Taking Risks Outdoors as Parents: Part 2

*This is the second post in a series on taking risks outdoors as parents. Read Part 1 and Part 3. 

This week my husband and I are learning something new about the risks we choose to take outdoors as parents.

We have always been acutely aware of how the choice to pursue riskier activities in the mountains could impact our responsibilities we have as parents. Like many others, we have struggled to pursue the things we love knowing we need to provide for our daughter, which ultimately includes wanting to ensure we come home safely from any outdoor pursuit. Of course this is never guaranteed, but nor is it every time you get behind the wheel of a vehicle or even just wake up in the morning. We simply can’t control everything in life.

However, the choice to pursue a riskier activity, such as mountaineering, is in our control. We choose to lace up our boots and wander across glaciers, to kick steps up steep snow, and do our best to mitigate objective hazards.

But when you become a parent, you can no longer be the same person on the mountain. Parenthood has this way of turning you inside-out, of exposing you to emotions you never thought possible, of calling you to the most vulnerable place you’ve ever been. Parenthood introduces a kind of love to your life you never experienced before – a love that is different than the kind you have for your partner, or your own parents.

Friend Adam and me preparing for the crux pitch on Mt. Louis. Photo Paul Zizka Photography. -001
Friend Adam and pre-parenthood me preparing for the crux pitch on Mt. Louis. Photo Paul Zizka Photography.

Taking our inside-out selves into the mountains, where we are often called to be tough-as-nails, can become the real crux of the climb, especially when it happens for the first time.

Here’s what we have learned: one of the biggest risks we can take in the outdoors as parents is putting ourselves face-to-face with the realization that our usual craving for adventure has been overwhelmed, perhaps trumped, by the love we have for our child.

For many serious adventurers, this realization can be a tough pill to swallow, so much so that it is one of the reasons why some choose not to become parents in the first place. Some may have no problem toning things down for a bit, or abandoning certain activities altogether. Still, it is something we all have to face.

The First Big Trip

Since entering the land of parenthood, and perhaps even a little bit before, my husband and I have wondered when that ‘first big trip’ would come along. Since we had our daughter five months ago, Paul has had the chance to do some scrambles each week (nothing too technical) and a few one-night overnight backcountry or photography trips. If you’ve been following my journey, I have been sticking to hiking with Maya, and haven’t ventured off on my own too much this summer.

But this past week, Paul got the opportunity to go on his first big mountaineering trip. And as it happens, it’s a climb of Mt. Robson, which at 3954 metres is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.

Paul is a professional mountain adventure photographer, and was invited by a guide (our friend Mike Stuart of Canadian Alpine Guides) and one of his clients to take photographs on their climb. This stunning peak has been on both of our checklists for some time, so when Paul told me about the opportunity, I told him he absolutely needed to go. I’d deal with my feelings later.

Beyond the Worry

I generally deal with my fears by trying my hardest not to think about things while Paul is away on a trip without me. Somehow when I’m on the mountain with him it is different. Knowing he was climbing with a very competent mountain guide was reassuring, but I couldn’t quell some of my worries. I’d be pouring my coffee in the morning thinking about how thankful I was that we had life insurance and a policy to cover mountaineering.

Beyond these (rather reasonable) fears, I was curious to know how Paul was doing on the mountain, and how he was managing his own feelings about his family back at home. As he said to me prior to leaving, “This trip could very well be about more than just climbing Mt. Robson. I’ll see how I feel about being disconnected from my wee family up there.” It was tough for him to leave even though he was going to do something he loved.

Would he be able to separate himself from his emotions during the climb? Decide it is just too much for him right now, and give up on climbing big peaks for awhile? Perhaps he would allow his love for his family to fuel his ascent and give him the extra drive he needed to go for the top.

You’ll have to wait for Part 3 to find out…

Has your usual craving for adventure been overwhelmed by the love you have for your children and your responsibilities as a parent? How have you dealt with it?

Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

20 thoughts

  1. That’s a lot to think about. I feel like I’m becoming more adventurous and taking more risks being a parent now then before parenthood. I would have never thought I’d start learning to climb but my son has pushed me to it, he’s so energetic that is the only thing that he really enjoys and tires him out. I feel myself wanting more and more adventure like more trips out to the backcountry with my toddlers…eventually mountaineering (maybe not with my kids at first), learning to kayak, etc.

    I love feeling adventurous and I can see it in my kids as well. We just do everything together hike, backpack, learning to climb. I don’t know, I used to be in Law Enforcement as living, then I became a Stay-At-Home Mom so I think that’s why I’m needing my adventure fix through the outdoors. I had to do lots of risk assessment as a Law Enforcement Officer in seconds so outdoor adventures seem very safe with proper planning. Of course you could never plan for everything in the outdoors.

    1. This is a really neat perspective, Melissa. It brings to mind how a lot of this depends on your level of adventure going into parenthood. In my interview with Chris Nelmes he talks about how his kids helped him get back into a more outdoorsy lifestyle: https://adventurousparents.com/2012/09/03/from-brokenness-to-a-boler-chris-nelmes/

      I’m excited to ‘rediscover’ my adventurous spirit in new ways with my daughter as she gets older. As for the riskier adventures, I’m still not sure what I’ll feel comfortable with. We’ll see once I have the opportunity to be away from her for longer periods (and whether or not I really want to!).

      1. That’s a really great post! I can totally relate to it. My kids really forced me to understand how much I need the outdoors. I really can’t be away from my kids for long periods because I just don’t want too haha! I miss them too much, so outdoor activities are almost 99% family oriented and even when it’s not, we make appropriate arrangements to take our kids with us whether people like it or not! I’m Peruvian-American (Hispanic/Latino), so we take our kids everywhere, no matter what 🙂 I don’t think we are making more riskier outdoor choices as a family but we are becoming more adventurous, which might seem riskier to others.

