Children and mountain adventures...
I wrote an essay critiquing certain educational practices that are prevalent in the US, and one part of it deals with children and climbing specific trips, and how these "non curricular" activities are beneficial.
We have modeled our educational system after the industrial revolution of the early 1900's, and seem to remain focused on the that ideal. This means that school is about "preparing for work" and the skills that we place in high regard are the "back to basics" of math and language. I'm not saying we stop teaching math (My training is as a math teacher!) but things like Art, Music, Physical Education, Wilderness Education, and on and on are, in my eyes, just as important.
Anyway, here is a snippet of the essay I wrote...
My daughter is an avid rock climber and mountaineer. While some might think of these as mere distractions, they are incredible educational tools. Let me explain.
Rock Climbing: Since her first taste of “the rock” just before her fifth birthday, my daughter has had a love of climbing. The mental and physical challenge combined with being in the mountains is something that has just “stuck” for her. Seven years later she has taken it to the point where she spends winters training. Hard. She works with a coach and trainer and spends hours each week on climbing skills and physical conditioning. This has been invaluable in terms of education for her. She has learned the process of practicing and training to improve her performance. She understands commitment and hard work.
Climbing is as cerebral as it is physical, requiring mental toughness and the ability to make decisions as you move. On longer or higher routes, your mind must cope with hundreds of meters of blank space under your feet. It takes skill to not only cope with the fear response, but to channel it into power for your body.
There are the technical skills of dealing with climbing. Rope handling skills, anchors, and transitions require close attention. Decisions made in those situations can be life or death. While she has not made those decisions for herself yet, she understands the consequences of them as she sees me making them. I am conscious to involve her and explain. There are many “teachable moments” when we're out climbing.
She has come to love being exhausted. In the latter part of the winter, her schedule forced her to take a break from her climbing training and coaching. She was so pleased to find that she could return in the fall, as she found she missed pushing her body to its limit. She has learned to revel in her physical strength. Fitness has become something she craves. Resilience and determination are two lessons that I find are being learned by fewer and fewer students, regardless of background.
Which brings me to mountaineering. Rock climbing involves wearing sticky shoes and making gymnastic style moves while ascending a cliff face. It's usually done when the weather is fine and is typically done in the light of the day. Mountaineering means taking whatever the peak throws your way. It might be rock, ice or snow. You might have a long approach where you carry a heavy pack filled with camping and climbing gear. You have to deal with weather. You often have to move in the dark. Locations may be very remote and outside assistance may be impossible.
To many people, mountaineering seems ridiculous. It has been dubbed by some “the pursuit of the absurd,” and with some very valid reasons. What does it accomplish? As a mountaineer myself, I have often asked myself this very question. First and foremost, mountaineering is a selfish pastime. It certainly solves no problems for our poor or hungry. However, that does not mean it has no redeeming value to the participant. My daughter ascended her first technical mountaineering peak at the age of eleven, and there were many, many lessons contained within that trip.
Resilience. Mountaineering is not all adrenaline fueled climbing. It often involves humping a heavy pack for long distances through boring timber and along rubble-choked moraines. In reaching remote peaks, trails might be non-existent and route finding may be challenging. To avoid the extra weight of tents and cooking gear, I made my daughter's first mountaineering trip based out of a hut. We still had a long days hike to the hut, and it contained a sting in the tail in the form of grunt up a steep head-wall just before the hut. Some young army cadets saw us approaching and figuring we were tired, offered to carry our packs the last stretch to the shelter. My daughter simply replied “No thanks, I'm good.” She took pride in carrying her pack the distance.
Determination. The trips we have made had us staying at a pretty comfy hut, but it meant we were many kilometers from the base of the peak. We would have to rise very early (called an “alpine start”) so that we could make the distance required and move in the cool of the morning, when travel is safest. On the go at 4:00AM, we would spend the next twelve hours either trudging across the glacier or climbing the ridge to the summit. In mountaineering, time is of the essence, and breaks are few and brief. The final push to the summit was very taxing for her pipe-cleaner sized eleven year old legs, but she keep moving, determined to succeed. I have a decent list of peaks under my belt and I can say without a doubt that the day I shared that summit with my daughter was undoubtedly the finest of my life.
Self-Reliance and decision making. The mountains can dole out harsh lessons. One of my favourite peaks in the Canadian Rockies has a long list of fatalities. Through backpacking, rock climbing, and now mountaineering, my daughter is exposed to situations where there is little or no chance for outside assistance should the proverbial shit hit the fan. Of course, as her parent, I mitigate these risks as much as possible, but there is no way to eliminate them. I am always involving her in my process and ensuring that she learns about being self reliant. Which brings me to the important skill of...
Planning and thinking ahead. Mountaineering involves your mind a great deal. It requires planning and attention to detail. You have to think through scenarios and multiple outcomes and create contingencies for dealing with them. We plan our food load down to the last calorie. Climbing gear is chosen carefully to ensure you have what you need and don't carry what you don't. We read online trip reports, guidebooks and pour over maps planning our route. Planning to be fit and healthy for the climb is essential. Fitness is an essential part of mountaineering and can literally save your life.
Teamwork and friendship. My strongest friendships are with my climbing partners. I rely on them, and they on me. My daughter has already forged friendships with other girls that share her ambition. As children become adolescents, peer groups are vitally important in influencing their path.
The skills learned in the mountains are not used exclusively in the mountains. They serve people well in their day to day lives. I know in my own life, my mountain pursuits have served me well. When it came time to change careers, the decision was easily made. I make life and death decisions when climbing, so those that I make at home are easy and without stress. The consequences seem almost trivial and making corrections simple.
My wife has always had mixed feeling about my climbing. She does not understand my need to risk my life as part of being alive. She loves the mountains, backpacks with us, but does not participate in climbing. She has to endure periods at home while I am gone and the knowledge that I might not return.
I asked her if she could articulate any real benefits to her from my climbing. “My friends have watched their husbands become overweight couch potatoes. They lay about watching TV and have become spectators of life as opposed to participants. Their children can barely walk to the corner store to buy the pop and chips that make up the bulk of their diet. Our family is dominated by a culture of adventure and activity. With any reward comes risk, and the rewards of being married to a climber outweigh the risks.”