Friday, 21 September 2012

Should Parents Take Risks?

At 5,897 m ( 19,347 ft) on Ecuador's Cotopaxi in July 2010.
The other day I read a story in Outside Magazine about the 2012 deaths on Mt. Everest, and it made me think about the time a couple years ago when Mack, then 10, asked, "Dad, are you ever going to climb Mt. Everest?"

It turned out he'd watched a movie about Everest in class. In one scene, they interviewed a Canadian climber who recounted how he crossed paths with one of his teammates on the way down from the summit. It was the last time he ever saw the climber, who disappeared on the descent. Mack connected the dots between my climbing and the fact that people die on Everest, and realized that the same fate could happen to me. My answer was an unequivocal "No. I have no intention of ever, ever climbing Mt. Everest. I want to grow old and watch you and your brother grow up."

I've never considered my activities in the mountains excessively risky, but the fact is that they are risky. Falling rocks. Crevasses. Bad footing. Hypothermia. Avalanches. Bears. As soon as you step out of the car at the trailhead, you expose yourself to many, many ways to die. You've effectively re-entered the food chain. But still...I'm very conservative when it comes to safety on the mountain. I don't do stupid things like try to make the tallest mountain in the world the first mountain I've ever climbed. I may do extreme things, but I don't do them in an extreme way.

Scrambling up Lineham Ridge
Then, this past summer while scrambling up Lineham Ridge in Kananaskis, a friend and I were talking about the highs we get when we reach the peak and look out across the tops of mountains stretching as far as we can see. "My little brother wants to try scrambling, but I won't let him," she said. "It's too dangerous."

This was from someone who rock climbs. You know, pulls herself up overhanging cliffs with nothing but a rope anchored into the rock. One fall on a bad anchor and your day can be horribly, fatally ruined. And she thought what we were doing is more dangerous. There are no ropes to stop your fall, and showers of rock dislodged by climbers above or just by wind and water can ping off your helmet like hail. The risks we were taking were hammered home later when the alternate descent route described in the guide book ended at a band of rocks we couldn't down climb. Another women in the group, probably the strongest scrambler of the seven of us, disappeared for 20 minutes as she explored a slot that looked promising. Between us and her was a small stream that made verbal communication impossible. As we waited, I weighed our options if she didn't reappear. None of them were good. Thankfully, she managed to climb back up, but eventually we were forced to retrace our steep steps up to the high point on the ridge and descend the way we had gone up.

Lineham Ridge: It's a looooooong drop down.
Having kids makes you think carefully about the risks you take. A bad day in the mountains won't just affect me, it'll affect them. Is it worth it? I don't have an answer other than I'm still scrambling. But as I plan a high-altitude mountaineering trip to Ecuador in December--a charity climb to raise money for at-risk kids in Ecuador--I'm realizing that I'll have to talk my kids through any worries I'm causing them. I can't promise them that nothing bad will happen, but I can promise that they'll always be in my thoughts and I'll make the right decisions on the mountain to maximize my chances of getting down it in one piece.

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