like the eating had died down and Rene had actually started working again, screwing in the weather stripping on the front door, I asked everyone to gather inside.

The committee had planned to formally thank some people. First we thanked Nathan Dubeck of Omega Helicopters who consistently went the extra mile for us, flying up such materials as a 12-foot long steel countertop. Peter said a few words about the 192 nd Airfield Engineers headed by Captain Dale Thingvold. His building crew, overseen by Sergeant Rene Pelletier, volunteered to construct and pre-assemble Jim’s hut in Abbotsford. Thanks to their enthusiasm, diligence and skill, the building went together almost flawlessly on site. The hut would not be here without their help. When Peter’s twinkling blue eyes came to rest on me, my throat constricted. Alastair thanked the tireless efforts of the Alpine Club of Canada: Manrico Scremin, Blair Mitten, Colin Boyd and Ian McAllister. In particular, he spoke of the incredible contribution by Peter Taylor and Liz Scremin to the design, engineering and overall construction of Jim’s Hut.

Then it was my turn and I stepped to the centre of the dining room so that I could see everyone. My first words were high and strained and I paused to see if my throat would open, but it didn’t. I looked at Mom Haberl and her head was down and her eyes were full.

"Thank you for coming. It is so nice to have everyone here. Thank you to Alastair for being so dependable throughout this project. Thank you to Al Greer who kept us laughing during our marathon committee meetings.

Jim used to say that family is the foundation of everything we do, and I would like to thank the Haberl family for their help.

When we first started this project five years ago, I latched onto it as a way of keeping Jim alive, a way of even bringing him back to life. But as the years have passed, I realize that building this hut has helped me to let Jim be dead, and to let his spirit be free. When a loved one dies, it seems we are left with memories, some very strong, yet memories can be deceptive after a time. And then it seems we are left with more of a feeling than anything else, a feeling of the heart. And Jim left a lot of people with a strong feeling in their heart. And I realize now that even this feeling cannot be held or contained. It is free to roam just as Jim’s spirit is free to roam, in and out of our hearts, carried on the wind. And as I look around this hut, I cannot think of a more beautiful place to set Jim’s spirit free.

And I think Jim would be smiling to see us all here. He’d be smiling at his nieces and nephews who are winning awards in martial arts, dance and French. He’d be smiling at his parents who recently celebrated their 50 th wedding anniversary. He’d be smiling at his brothers Pat and Kevin who have carved time out of their schedule to come here and climb together. And he’d be smiling at my belly swelling with new life and at the wonderful man who I love now, and he would be saying "right on"… because life goes on, and we are of the living.

And we will miss Jim and it will hurt, but he must be allowed to be dead. Here’s to Jim and here’s to life."

Joe poured champagne and orange juice for everyone.

Pat thanked Joe for supporting me. Dad Haberl leaned on the table with both arms and in a low husky voice he said, "Thank you. Thank you to everyone who helped." Kevin’s eyes watered and his voice shook when he spoke. He said there were many times during the project when we hit what appeared to be dead ends but that something would always come up to clear the way and that these weren’t accidents. Captain Thingvold and Sergeant Pelletier spoke of what an honour it was to work with such a dedicated group. Liz expressed her appreciation for the friendships that have been formed on the committee as a result of this project.

Then there was another holding as people had been rubbed raw and nobody wanted to move or speak because the pain felt so near the surface. I invited people to begin their afternoon adventures. The Haberl brothers took the nieces and nephews to explore the rocky Dione ridge. Mom and Dad Haberl followed Alastair across the rocky rib to the nearby Red Tit shelter. Blair painted the outhouse and I took a nap.

Helicopters arrived back to back at 3 p.m. and, within an hour, there were only eight of us left.

We settled in for a gourmet dinner and listened to Pat play guitar. At sunset, we went outside in short sleeves to get some photos. Kevin joined me on the snow. He said that what I’d said today, well he could relate to it, letting Jim be dead and letting his spirit be free. Then in his uninhibited way, he looked at me with his head cocked slightly and said, "I just don’t understand why it doesn’t feel any better." I told him that I have tried unsuccessfully to package my grief and my pain up neatly in a box and move on. I guess being better is often equated with feeling no pain.

It doesn’t seem to work that way. As long as we love Jim it will hurt and it is hard to accept that it will always hurt. The trick may be not to fight the pain, to let it be, because if you cut yourself off from the pain, you cut yourself off from the love. And you have to be alive to feel pain. And being alive is good.

So the pain does not get "better", but perhaps it changes. Perhaps it becomes the pain of loving and living fully as opposed to the pain of chasing the past and trying to drag it into the present and desiring something that can never be.