  2. I’ve certainly toned down my adventure seeking ways and I just love this…”exposing you to emotions you never thought possible.” It is so true. Parenthood changes us in ways we never thought possible.

    1. I remember chatting with you about that. So neat to think I was having that conversation with you before I even became a parent myself and now I can reflect on it. I still see you as a very adventurous mama, but I think we’re on the same page in the ‘level’ of adventure we were pursuing before becoming parents.

  3. This is a very emotional topic for many active parents. Living in a mountain community and being in touch with active parents daily, I have seen many parents wrestling with this issue. The whole notion of “risk” changes when you become a parent, and most parents I find take “the middle way”, as they say in Buddhism. They continue to take some risks, but generally tone it down significantly, especially when their children are very young. I have also been in this community long enough to see several young children left fatherless by an extreme risk-taking Dad, always highly skilled and experienced. As parents we learn early to put our kids needs before ours in many areas, and maybe this is one of them. No easy answers here.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Judy. Our communities are very similar (hence the inspiration for this post). As you note, there is a real ‘dark side’ to all of this and the unfortunate reality that not all parents come home from pursuing the things they love so much. “The middle way” is a great way of putting it. Definitely no easy answers here, so it’s interesting to discuss. People need to answer the question on their own, but perhaps at least the discussion helps them see things more clearly.

  4. Bears are the thing that gets me, post kids. I spend a lot more time worrying about brown bears, and carry significantly more in the way of bear protection.

    1. You bring up another interesting aspect, Erin. The other day I was out doing a very common trail with my daughter, and forgot to bring bear spray. I was just that much more aware of what a bear encounter could mean if I had a baby strapped to my chest.

    1. I’m curious to know what you deem to be “too dangerous”, Hailey. How do you make that call? Activities with too many objective hazards? Trad climbing versus sport climbing?

      1. I draw the too dangerous line when I feel I’m personally in danger. I still do alpine, trad and ice climbs. But if the route is run out where it would put me in danger of decking I would back off. If the weather on an alpine climb was getting scary I would bail. Or if I just have a gut feeling that things are going to go bad, I’ll listen to that little voice a little more carefully instead of ignoring it. Probably not too different from any normal person and I think everyone’s invisible line is different.

        1. Instinct is everything for me, too. The few times I have ignored it were awful. Even if everything turned out OK in the end, I didn’t enjoy myself, and for me enjoyment is the most important thing.

  5. Outdoor activities are great for parents and kids. But it is awesome when they do it together. Plan outdoor adventures and trips for your kids and let them learn and have fun.

  6. I read this a while ago but didn’t have time to comment, and came back to see if Part III had been posted yet! I really like your statement about how people are scared to admit that they just don’t want to take the same risks anymore. I have been thinking a lot about the current pressures/expectations of what I see as the microcosm of my “culture”, which is the outdoorsy, highly educated, “adventurey” folk. So much seems to be about being the most “badass” or strongest or toughest or whatever. I don’t know if it’s just media or facebook or just in my head, but it seems that there is a trend towards this. When it comes to kids, it seems as though its all about pushing your kids to be the most badass, getting them into racing (and winning) earlier and earlier, taking them on hardcore trips, etc. As if “you’re a wimp if your kids aren’t badass” is the basic theory. I’m not sure I really think that this is a good trend to be seeing.

    On one hand it’s fine–I fully believe that kids can do more things that we adults actually think they can. And I know that learning skills early is far easier than learning as an adult. Getting hurt as a kid teaches you how to fall, how to deal with pain, etc. But as I’ve been thinking about this (general parenting & risk things), I’ve realized that at least with the outdoors, I don’t really like risk. I love the outdoors, and I love the fun I have outdoors, and risk is part of the deal. But I don’t crave taking risks–I crave having fun. Sometimes, the risk makes the trip more fun, in that sense of heightened awareness making emotions more tangible. But really, it’s fun. When the risk overrides the fun, it’s no longer worth it. Especially now.

    That being said, I am getting back into firefighting and I’m really enjoying it. I feel a bit more committed to it now, in that sense of “if I’m going to do this, I have to do it well”. No more half-a$$ing things. I’m either going to train and know my stuff (minimizing the risk) and being able to do it, or I should spend my time elsewhere. I’m curious to see how I will feel this winter when I get into the backcountry on my skis.

    (If I’m scattered with my thoughts, I hope you get the gist!)

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Dani. Post #3 is on the way – currently percolating! Thanks for checking in on that! It’s neat to know people are following along.

      I know what you’re saying about the competitive drive in our culture. In the last issue of Highline Magazine, we quoted Chic Scott, who basically said that the world is killing itself with competition. I couldn’t agree more. We can no longer simply seek outdoor adventure for the pureness of the experience – the fun. It’s all about pushing yourself. So often I see articles praising people for the ultra-extraordinary things they do. While these feats are admirable in some regards, I’d like to see us praise everyone just for the efforts they make to reconnect with Mother Nature. It’s in the small things. We have some serious work to do in that department.

      On a separate but related note, a post on my mind is also about praising women who do extreme physical things while they are pregnant – kayaking, mountain biking, climbing, etc. It’s not up to me to decide if these activities are healthy or safe for these women and their babies, but I am questioning how ‘exemplary’ it is. I don’t want active women feeling like this is the level they need to achieve. I would say I’m a pretty active woman and I was quite immobile towards the end there. There are so many factors at play, and not all women can expect to keep doing their sports at a high level. Still did my yoga and walking, while I had a friend still ski touring, etc. It’s all about doing what you can and feeling good doing it.

      Lots of food for thought. I did get your gist and you have added a lot to the conversation. Thank you! Post #3 on this topic coming your way soon!

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