Bring the outdoors inside for a kid”s bedroom full of adventure
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Kyle balances his loaded bike across a bamboo bridge in rural Luang Namtha. Kyle washes his bike in the Nam Ou after taking a local boat down the river. Ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek, one of our 2016 Adventurer of the Year, running in the San Juan Mountains. Nearing Luang Prabang, Will Stauffer-Norris pushes up the dirt road along the Xuang River.
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Kyle Hemes pushes his bike past giant Chinese trucks stuck on a steep, muddy back road. Alex Lowe leads his eldest son max up his first climb on puppy some in Yosemite, 1991. As he’d grown into middle age, his body had begun to break down, and he wasn’t able to enjoy all of the activities that had once brought him so much joy, such as dropping into the steep, hike-to chutes on Gold Hill. Ten years earlier, two of his brothers had died within months of each other, which affected him deeply. Then, his aging parents’ health took a turn for the worse.
About a mile up Tomboy, Slocum pulled over and sat down next to a small creek. From his perch above Telluride, he looked out at the majestic San Juan Mountains, which towered above the 2,000-person town and its pastel Victorians. Across the valley, the Bear Creek basin etched up the east side of the resort and disappeared into a playground of snow-capped peaks. Then, just after dawn cast its first rays, Slocum pulled out a handgun and shot himself. Slocum’s death was the first of three suicides that occurred in San Miguel County over two weeks in late February and early March. Then, in May, a 46-year-old skier widely regarded as one of the best riders in the San Juans, took his life.
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The number of suicides in Aspen, Colorado, is three times the country’s mean rate. Utah’s Salt Lake County, home to Alta and Snowbird, has almost twice as many suicides as the national average. And six suicides over two and a half years in Truckee, California, prompted the community to launch a suicide task force in 2014. In the United States, 40,000 people a year take their lives and nowhere, aside from Alaska, is the rate of suicide higher than in the Rocky Mountains. A quiet Telluride back-alley lacks the polish of vacant near-by multi-million dollar vacation rentals during what locals refer to as “mud season. Experts chalk up the West’s high suicide rate to a host of factors that include a culture of rugged individualism, access to firearms, lack of mental health care, and the isolation that results from communities and homes spread across wide swaths of land.
First off, these towns are expensive and the disparity between the wealthy and the working class is dramatic. Denver Health whose research focuses on suicide and schizophrenia. What’s more, the economy is largely seasonal, which means when one season ends, the scramble to find off-season work or a job for next season begins. These financial issues place enormous stress on individuals, families, and relationships.
As a result, there are a disproportionate number of divorces and breakups in mountain towns, according to Roy Holloway, chaplain of the Aspen Fire Volunteer Department, who operates an emergency suicide hotline. On top of that, due to the transient nature of these resort communities, their social makeup is often more tenuous. Residents lack intergenerational relationships and deep social attachments, which are protective against suicide. That means that, when faced with issues, people have less support.
In addition, there’s less participation in the groups and activities that typically knit communities together. Deidre Ashley, executive director of Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, believes all of these factors are at play in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she’s seen a recent uptick in suicides. And the mere notion of living in paradise can amplify one’s feelings of depression and isolation. If you live in an environment that’s interpreted or seen as perfect, that may in fact lead you to feel even worse when you don’t feel good in that environment, and you may feel an even greater personal toll as a result. Good weather can also exacerbate feelings of depression, and suicides peak in the spring and summer months. You make it through, and it’s supposed to be better, but you get to spring and it’s not better.
As a result of that, it may be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Holloway’s observations in Aspen back up this notion. We have a season for suicide, and we are in that season. I didn’t meet the girl of my dreams.
I don’t have any more money. I’m embarrassed, and I don’t want to tell my family that I didn’t succeed. Looking at the suicides in Telluride, it’s probably not a fluke that they occurred during a spell of unseasonably warm, spring-like weather. Then there’s the issue of substance use and abuse. Most ski towns have an unabashed partying culture and social life often hinges on alcohol. Is it a coincidence that Montana and Colorado, which currently rank third and sixth in the nation for suicides, also claim some of the highest incidence of substance abuse in the country? Another factor complicating the matter is the way altitude affects brain chemistry.
A 2014 study by the University of Utah found a link between altitude, depression, and suicide rates. At altitude, you get a pretty marked reduction in your serotonin levels. University of Utah School of Medicine, who led the 2014 study. Muddying the brain chemistry equation even further is the fact that altitude also increases the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a part in pleasure seeking and risktaking behaviors. Though people commonly say suicide is a cowardly act, at its heart it’s also a bold one. Dopamine drives risktaking behavior, and if dopamine levels are indeed enhanced the higher one goes, it follows that people may be more likely to take risks at altitude. On top of that, higher-altitude locales select for risktakers due to their access to outdoors pursuits.
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No one can ever truly know what lies in another person’s heart—what causes one man to look out over the San Juans and feel awe and another to feel desperation. It’s not one event that tips a person from life to death but instead a lifetime of experiences and circumstances that culminate in one fateful, irreversible choice. For many, the mountains offer salvation. Who hasn’t felt peace wandering through a high-alpine field of wildflowers or the sublime high that comes with tagging a 14er? But faced with the number of people taking their lives in ski towns, it’s important to acknowledge that these idyllic locales breed a particular kind of malaise.
