You’ve got kids. How do you handle taking mountain risks?

April 01, 2014
Will Gadd

OutsideA while back I said I would answer reader questions as posts. Here’s a good one I received today, and and an answer. Thanks Bruno.

On 2014-04-01, at 12:48 AM, Bruno wrote:
Hi Will,

We have communicated a few times and met once in Kandersteg.

If I remember correctly, you recently wrote about blogging more in response to readers questions. So here goes.

(shortened)

But I really want to ask you the big question.  As a father, how do you justify/rationalize/explain the risks you take to yourself?  Don’t get me wrong–I’m not trying to condemn or criticize you.  I have a found year old daughter, and I climb all through the year.  I try to climb as safely as possible (that’s why I once contacted you about ice climbing training).  I try to think carefully about risk and danger.  I practice climbing and safety skills all the time.  I do my best to stay within my comfort zone.   But sometimes the possibility of me dying in the mountains and leaving my daughter alone just overwhelms me, and I want to crawl into a hole and close my eyes, or quit climbing and sell all my gear and change my life.  I go back and forth, and the indecision and doubt must influence my activities in the mountains, which is something I try to remain aware of.  Anyway, I could go on and on, but I imagine you know just what I am talking about.

One last thing: in answer to this question, you often hear the whole thing about “It’s better to set an example doing the things you love, even if they are dangerous, and inspire your children, instead of leading a less risky life.”  Basically, I think that’s bullshit.  I don’t know about you, but I think my daughter would do much better in life with a father who did easy mountain biking in the forest, cross country skiing, lake kayaking, and so on, as opposed to having no father at all.

Thoughts?

Bruno

Hi Bruno, good questions. The short answer is that these sports are vital to me as a human. If I don’t do them, or something similar, I become a SOB to myself and those around me.  Or I turn toward less healthy alternatives… So I’m conscious of my kids, and I actively let their presence influence what I do, from no more really long trips to lowering the bar on some sports (no more BASE, less soloing, no more high-level paragliding competitions, etc). If I don’t feel something is truly deeply worthwhile that’s also very risky then I don’t do it. When I was younger and pre-kids I was definitely willing to hang it out there more often; maybe not farther, but a lot more often. And occasionally farther, who am I kidding. I never felt those risks were too high, but sometimes I do now given what I’m gambling with. So recognizing the enormity of what you have on the line and letting that pull the line inside your comfort zone is probably a really good thing! Knowing what I have on the line changes how far I have to push; if things get a little weird in the mountains I’m a lot faster to call it, and feel the weight of the situation a lot more.  I used to hang it out a lot farther a lot more often, and I could get empirical with that risk level probably. But it’s more of a feeling and a practice of the idea I start every mountain sports day with, a sort of mantra: “One day I will die, but today I’m going to do everything that I can to make it to the end of the day. It’s a good day to do things right.” It helps me focus my mind on what’s really important in the day.

I agree that ours kids will absolutely do better to have us around, totally. But I also know that if I don’t do these sports I’m not very good with my kids. I also don’t do these sports to inspire my kids, but I do live this life and hope my kids do see at some point that living the life you truly WANT is worthwhile. I personally hope they get into piano with the same obsession as I have mountain sports, or maybe into  soccer or something, but I hope they find a passion. Maybe that’s what you mean by inspiration, but I think it’s broader than that…. It’s about living a meaningful life, and for me that includes mountain sports. Today I got to sky with older kid, and it was awesome to share the sport together. That’s also in the equation for me.
Good question, I do think I’ll put it up as a blog with a bit more thought, cheers!

 

25 Comments. Leave new

somefatherguy
April 1, 2014 2:25 pm

Thanks for publishing this Will, great question too. It’s something I struggle with daily as the father of an 8 year old. I nearly got wiped out by a big serac fall about 7 years go now when my daughter was 1, and it really shook me up at the time. I stopped ski touring altogether for a long time, and was the major reasons I didn’t really get into climbing until about 3 years ago, despite it always being a major dream and passion of mine to pursue.

