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Stepping Into My Own Fear: My friend’s gruesome death changed my life forever, Suzanne Elshult, Executive Coach/HRNow

With my two search dogs

With my two search dogs

“Burned into my memory are the images of him, on that slick rock, grasping for something, anything, to hold on to, as he slid slowly but inevitably toward the edge. Worst of all is the memory of him looking back at me, desperate and helpless,  as he soundlessly disappeared. That moment is forever etched into my memory. The replay is always the same, always in slow motion, and always includes searching for him – it seemed like forever – and finally noticing that one of the side pools  at the bottom of the falls was colored red”.

Most folks who know me are aware that beyond my work as an executive coach, I am also a K9 handler with two search dogs (Bosse and Keb) and an active member of Mountain Rescue. Over the past decade I have spent literally thousands of hours searching for lost individuals and helping to save lives in the mountains and communities of western Washington.  The work is often physically challenging and not infrequently involves life and death situations. It is how I have chosen to give back to my community.

Fifteen years ago, there is no way I would have been willing to even consider such an undertaking. The reason was simple: to do so would have required me to deal with my worst possible FEAR – one that arose decades earlier as result of a jarring and tragic event that played out in the mountains of California’s Sierra Nevadas.

One day in  1976, the year I arrived in the United States from Sweden, forever changed my life. It was the day I witnessed the traumatic death of a Swedish friend  visiting  me and my then boyfriend – now husband- Scott at his parents property just outside Yosemite National Park. Staffan, was an amazing young man  practicing as a psychologist in Lund, Sweden. He had a sense of adventure and was excited that morning to be hiking and scrambling with us in the awe-inspiring nature surrounding Yosemite. Scott’s parents’ property had several water falls along Gertrude and Whiskey Creeks, one of them was 5 or 6 stories tall with an expansive, sloping glacial polished rock shelf on top and a large pool below. On that hot summer day while we were reclining against a boulder Falls Staffan got up and walked about 30 feet or so onto the shelf and laid down in a trickle of water to cool himself. I remember telling him “be careful, the rock over there is much slicker than it looks.” And I remember a few moments later, hearing a wet thud and glancing over to see that in his attempt to get up and move, he had slipped and fallen on the slime under the thin sheen of water where he had been sitting, and was now, sliding, as if in slow motion, towards the edge some 30 feet away. The slope of the rock was not steep, but the angle was just enough to keep him sliding, and the moist expanse was wide enough and slippery enough to prevent him from maneuvering out of harm’s way. Burned into my memory are the images of him, on that slick rock, grasping for something, anything, to hold on to, as he slid slowly but inevitably toward the edge. Worst of all is the memory of him looking back at me, desperate and helpless, as he soundlessly disappeared. That moment is forever etched into my memory. The replay is always the same, always in slow motion, and always includes searching for him – it seemed like forever – and finally noticing that one of the side pools  at the bottom of the falls was colored red.

I shudder every time I recall my husband scrambling down the rocks over to the side of the pool, when he grabbed a hand barely visible below the water’s surface, pulled it and cradled Staffan’s head a he coaxed the body over to the side of the pool. Later he would tell me that Staffan’s head felt like a hard boiled egg in a sack that had been slammed on a rock.

For many years I had recurring nightmares that woke me up in a panic.

During the next several decades, I got married, developed a successful career, and brought a wonderful daughter to the world. Yet, what had happened with Staffan had created an almost irrational fear of standing by cliffs, drop-offs or waterfalls and it tainted our experiences as a family on the many hikes and backpacking trips we did together in the Pacific Northwest. I was always trying to hide my panic-not always succeeding-any time we were faced with exposure. Interestingly, somewhere along the journey, I found some consolation in reading that the fear of falling in fact is the only fear we are born with. All other fears are learned. But that little piece of knowledge still didn’t address the cost for me personally and others around me of hanging onto the fear and many years of not being able to break through it.