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In order to stem this terrible tide, we must bring the issue out from the dark and into the light. In doing so, we should strive to understand how we can support the most vulnerable individuals in our communities. Just like the article stated, disparity of income. Someone who is young and wants to follow a dream of skiing spends their life skiing and working low wage jobs to get by financially. Meanwhile they see the very rich come and spend idle time skiing and spend money as if they have an infinite supply. There has to be a lot of jealousy.
Then one day you realize your dream is over, you can’t ski as well as you did before and you are only getting older. The real solution is to admit your life plan wasn’t as good as you thought it was and to try to get help. The easy route is to end you life, but that is just your last bad decision. Alcoholism, depression, suicidal thoughts, moodiness and an inability to sustain relationships. Had never considered that all of this might be aggravated by where she lives. I worry about her every day but she has now pushed me away too.
Good article and very eye opening as I had no idea the Rockies had such a higher than normal rate of suicides. What a sad and eye-opening article. Even though I don’t ski, I lived in Sun Valley for 4 years from the age of 25-29. Due to my skill set, I was fortunate to work for a large engineering firm. One of my best friends hung herself, yesterday, 3 years ago. It is a serious problem in the mountains.
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I too moved here directly out of college. I am a Mtn person, risk taker, and I too feel that stress about these towns, and trying to fit in, or to get by. Certain people should never live in a ski town. It is all your mindset about life. Thank you for a good report! National Crisis Hotline by text is saving lives daily: 741741 Anyone can text it with any word or thought, and a loving professional will connect instantly with you. This all hits home in Jackson Hole.
Reading all the inescapable contributing factors in this article are enlightening, nevertheless. More light needs to be shed on this issue. I have lived in Aspen for 18 years. It was a choice I made based on a convergence of things I did and did not want in my life for the long term and those points still stand to this day. I was 30 when I moved here, had and still have a career that is unique even to this area. I also did not buy into the party scene here which is considerable.
I don’t have the answers but I do feel that we ought to be asking a lot more questions. Take care of each other folks, we all need to. Hard hitting article but all too true. I’ve watched my friends that aren’t local, raise families, buy and sell houses, amass wealth while I struggled to pay rent in a house that I’ve lived in for more than 30 years.
The landlord raises the rent every few years yet does nothing to improve the location or to do basic repairs. I am unable to complain as the housing shortage is so awful that if he wanted to he would just evict me and I’d be in dire circumstances. Thank you so very much for this timely article. I lived in two of these towns mentioned for two years each. Although the scenery was beautiful and the recreation abundant, I have never been so lonely in my life. The people who live in these places are so caught up in their quest to be the best skier, snowboarder, mountaineer etc. This article brings up some interesting points.
I would like to see some peer reviewed studies that prove altitude truly does lower serotonin and raise dopamine. One major point that this article left out is this. You have to look at the reason people move to a ski town. I think a high percentage of people who move weren’t happy where they were and ran from it in a last ditch effort to be happy. In the process they gave up commitments, careers and educational degrees. Many ski towns are at the end of a road, and a lot of ski towns ARE the end of the road for certain people.
I began teaching skiing at twenty. I lived in the Northwestern Lower Peninsula of Michigan for most of my life. At thirty years old I had a spiritual awakening and decided it was time to actualize that dream. I was the happiest and most fulfilled I’d ever been. I made a plan, saved money, and packed up my things. Shortly after settling in, about two months, I began to wonder what happened to that beautifully awakened woman I became just ten months ago. But wait, I was just the happiest I’ve ever been!
I was just on top of my own world. I finally figured out that I have the ability to fill my own heart up. I traveled alone for a month, I slept in my car, I asserted myself, I survived Burning Man, I’m here in the mountains about to ski my face off, I didn’t stop to ask for financial assistance. Then why after all that did I feel a deep slump, a wall, a fog, a barrier to my wealth of self love?
Adjustment period, okay, I get it, I lived within 2-4 hours of my family and support my whole life. Another few months, still a flat line. I cured my depression last year with abundant self love practices that actually worked. So now it’s been seven months, it’s May. I feel blessed and guilt at the same time.
I found a new sustainable year round job, again SHHH! I go home tired and feeling rewarded. Yes, the altitude might be battling with my brain. And yes, everything’s expensive and the tourists could care less. I recognize everyone is doing their best and our best always looks different. As long as we keep shining and setting that example of love and light there is hope.
I would know, I’ve experienced the dark. May we all be blessed and continue to SEND IT! I lived in Estes Park, Colorado. Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. My neighbor and I would listen to his police scanner anytime we were in his home.
Then, around the holidays, that number would jump. The month I moved away from Estes, one of the old mountain men in town killed himself. Some people have been visiting Estes every year since they were born. RMNP to be the most beautiful place they have ever been. Relationship problems, terminal diagnoses, hermit reasons, and some, we never know why. Why are ski towns seeing a rise in suicides? Since many MUT communities share space with ski towns, is it a problem with our sport too?
Beautiful article, hard hitting indeed but spot on. One thing you touched on is lack of mental health care in these communities. Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center and now another 3-4 weeks before I will be able to speak with a psychologist. For someone truly in pain, feeling the weight of living in a ski town this might be a bit too long.