Thursday, 12 September 2013

Helping Kids Understand the Risks that Outdoor Parents Take is an Ongoing Process

One of the smaller crevasses on Antisana

“Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” 

― John Muir

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.” 
― Edward Whymper

5707m on the summit of Antisana
The subject of outdoor parents and the risks we take has been coming up in a group of outdoor family bloggers of which I'm a member. I've written before about the risky stuff I do in the mountains and how that relates to being a parent. But as my sons get older and I expose them to more of the outdoor community and culture of which I'm a part, and they build their own bonds to that community, I've been realizing that I have to revisit the subject on a regular basis. 

Also, as I help them process the changes and feelings they're experiencing as a result of their mom and I beginning the divorce process, I'm strongly aware of their need for stability and security in their relationship with their parents. And by asking them how they feel about those changes and letting them know that there are no right or wrong feelings and they don't have to worry about hurting me, I'm finding that in some ways we're developing closer bonds as a family of three than we did as a family of four. It's taking time, but they're starting to open up to me about their feelings in general and I don't even have to prod them. They're even answering questions about school with full sentences instead of single word grunts.

It doesn't get much safer than top roping
Last Saturday night we went to the Best of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival. The film I most wanted to see was Shattered by climber Steve House. Besides the amazing cinematography and ice climbing, House reveals a vulnerable side that is rare in the ego-driven world of world-class mountaineering. He shares that his deepest fear is that he isn't worthy of love. That 19 climbers he's shared a rope with have died. That he's increasingly aware that each moment on a mountain could add him to that list. 

That night Mack, my oldest at 13, said it sounded like House didn't like climbing, so why did he keep doing it? That started a fantastic conversation about the difference between irrational fear and recognizing that you're in danger. About what drives people to do risky activities. About why I do risky activities. Then Michael, a wiser 9-year-old than he often gives himself credit for, noted that 19 of House's friends had died climbing. The message was clear: he was concerned that I could die climbing.

This is increasingly one of my concerns as well, especially as I plan another trip to Ecuador to climb 6,268m Chimborazo. The more I push myself to the edge, the farther out I find I have to push myself to get the same clarity of the moment and self realization. Nothing forces me into the present moment--hyper-awareness of all of my senses, each step and plant of my ice axe excruciatingly deliberate--like knowing that the consequences of a mistake would be severe. Last year I found this clarity on Ecuador's 5707m Antisana as I traversed beside a gaping crevasse the width of a house and so deep I couldn't see the bottom. Between my boot and the drop was no more than a couple inches of snow. If I fell, it was unlikely the picket that was sticking half out of the snow beside me would hold or that Estevan would be able to arrest my fall. We'd both disappear into the glacier. In the preceding 24 hours I'd only gotten two hours of sleep, I was exhausted from six hours of slogging up steep snow with some ice thrown in, and I hadn't acclimatized well to the noticeable lack of oxygen at that altitude. Yet I felt a clarity and presence in the moment unlike anything I'd felt before.

But that is not something you can explain to a 9-year-old or even a 13-year-old. It's not something that most of my middle-age hiking friends understand. So I showed the boys photos of the ice climbing I do, and compared it to what House was doing in Shattered. I showed them photos of people climbing Everest and K2, and photos of the stuff I do. I tried to put into perspective the level of climbing that House's 19 dead rope mates did, and the level of climbing and other mountain stuff I do, but without dismissing the risk or misleading the boys into thinking that nothing could happen to me.

Did Mack and Michael get it? I think so, but I'll revisit the subject in a couple weeks to give them time to process it all and come up with new questions. And if I can swing it maybe I'll take them to Colorado in January, do a little skiing in Teluride, and drop in on the Ouray Ice Festival on the day of the Kid's Climbing College so they can give ice climbing a try for themselves.


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