Fast forward to the mid-90s. This is when I left the corporate world after declaring that I felt like a money-making machine. Against the backdrop of working 60-70 hours a week there was a sense of meaninglessness and missing out on the relationship I knew I wanted with my daughter. A decision to redesign my life and find a way to make a living doing something meaningful also included finding a way to contribute to the world in a consequential way leveraging  my passions. My executive coaching practice started building and thriving quite quickly while I struggled several years to find the right avocation. While I was not aware of it at the time, I ultimately ended up finding my calling doing something that would also help me break through my fear around falling and exposure. It was time to deal with the lingering effects of Staffan’s gruesome death once and for all.
The triggering event was 9-11 – everything fell into place after that. I ended up in the world of mountain rescue and K9 search and rescue saving lives and finding lost people in the mountain ranges surrounding the Pacific Northwest. This opportunity allowed me to integrate all the elements I had been looking for:
  1. Mountains
  2. A K9 partner
  3. Saving lives
  4. Spending time with my husband (who was already involved in mountain rescue)
  5. Breaking through my fear of exposure, heights and falling

So, shortly after 9-11, I found myself heading home from one of the San Juan islands with newly adopted K9 Bosse in my lap.  Bosse is a lab, and at the age of 12 ½ he just retired from a long, productive career in mountain rescue. His new job is helping to train new K9 handlers while my Airscent certified 4-year old Labrador retriever Keb is my companion on missions and also trains in avalanche, human remains detection and disaster.

The moment of glory-Tooth Summit

The moment of glory-Tooth Summit

In order to join Mountain Rescue, you have to have climbing credentials so I enrolled in a Mountaineers Climbing class with trepidation. I started out doing local  climbs in the Pacific Northwest and later on in different parts of the world, summiting  19,400 foot Kilimanjaro, 17,000 foot Nevado De Toluca in Mexico, and many peaks here in the Pacific Northwest entailing both rock climbing and glacier climbing. In no way, do I consider myself much of an expert in this field, particularly when compared to many of my mountain rescue colleagues. But, given the fearful place I came from I still find it amazing that I have done and now do what I do in the mountains. There were many moments of conquering new territory on the journey, but the one that stands out the most was my  first serious technical rock climb of the Tooth, in the Cascades.

The Tooth

The Tooth

The climb was led by a seasoned Mountaineer with an impressive climbing portfolio.I was accompanied by my husband Scott who was rope lead with another climber. The day started out in the most horrible possible way with rain making the rocks slippery and hazardous. In hindsight, the climb probably should have been cancelled at the get-go because of the conditions, but our climb leader was known for his penchant for climbing regardless of the weather. At the outset I ended up spending ten minutes trying to find a way to even get started. I could not find any grips or footholds within my reach to get up the very first boulder which was slick from the rain, but I was determined and finally made it up to the launch place for the real climb. I knew this was my big test, and I felt a strange kind of calm come over me and started climbing moving one hand, one foot at a time. Images of Staffan kept flickering in front of my eyes and then:  I was in the flow, I was doing it, almost without thinking! There was a moment of hesitation when I came to the crux of the climb – the infamous “cat-walk”-needing to take a huge step over the abyss to a small ledge. And then it happened: in a blink of a moment I just took that one big step which in some way for me symbolized letting go of thirty years of fear of falling. The lead climber looked at me curiously and said,” that’s the spot where novice climbers usually get stuck in their own fear for quite a while, not being able to commit. You just did it”. Yes, at that moment I stepped into my fear without blinking. The photo above is my all time favorite picture of me and my husband immediately afterwards: talk about a “glow.” The funny thing is that my facial expression drastically changed moments after that picture was taken when I realized that now I had to get myself down several hundred feet of vertical terrain.

Looking back on it all, I now see, in sharp relief, how that tragic day came to importantly shape me as a person. For many years it would severely limit me. But later it would allow me to feel the success of stepping into my fear, embracing it and using it to propel myself forward in many aspects of my life.

Rappelling the Tooth

Rappelling the Tooth

The learning from all of this….

  1. In order to overcome my fear I had to stop resisting it. I had to step into it. In a sense I had to embrace fear-make it my friend- and have faith that I would get through in one piece on the other side taking that one big step to the ledge…..
  2. In order to get beyond my fear, I had to leave the rational, logical part of my brain-when I climb well I am in the flow of the present moment, when I scramble in hazardous terrain with my dogs or when on a search for missing people-my dog and I are engaged in an intricate, intimate and almost beautiful dance together.
  3. In order to overcome my fear of falling I had to own that it was real and also  how it was holding me back and preventing me from being everything I can be.I was able to question and push my own limits by acquiring climbing skills and using protective gear allowing me to reach the next level-the feeling on top of the Tooth was one of freedom and endless opportunity. Growing comes from expanding comfort zones.
  4. In a sense the fear will never disappear, but it feels like there has been a shift in the messaging – the feeling now is more around excitement and mastering a challenge. That feeling actually propels me forward.
  5. Overcoming my fear of falling and exposure has reverberated at a lot of different levels. I now feel like I have greater inner strength and can tap into a heightened sense of courage and strength in all aspects of my life, including my professional life.

