I’ve been looking at old slides from when I spent 7 months in South America, mainly Chile, Peru, and Argentina. I’ve noticed things like how much higher quality slide film images are compared to iPhone pictures and also how much less grey hair I had. I’ve been considering the level of risk I was comfortable with then: climbing big, snow-covered mountains and huge alpine walls up to 2500 feet. As a parent it seems obscene to me now.
The images in this post are iPhone pictures of slides on a light table and are much lower quality than the originals.
One of the memories that came up was the experience of being way out at the end of a long rope, where every step took me further from medical care should an injury occur.
To get to a summit in a place like the Cordillera Blanca in Peru involved a lot of physical distance:
1. Vehicle transport to a smaller town, potentially up to three hours.
2. A taxi to the trailhead on bad roads, potentially another three to six hours.
3. A hike to a basecamp, from 6 to 18 miles.
4. From basecamp to the summit was rarely less than 12 hours.
The summit, of course, was only half way. I kept that in mind: each step lengthened a string tying me to the city of Huaraz which was the least precarious of places, the place I had a kind of home (yet still a place I daily risked vehicular homicide).
The distance became terribly apparent one day when I fell while rock climbing in Valle Llanganuco. I fell upside down and hit my head so hard that it broke my helmet. I suffered a concussion so severe that I claimed it wasn’t nearly as bad the concussions I got playing high school football. The severity was only apparent to me later when my friend Chris asked me if the high school football concussions were really bad. I didn’t know what he was talking about because I had blacked out. That never happened in high school football!
While sitting at the base with Chris’ wilderness first responder skills the only care I could get in 6 or so complicated hours of retreat, I regretted the entire trip. What am I doing here!?
I got over it. I was fine. I climbed more. I went back to Peru twice. And I experienced that feeling of being way, way out, connected to normal life by a thread that thinned with every additional step. Many times.
But after the birth of my second child, a daughter, after holding her in my arms, I felt a clear and decisive break from that life. No more big mountains. No more risking my life when three others depend heavily on mine. Even if I believe strongly that without risk there is no reward.
I had always considered climber fathers like Dan Osman, who died in a climbing-related accident, terribly irresponsible. The worst kind of tough guy talking about some kind of warrior spirit. But with my first child, Asa, I didn’t get that immediate feeling that big climbing objectives were in my past. Not that I attempted any, but it was bad weather that kept me from trying an alpine climb in Colorado soon after he was born.
But now I’m a nurturer, a provider, daddy, and the climbing I do is the least risky type. Venturing out on that thin line is out of the question. Even hour-long drives have me slightly worried at times. Even a broken ankle now would greatly impact not just when I get to go rock climbing next but the quality of life of my wife and two children.
I get down on myself for being too comfortable, too risk averse. But maybe parenting is just different. It seems less like risk-reward and more like work your ass off to maybe get a small reward once or twice a week. I don’t generally consider it risky. Telling my son he has to eat all his vegetables is definitely a kind of risk, but at this point what is one more temper tantrum?
But I want some rewards. Selfishly, maybe, but I like a phrase I heard recently: we’re not power hungry, we’re impact hungry. And to make an impact takes risk, sacrifice. I have a new book idea, one that I hope could make an impact on the general public regarding education. This project will require venturing out intellectually. I wonder if it will ever feel similar to that thin line.
When researching (the real kind or the kind people say they do by using Google for 15 minutes) we talk about rabbit holes. I don’t know much about rabbits. Do they make so many holes that if you’re a rabbit hunter digging into a rabbit hole is a waste of time? Is that where the phrase comes from? Either way I’m going to have to forget about rabbit holes and start thinking like an explorer: we don’t know what we will find and whether or not it will be of value. The rabbit hole dig will have to do for the equivalent feeling of being out at the end of that long thin line of connection.