This whole struggle often tears me up inside, and I still really have not made peace with it. On one hand, the only place I want to be is up on a wall somewhere – I’ve always had big dreams of big climbs, more so now than ever that I’ve experienced it. But the other hand i’m terrified of leaving my daughter without a father, and it stops me from pursuing a lot of things that I want to. Not that I regret these decisions, but it is certainly a balance that I wish I could find in my life.

Glad to know i’m not alone, thanks for posting this.

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I totally agree Will. I don’t go add hard core as you but my family and friends often accuse me of being selfish with my outdoor adventures. I tell them that they’re 100% correct. I try to mitigate the risks as best as I can but I am only true to my character when I’m pursuing outdoor adventure. I tried living how others thought I should and felt like dying. My kids are very important to me but so is my sanity. They are better off with a father who shows them by example how to live an intentional life then with a dad who walks around depressed all day.

I also hope they see that life is for living, not just surviving.

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William Turner
April 1, 2014 3:05 pm

Well will. Great topic. I am 64 tomorrow, my son is 25 and and avid reader of your blog (Kirk Turner http://www.mtnsaremyhome.blogspot.com.) . My daughter is 27, my last big mtn at the time which I then considered risky, was Denali, 28 years ago. I believe as much as I love the outdoors and have had he privilege of conveying that love to my children, at some point coming back safely in order to enjoy life with those you have been responsible for bringing into this world, becomes far more important than your own needs. Saying he died doing what he loved is not an acceptable excuse in my book. Life is too short to let children and a wife live with that excuse. Enjoy what you do, but remember who is looking forward to seeing you upon your safe return and making that extra too risky push my not be worth it.

As a footnote, 2 years ago I fractured my tibia plateau in the USA cycling national marathon championship in Bend Oregon, at mile 30 out of 50. My son finished ninth, in his category. It was on my bucket list, and finishing the event remains on my bucket list. It may or may not happen, however that is OK.

Enjoy your life and your loved ones to the fullest.

Bill Turner,

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William Turner
April 1, 2014 3:08 pm

PS you can fix my spelling if you wish to leave my post up.

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Steve Richert
April 1, 2014 3:22 pm

Really well said–and something that is worthwhile for discussion well beyond the realm of climbing, I think. How parents (and everyone, really) handles, accepts risk really shapes who we become. Thanks for sharing this–I am about to become a parent and climbing is a big part of who I am and what I do–or I should say it’s become a manifestation of who I am–and this issue has been on my mind a lot.

Steve

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Great question and interesting response; both by yourself and others in the comments.
I’ve only recently begun my climbing career in my mid 20’s, but with some big goals in mind, it’s an addiction I won’t soon shake. That being said, I’d also like a family; I’d be lying if I said I’ve never thought about how the two will interact with the other, one day.
It’s a hobby others are quick to judge; assuming it’s a ‘phase’ and that taking those types of risks are ‘stupid’ or ‘unfair’ once you settle down. Hardly how I view things at the moment.. but a lack of responsibility, combined with a love for the sport has a funny way of changing your perceptions on risk.
Obviously I won’t know until I get there myself, but it’s certainly something to consider moving forward. Thanks for the insight!

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Very good response Will. There is a line where you still have be a dad or mom…and still live a life.

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Thanks Will,

I like how you articulate that if you don’t get out you turn to less healthy alternatives. Risk and adventure for most people is crucial for it is the root of creativity. Our modern society, especially with kids, is risk averse. But risk is never mitigated by hanging out on the couch in a “safe” place; it is transferred to ill health and unhappiness. Suicide rates for youth climb as society becomes more riskanoid. The potential for loss is there no matter what we do so might as well have fun and learn some things along the way. Like your piece on MOVING, we need to MOVE forward and develop physically, intellectually, socially, and spiritually. Taking risks is the only what this can happen. Physical, social, intellectual and spiritual risks.

