An indigenous mountaineer and triathlete search for healing in the backcountry

A film fromHuck Presents
Athletes Adam Campbell and Sandy Ward cross paths along their healing journeys in this beautiful film from Breaking Trails, a new online series from The GORE-TEX Brand.
  • Text by Huck HQ

The mountains contain multitudes. These impossibly vast expanses of rock, snow and ice are home to rare and rugged species of plant and animal life. But if you know how to look, there are also countless emotions and stories contained within their peaks and valleys, too. For ski mountaineer Adam Campbell and pro-snowboarder Sandy Ward, the mountains are reservoirs of immense pain and loss – yet they are also places of learning and of healing. To arrive at this point, both Adam and Sandy had to work hard to transform how they interacted with the mountains – and with themselves. Now they’re working to help others create deeper and more meaningful relationships with the mountains and with the natural world around them.

Lessons From The Land is the third episode in Breaking Trails, an online film series from The GORE-TEX Brand that follows pairs of inspiring individuals as they forge paths and form connections in the outdoors. Each episode in the series sees two remarkable life journeys intersect on a physical trail, where an intrepid duo learn from each other’s experiences and find common ground despite their superficial differences.

Adam and Sandy are both from Canada but their backgrounds and their journeys into the mountains could not be more distinct, as they discovered on a ski-touring adventure together through Pemberton backcountry in western Canada.

“My life of adventure started even before I was born,” Adam explains. “My parents were living in Iran when I was conceived, and the revolution happened. And so my mom, at nine months pregnant, had to evacuate out of Iran and ended up in England by herself. And then my dad accepted a job in Lagos, Nigeria. So my mom and my dad moved to Lagos, Nigeria when I was nine months old. And from there we had this kind of a really special childhood.”

After travelling extensively as a child and young adult, Adam became a professional athlete. He trained at the National Triathlon Center with some of the best triathletes in the world, finished on the podium at the World Championships and won multiple national titles. “Maybe four, maybe five, I don’t remember… to be honest, the records and things like that don’t really matter,” Adam reflects.

“I felt deserted by my teams, I felt deserted by my community, I felt deserted by my fellow athletes.”

Sandy Ward

For Sandy growing up, there was no expectation of becoming a professional athlete or competing internationally – nobody in her community had done so. “I didn’t feel that I belonged in the outdoors,” Sandy explains. “When you come to Canada, you don’t see Indigenous people as guides anywhere. Me pushing through those barriers and pushing back on the people that told me I wasn’t in a space for me, it was really hard.”

Sandy is a member of the Lil’wat Nation, a progressive First Nations community who live near Pemberton, British Columbia. The Lil’wat territory once spanned over 800,000 hectares of the Pemberton Valley but the community was confined to a reservation that comprises just 0.004% of that ancestral land.

With the Lil’wat connection to their traditional way of life and to the mountains severed, Sandy blazed a lone trail. After discovering snowboarding at 15, Sandy joined the First Nations Snowboard Team when she was 18 and entered a development programme for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

“Pre-Olympics, there was a ton of support for Indigenous athletes,” Sandy remembers. “Then when we didn’t actually make it to the Olympics, a lot of that funding disappeared. I tried to continue on my own but it was impossible; just way too hard and way too much stress on a young person. I felt deserted by my teams, I felt deserted by my community, I felt deserted by my fellow athletes. That’s when I shifted toward mainly teaching snowboarding rather than competing and trying to make it as an athlete.”

Today, Sandy continues to teach snowboarding and founded Indigenous Women Outdoors, where she works to break down barriers and bring more First Nations women to snow sports. She leads their Backcountry Mentorship Program, offering free or low-cost access to gear and training, in order to elevate more Indigenous women to leadership roles within the outdoors industry.

Adam has faced numerous roadblocks along the way, too, which have forced him to change course. “Any mistakes in that realm [the mountains] can have really profound consequences,” he says. “At one point in 2016, I was in this deep inner turmoil and I was trying to use the mountains as escape. I wanted to go rage in the mountains and prove myself again, so I wasn’t fully focussed and didn’t really respect the task. So, I had a really bad fall, over 80 metres. I broke my back and my hip and am really fortunate to have survived.”

In 2020, while skiing in the mountains with his wife Laura, Adam triggered an avalanche. After 45 minutes of frantic digging, Adam found Laura under the snow but she had already passed. Adam holds himself responsible and continues to struggle with grief and guilt. But through the courageous journey of recovery and self-knowledge Adam has embarked on since Laura’s death, he has emerged as a pioneering mental health advocate. Adam works in environmental protection as a lawyer and has shifted his perspective to seeing land as not be conquered but a space to be experienced. This new relationship with the mountains has been vital to Adam’s healing journey.

“I was in this deep inner turmoil and I was trying to use the mountains as escape. I wanted to go rage in the mountains and prove myself again.”

Adam Campbell

“I think Adam I are very similar in the sense that we would use the outdoors as – not necessarily an escape from the hardships in our life – but an opportunity to heal in the mountains and overcome any obstacle that we came across,” Sandy reflects.

After many stories of the land passed down by her ancestors were lost due to the eradication of their language, Sandy is now studying the Lil’wat language, to help her heal from the intergenerational trauma of being forcibly separated from her ancestral land and culture. Physical connection with the mountains remains incredibly important, too. With Indigenous Women Outdoors, Sandy helps women from her own and other First Nations to heal through backcountry skiing.

“Having access to the backcountry and creating backcountry programmes allows us to get further out into into the land,” Sandy explains. “We see these things in areas that we wouldn’t see through the resort and through tourism. It’s also a way of exploring that territory, a way of reclaiming our territory. We’re showing that we do have those skills to get out there and to reclaim our lands: to see what things look like from these big peaks that nobody else can get to.”

Watch all episodes of Breaking Trails from The GORE-TEX Brand, including The Blind Ascent with climbers Tamara Lunger and Jesse Dufton, and China's Hidden Paths with ultrarunner Yao Miao and conservation ranger Li Xinrui.

Huck Presents is our brand new stream to celebrate films we love and champion emerging filmmakers we admire.

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