Lately, I have been getting these questions a lot: What kinds of risks am I willing to take in the outdoors now that I am a mother? Has my approach to the mountains changed?
Risk is a complicated topic and one that can’t be covered in just one entry (hence “Part 1”), but I think it is important to discuss. Parenthood aside, how we evaluate and choose to take risks in the outdoors is already a rather heated, or at least passionate, debate. Add kids into the mix, and that heat turns to blazing inferno.
I haven’t yet been able to answer those questions, but I have given them a lot of thought. For this entry I’ll be referring to situations where parents go off and adventure on their own, not situations where they expose their children to risk.
To begin exploring this topic, I turned to a woman I previously interviewed for The Adventures in Parenthood Project because I knew she was in the midst of that delicate balancing act between being a mom and pursuing her outdoor passions. Caroline George is a mountain guide and the mother of 15-month-old Olivia. Though she was concerned about the impact motherhood would have on her outdoor pursuits, as her interview for EpicTV Women’s Weekly revealed, motherhood hasn’t changed her approach to the mountains. “If you’re really passionate about something, then you’re still gonna do it and it provides you with the balance that you need to be a good parent,” she explained.
Some would say Caroline is a bit of an extreme example. She was still ski touring the day she went into labour, was back on skis (just going up piste) ten days after giving birth and out mountain guiding a month and ten days after giving birth. She also completed the 6 Classic Euro North Faces just six months into motherhood (she climbed four of them back in 2003). As she told me in an interview, to balance her responsibilities of being a mother, she climbed Cima Grande in a 40-hour Chamonix-to-Chamonix round trip, all the while pumping milk to make sure Olivia had her mother’s milk to drink while she was away. “All in all, I kept doing what I always did but coming home to my little one was all the more exciting,” she said.
But many parents would be concerned about not coming home from a mountaineering trip. I asked Caroline about how she feels pursuing more risky adventures as a mother. “Risk is a relative concept,” she said. “Driving with Olivia in the car could be the most risky thing I do.”
True, risk is a relative concept and one we have to grapple with in our own relationship with the outdoors. And the argument that driving is more dangerous than mountain sports is a common one. But is it really true? I know I have heard it many times before. In The Grand Delusion, Canmore-based ice climber, paraglider and father, Will Gadd, struggles with this argument as he reflects on the many friends he has lost in the mountains. “As the list grows longer, I have a harder and harder time understanding why I take the risks I do out there,” he writes.
I struggled with taking risks in the mountains in the two years before I became a parent. I remember sitting in the snow on the way down from the summit of Mt. Sir Douglas back in July 2011, and for the first time ever really asking myself what the heck I was doing on that mountain. I had pushed myself on many climbs before but this time I could feel my strength and mental stamina beginning to wane. The climb up had been longer than expected due to winter conditions and many times I considered telling the group we should turn back. We got off the mountain OK, but the trip from base camp to summit and back to the car took about 23 hours of sustained climbing and hiking. After being “on” for so many hours in a row – treading carefully and keeping things as safe as possible in the mountain terrain – my nerves were absolutely shot.
I reached a number of other peaks that summer, including the iconic Mt. Louis (on a wild 24-hour round trip from base camp to summit to car). Still, my episode on Mt. Sir Douglas stayed with me. By the end of the summer, I was seriously questioning whether or not I could truly accept the risks involved in mountaineering. I remember talking to a friend, Carlyle, about it over coffee. I told her how much I loved climbing, but how it really frightened and overwhelmed me. It seems we shared some of the same fears, but her response at the time was different. She was eager to ramp up her alpine experience just as I was thinking of toning things down for a while.
Carlyle died the following winter in a climbing accident in Patagonia. It was the first friend I lost to the mountains, and it really shook me.
Last summer I got pregnant and, apart from one technical route and a few scrambles here in the Rockies, I haven’t climbed since. Part of me still craves it – the rope between my fingers as I flake it out, the rhythm of the axe and footsteps, the final steps to the summit. But, if I was feeling uneasy about the risks involved in mountaineering before I had Maya, I am definitely feeling uneasy about them now. I know that passion can be rekindled, but for now it is lying somewhat dormant, obscured by the presence of this new, amazing being in my life.
I agree with Caroline that balance is key to being a good parent. As she told me, “Don’t forget to be who you are. Your child will benefit from it.” And while it seems that Caroline’s balance is found in the alpine, I think my balance will come from being in the outdoors with Maya, not from spending my time in places she cannot be. I’ll make some time to spend on my own, too. But right now, I don’t feel the need to be coming home to my little one.
Bring on the hiking, camping and backpacking. The mountains will always be waiting for me to climb higher when I’m ready.