Thanks for the exchange Will.

Ken

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I am not particularly well qualified to respond to this post, because I am an adventure traveller, not a mountaineer, but my best ever holiday was taking my kid trekking on the outskirts of the Annapurnas – not quite as challenging as I would have done without kids, but rewarding in a whole new range of ways… maybe you could think about introducing your kids to the wonders of the world rather than risking your life

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I should add, not that I particularly have a problem with risking you life if that’s how you are built, we all have different risk profiles

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Daddy has been dying for many thousands of years. At work, war, famine, etc, and lastly because that’s eventually what we all do. We have created societies to mitigate this but we cant mitigate the fact that a certain % of humans just love that shit because of our natures. Most of us who do it aren’t really at risk all that much but we like to pretend we are outliers on the edge. Most of us want that illusion, not the reality. Approach it with an eye to risk management and chances are you will fine. Assume the worst case scenario, like all of living, and have a plan. You know the greatest risk? Not managing our obcessiveness and creating a dynamic that doesn’t allow us to be present as a partner, parent, coworker, and citizen. Awareness allows possibilities.

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i climbed and led a hazardous lifestyle before becoming a dad and continue to do so since. ive been happy to give up all sorts of peripheral stuff for daddydom, but as climbing etc have helped make me who i am its not like giving up trips with the boys or hanging out at starbucks.
i met my wife thru climbing and center my yearly phases around climbing – to cut too far into that makes me someone else who i dont know. after a long time realizing that having climbing etc as an orbit makes me a better person, im not sure about who i would be without it. i think thats a bigger risk (ie one i have less idea of the outcomes) than the climbing.

my daughter knows me as a climber. i can play with her endlessly because im climbing fit, im up at 5:ooam with her because thats ‘climb-o’clock’, i manage her limits because i know my own, i come home after missing her on trips.
parenting has always been a huge adventure for me, and its applying what i know frrom rescue work and climbing that lets me navigate it and i think thats healthy – at least healthier than some other versions.

as she grows she sees a guy whos fit and motivated and balanced(ish) as a father figure. thats the best thing i can do for her – be an example, maybe not as a climber, but as an example of applied motivation and a lust for life.

risk is the zoom lense of life, when you get to see further beyond whats presented. risk keeps perspective and thats the single biggest factor for parenting i find.
my dad climbed and continues to work in risky areas, and as a dad now myself, i can see how – but maybe not directly all the time – it makes him the father he is. i never once felt he was selfish or ignorant, more the opposite.

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Carlos Olivera Canada-Cuba
April 2, 2014 4:11 pm

Hola Will
As a father of my 4mounts Carlitos I am afraid to introduce my champ on all my adventures , But inside of me Ill love see him Hiking base jumping paragliding ,What can I do/////

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Ken Purcell
April 3, 2014 7:20 am

Good question in deed Will. I decided long ago – I would not push my only son into the climbing world. When he wants to try, or ask me to teach him some aspects – I do. BUT, I also knew in the same thought I would be training him and teaching him the many aspects on how to travel and survive in the outdoors. Starting with a 10 km hike up to Colon Hut when he was 4 yrs, 4 mnths. Athabasca river trip age 5, his first 7 night sea kayak trip in the Broken Group age 7.

I believe most of us who play and live in the outdoors, know fairly well – where that fine line is. So we just pull back a bit. My son is now just 14. He as done maybe 70 – 80 trips into the outdoors and could survive in -40 in the mountains. So I feel so far, I have be successful. My one and only worry was if I had a heart attack out of the blue; on one of the early trips. I’m still here. He loves to Ice climb at least a couple times each winter, but was not too happy at the Rock Gardens. Any and all outdoor activity gives our children internal strength. I guess in the end – it’s all good! So – the future is straight ahead!

