Teaching our kids to climb mountains

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This past weekend, my husband took our 12-year-old twin daughters camping and hiking in what has become an annual fall ritual we’ve come to call “Daddy Camping.” He takes our younger daughter for a similar outing each spring.

Martin started camping and hiking alone with the girls when they were three years old. When they go Daddy Camping, they climb mountains, eat a lot of marshmallows and don’t worry so much about things like vegetables or brushing their teeth. There is no homework brought along, no iPads, DS games or cellphones to play on.

After the first Daddy camping experience 9 years ago, one of his good friends decided to join the trip with his daughter. A year or two later, another dad and daughter combo joined in. This core group of four girls just started high school and their heads are full of sports teams, play auditions and friend dramas, but they were more excited than ever to head off together for this year’s Daddy Camping adventure.

Martin takes his hiking very seriously, and these girls (and their younger sisters in springtime) have hiked some serious peaks in Vermont, New Hampshire and upstate New York: Algonquin, Giant Mountain and in recent years Mount Washington and Franconia Ridge. Because they go in late September or October, they have encountered below freezing temperatures and snow. They bring down sleeping bags and winter coats, waterproof hiking boots and full body rain gear.

He calls this the Anti-Princess Training Program.

This year’s trip was particularly ambitious. They slept in a lean-to in the Adirondack State Park, then awoke early to tackle Mount Colden on Saturday, a mostly rainy 13-mile, 11-hour roundtrip. One of the girls in the group has battled a fear of heights over the years, which has sometimes resulted in her not reaching the summit, but this year she made it all the way to the top. Her friends were so proud of her, and she was very proud of herself.

The next day, they did a second hike on their way home: a much flatter 10-mile hike at Indian Head, to a spectacular view of Ausable Lake. The girls were very tired and sore from the day before, feeling the effects of two nights’ sleeping outdoors. About 15 minutes from the top, some of them refused to go on. The dads understood. They were tired themselves, effects somewhat more magnified in their 40+ year-old bodies. The girls had already achieved so much and had every right to be pleased with their efforts.

But my husband was not satisfied. He has an amazing tolerance for physical discomfort and doesn’t always realize that others don’t share this. He urged our two girls to make the final push for the top, which they did (one of them somewhat reluctantly). But when they got there, they were stunned by the view. They sat down and share a break with their dad.

I like to imagine this time, just the three of them alone on a mountain peak without me there to narrate and annotate our experience in my usual chatty way. Martin is a man of few words. I’m pretty sure he didn’t waste any of them describing the view. They had a snack. Took some pictures. But this kind of togetherness doesn’t need to be verbalized to be real and important and memorable.

I know he was so proud of them for making that final push. I know they were proud of themselves for doing it. Pleased to have lived up to — perhaps even surpassed — his expectations. I know he didn’t say that aloud, just as I know he communicated it to them in some other way. A grunt, maybe. A nod.

When they climb mountains with their daughters, these dads are showing them so many rich and important things. At the most basic level, they get the experience of nature, appreciate the value of conservation and ecological awareness. They’ve learned about planning ahead, plotting their routes, registering with the warden’s office, bringing along enough water, food and snacks to keep them going. They have band aids, moleskin, first aid kits, extra socks, emergency survival blankets and flashlights with extra batteries (they’ve come back down from some hikes in the dark).

These girls are also learning that their dads value time with them. Research has demonstrated that fatherly affirmation (warmth, interest, support) has a measurable impact on teenage girls’ self-esteem, and on their ability to develop strong intimate relationships. There is also a connection between the relationships girls have with their fathers and how high they set their career goals, how well they deal with people in authority, maintaining good mental health, being self-reliant and willing to take on new challenges.

Our girls have learned important things about the strength and capabilities of their growing bodies. They are strong enough to carry themselves farther than they ever dreamed, to push themselves beyond new limits. Because even when you are tired and sore, and your knee is scraped and your ankle turned and your clothes wet, sometimes there’s still two more hours to cover to get back to the car. And you don’t feel like you can do it, but you can. And somehow you do.

The only way out is to push on through.

This is an endurance that is not just physical, but mental and emotional. Spiritual.

These are core values in building resilience: developing confidence, competence, control, connection.

And when it’s over, they have the memories. These last forever. They are special things they’ve shared with their dad that exclude me, and I love hearing them tell the stories of their hikes and campgrounds. The year they jumped into the lake with their clothes on. The lean-to that somehow had no bugs in it. The hike that ended so late they actually went to a restaurant for dinner instead of cooking on their campfire.

I’ve also heard these girls recount the stories of their epic climbs with their dads to other friends. They emphasize the grizzlier details (“And at the top, there’s a list of all the people who’ve died climbing Mount Washington”), finish each other’s sentences with details about sharp rocks, sudden snow. They compare different fire towers. Which climb had the worst weather. They take a peculiar pleasure in shared misery.

I like to think of these trips as a kind of glue. When the hormones rage in the coming years, the eyes roll, the battles ensue over skirt lengths and curfews and car keys, they’ll all be stronger for having collected these mountaintops together.

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One response to “Teaching our kids to climb mountains

  1. Nicely said.

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