Susan Oakey-Baker remembers receiving news of the unexpected death of her husband, famed mountaineer Jim Haberl, as “one of those moments where everything just falls away. Nothing is ever the same again.
“It was awful — just wretched.”
Haberl, the first Canadian to reach the summit of the world’s most difficult peak, K2, died April 29, 1999, in an avalanche in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Oakey-Baker — an adventurer in her own right who spent 15 glorious years with Haberl — was among those in the mountaineering community who were shocked by his passing. A backcountry hut in the Tantalus Range now bears his name.
Afterward, nothing was ever truly the same again for Oakey-Baker. But she still had lots of her life to live. Immediately — accustomed to keeping journals chronicling her travels — she began keeping a regular logbook that initially, she addressed to her late husband.
“After Jim was killed, the next day I started writing in the journal he had taken with him in Alaska… I was writing every day to him and I did that for a couple of years. After a couple years, I found I was not writing to him anymore, but I was still writing things down and all of that helped me cope with what happened,” she said.
While she had a need to write down her thoughts from the start, it wasn’t until 2004, at a meeting of the Whistler Writers’ Group, that Oakey-Baker started working in earnest on what has become Finding Jim, a personal story of love, grief and rebirth that she released at the Whistler Readers’ and Writers’ Festival in October.
She recalls being afraid to share her early writings about Jim with members of the Whistler Writers’ Group nine years ago.
While it was helpful to have those original journals as a starting point — “there, I had that raw emotion on paper,” she said — she remembers going to that first writers’ group meeting afraid to share her work.
“It was hard for me to keep that emotion in check and not just burst out crying,” Oakey-Baker said, “but the writers’ group was just so supportive — they eased it out of me and that was very good.”
Surprisingly, Finding Jim includes only one excerpt of any length from those original journals. However, Oakey-Baker said that when she really started working on the book, it helped that she had started up a new relationship. Oakey-Baker, her husband Joe and their six-year-old son Sam now live happily in Whistler.
“It was over seven years that I went from Draft 1 to what’s now the final form,” she said. “I wasn’t working full-time on it — I needed breathing room at the time. I realized, though, that when I started the book, I was also starting my new life as well, so I think I really needed to have Joe and my new life before I was able to share the story with others.”
Susan Oakey-Baker still guides trips as well as doing teaching and painting. She’s also working on a second book — a novel set on Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, where she has guided many times.
Oakey-Baker has scheduled a book reading and slide-show presentation on Finding Jim tonight (Thursday, Dec. 19) from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Squamish Public Library. Admission is free. The book is available on Amazon.ca and at most bookstores including Armchair Books in Whistler.