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stilloutthere
April 3, 2014 7:48 am

A friend asked me this same question while sitting back to back in a bivy while descending from an ascent of the north face on Mt. Bryce. My daughter was 10 days old, joining a son of 3 years. The discussion is easier when you look at it as Will did: What if I don’t? Fact is humans are a mix of things, part parent, part lover, part adventurer, part, part, part. You cannot expunge one element just because you become a parent. My own life has always been precious, both before and after becoming a dad. Further, what if the policemen, the firefighters, the soldiers, the foreign aid workers all said, “My responsibilities as a parent preclude me from continuing in this career?” Part of human-ness is to hold consciously all of these elements of one’s life in a single vessel with balance and thankfulness for who you are.

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Rob Stephenson
May 8, 2014 9:31 pm

I think about this all the time, and it really depends upon who you ask. I broke my neck 15 years ago body surfing. I have had an almost full recovery and in fact have taken up rock, ice, back country skiing, mountain biking, and other activities AFTER that accident. I used these activities to replace football, basketball, and rugby – all of which were played in the year prior to the accident. Oh, and I was also in the Navy. Now at 41, I’ve got two wonderful girls. My wife says she is glad that we climbed (past tense), but I have to drag her to the climbing gym when it is my turn to pick date night. All that being said, with kids and a full time job, I don’t get out as much as I’d like to, and my partners are usually other dads and conservative like me because we are aligned in our desire to have a bit of adventure, push ourselves physically, and go home to our families.

I’ve really enjoyed this blog and this discussion, and realize there isn’t any right answers. One compelling thought that I had after reading was this. You are right, soldiers, firefighters, police officers, construction workers, they all take risks at their jobs every day. People get into their cars to make really long commutes in the winter to their jobs. All of these seem risky, but only because our world as Americans has become so incredibly safe and sterile. 100+ years ago, people didn’t have the luxury to go climbing because they were fighting for their survival on a daily basis. Life was challenging enough. There are those of us who relish, and in fact thrive only when we are being challenged physically and mentally, and without it, we are less.

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Bruno Schull
April 4, 2014 10:32 am

Thanks Will for posting this. As the author of the original question, I am humbled and inspired that so many people share the same doubts and questions. I obviously don’t have the answers, but I can share some of my own experiences.

When my daughter (now four years old) was born, I was convinced I wanted to keep climbing. It was almost as if I did not want, or was not ready, for the life change to dictate the choice for me. So I kept climbing. I wondered and worried but it felt alright. As my daughter and I have grown older, I find myself questioning climbing more. Part of this is because my relationship to my daughter has deepened, and I can better appreciate what it would mean to leave her alone. Part of it is also because I can actually imagine living without climbing. That used to be impossible. In some ways, this makes it harder. Before, there was really no choice. Now there is a real choice.

Will talked about pulling in the line and taking less risks. I try to do the same. I think about the level of risk in the climbs I do, and there are many climbs that I would love to do that are well within my ability that I think I will never do, because they involve too much risk, in one way or another. That’s fine. I struggled with this. How to progress, if I don’t push my level? I found part of an answer in a video from Arcteryx. A downhill mountain biker and father named Scott Petett said, “Find that point where you have to say that’s enough. With the liabilities of life, I’ve kind of found what my comfort zone is, and I just really try to find a smoother line in that comfort zone.” So I look for a smoother line. To me that means climbing more safely, more efficiently, more quickly, more skillfully, more cleanly, more elegantly, more relaxed, and so on. It gives me a way to improve within my limits. That has helped a great deal.

Last, I’ll have to think more about what inspiration means for children, and how to foster it, with or without climbing, or other sports that can involve high risk. Will and others raise good points. I agree that I think the most important thing is to show you children that it’s incredibly rewarding to lead a meaningful life, How you do that will be different for everybody. Thanks again. Bruno.