In brief, I now live comfortably outside my comfort zone. Fear has become my friend.


  • Jurgen Stephan says:

    Fascinating life story resulting into keen insights, Suzanne. Thank you for sharing.

  • Suzanne says:

    Thank you Jurgen. My story seems to be touching a chord-lots of e-mails today:-) I miss you in MER!

  • Kevin Riddell says:

    Wow. Thanks for sharing your intense personal story. It does help put into perspective the many years of dedicated service you and Scott have put into Everett mountain rescue helping us develop as an effective tribe. Thank you again my friend.

  • Suzanne says:

    Kevin, yes we have not shared that story a lot in the past, and not at this depth. It’s always been very raw for me, even after these many years. I was plagued by guilt for a long time. Could I have prevented it and so forth…

  • Lynn says:

    Hi Suzanne, what a powerful experience and amazing testimony.. thank you for sharing such a tough story. Your growth and amazing character shine through this story.. you are an amazing woman and I am blessed to know you. I am so glad we got to help you and Bosse in your rescue efforts a well… keep up the good work.. and thank you for sharing your life with me.

  • Suzanne says:

    Lynn, you certainly contributed to our K9 search and rescue training in a very unique way:-) Thanks for being a little bit crazy with me.

  • Bill McClain says:

    So true: Growing comes from expanding comfort zones.

  • Laura Allen says:

    Suzanne, thank you for such a candid and poetic piece. I did K9 SAR for 4 years (LOVED IT) when I suddenly lost both my parents and a dear friend in a very short period of time. While not nearly as traumatic as what you experienced – I developed an almost superstitious fear of failure in the field. I couldn’t save the people I loved – how could I be responsible for saving anyone else? I stepped away from SAR for the moment but miss it and hope to face this fear and the grief behind it so I can get back out there with my K9 partner who is completely amazing to work with – i understand that relationship well and cherish it.
    It is hard work physically and emotionally and the people like you and I who are drawn to it don’t like to admit we may not be up for it, for whatever reason.
    Thank you again for writing this – maybe I’ll get back out there soon 🙂

  • Suzanne says:

    Laura, thank you so much for sharing your story. It sounds like you went through a truly horrific time. How traumatic something is is really in the mind of the beholder – feelings are facts, yes? I really hope you can move into and beyond your fear and get back into doing what you love. Doing K9 search and rescue is the most rewarding thing in my life-I can say that without reservation. I love engaging in the beautiful dance with my K9 partner. Let me know about your journey….

  • Megan says:

    I found myself holding my breath while reading. After reading, I have to admit that, like a lot of us, I have a need to control events in my life. The fear of situations where I would not have control cause me to sometimes avoid what might be great experiences. I admire how you boldly stepped into the SAR life, in spite of your fears!

  • Suzanne says:

    Megan, I totally connect with that. One way I was able to let go of control was by beefing up my support environment and skills. I decided to get real good at using protection and safety equipment and protocols when climbing. I often insist on having a safety line when facing scary exposures, places where others may feel more comfortable.

  • Randy says:

    Suzanne – what can I say? Wow! Thank you for sharing “the meaning of the story.” Like many people who you touch, I have seen you as a source of energy, intellectual confrontation [powerful questions! 😉 ], inspiration, and authenticity. Now? Now you represent a whole new dimension related to limitations. There are no “lids.” To say it more effectively, you have added new dimensions (emphasis on plural) to how I will look at what “restricts” me. I hope that makes sense. Regardless – thanks for sharing; it has rich meaning for me.

  • Suzanne says:

    Thanks Randy. no one does as much for my sense of self-worth as you do. Truly!

  • Meg says:

    Suzanne, your story took my breath away, sitting at my desk. Thank you for sharing it. You are inspiring to me.

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