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The most important thing I can give to my twins is experience; in particular, opportunities to see life and learn from life. That includes a sense of adventure and finding something to be passionate about. My wife and I stopped climbing when we became pregnant and never resumed because of time constraints. To be good & safe, you have to practice, and there was simply no time to do so. And the risk equation–for us as novice climbers–weighed in favor of stopping. I still engage in sports that are considered “risky” and do so because they are part of who I am and prevent me from going nuts! I derive more satisfaction and am better at these other things than I ever was as a climber, so the risk equation is different. I for one want my kids to know what adventure and risk are, and how to manage them appropriately. Live by example.

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William Turner
April 5, 2014 3:34 am

Bob, thank you for sharing. It is hard for me at 64 to accept that Daddy’s are disposable. Life is precious, and short and the world is not an easy place to grow up in. Opportunities to see life and learn from it are extremely valuable. My kids were home schooled for many years, which gave us incredible opportunities to go do things together in all kinds of places, including camping outdoors in the snow at a young age and Longs Peak at a young age, and visits to impoverished areas. Whatever we did right or wrong, my kids now 25 and 27 appear to love the outdoors, and now I get to share it with them, as well as my wife. However, now they wait for me to catch up at times, or go at a slower pace when we want to be able to talk. I somewhat selfishly, now ask them to remember that coming home in more or less in one piece is a high priority. As much as the planet is a crazy place I truly enjoy the life I get to share with them and my wife, especially when it is in the outdoors doing an adventure together.

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Finding the right balance has always been a struggle of mine since having a family… Well put Will!

I try to find inspiration as well through my kids (they support my weird attempt at filling up my endorphin intake). I get psyched now that my kids are into some of the things I truly love as well as show support for their own “quest” of endorphin…

Better to live to ski, climb, bike another day… And you get to be a father figure all the same.

Cheers Bud!

Sylvain

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Great discussion! Would love to hear some maternal voices weigh in. As mothers, we probably suffer even greater criticism when we pursue risky sports. Personally I’d hesitate to say that losing a mother is worse than losing a father. Honestly, losing either is equally bad! I’m not trying to generate a gender discussion here, but would simply love to hear how other climber/mountaineer mothers manage risk. Cheers!

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Christine O'Connell
April 17, 2014 5:21 am

Hello Will,
Thank you for opening up this topic.
I am writing from the point of view of a widow with an 8-month old child at the time of my husband’s death. He was an experienced mountaineer and rock climber but he had made the decision himself to stop climbing AFTER an upcoming winter Himalayan expedition. Leading up to that expedition was a training climb in Peru in the summer of 1984. Everything seemed to go wrong with it: team problems, almost-missed flight, lost luggage. He said that if I wanted him to cancel,he would, but I couldn’t ask him to do that. Climbing was part of his identity and I could not be the one to ask him to give it up. What I should have done was ensure that he had watertight insurance coverage (that took into consideration his climbing and mountaineering activities) and satisfactory provisions made for his family. He had not done this. I had to sue the insurance company and after several years settle for less than the intended coverage. My daughter never knew her father and her opportunities/happiness in life were lessened by his loss. I was angry with him for a very long time and cursed his egotism and selfishness. I am sure he would never have wanted that legacy.
If climbers with a spouse and children at home continue risky outdoor activities, they should at least make sure their families will not be financially devastated by their deaths. To do otherwise IS selfish and egotistical.

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Hi Christine, thank you for the thoughts. Really appreciated, and good points. I’ll go check on my insurance.

Thanks to everyone for their comments, really deep and real and respectful. This is the best side of the internet!

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William Turner
April 17, 2014 6:46 am

Thanks for sharing the experience you lived through, it could be useful to hear from some young adults who have lived with parents or lost parents who are passionate outdoor adventure types.

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Bogdan Petre
May 12, 2014 3:27 pm

Bill, you may want to check out a book called “Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow”.

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