Balancing Passion, Risk, Solitude and Family

Back before I got married and had a child, life seemed so simple.  I was young, but not particularly reckless.  I took chances, I drove too fast often and pushed my limits until one day I skidded off the road and into someone’s lawn doing 50MPH on a 25MPH corner.  I think most of us went through phases like that, it’s part of growing up and learning about life.

I got into rock climbing and then mountaineering for a stint, scaring myself in the high places of the Cascade peaks of Washington State.  It was actually during these trip that I started learning a bit more about responsibility.  I wasn’t some adrenaline freak, always looking for a high.  But I did think of only myself a lot.  That ends pretty quick if you have any living cells in your brain when you take up mountaineering.  There are others on the rope and you are a team in every sense of the word.  If you screw up, others can be put in danger.

I distinctly remember coming down from Mt. Rainier one time, roped to someone I had never climbed with, due to circumstances.  He didn’t seem to have the required spatial sense that helps keep old climbers alive in the hills for decades on end.  That sense of space, time, place and fear (the good kind of fear which keeps you alive by activating your Spidey Senses).  I had been blessed to climb with others who seemed to ‘get it’; what it meant to be such a small speck on a huge chunk of rock with only a slight delusion that you had some semblance of control over events.  This guy didn’t have that.  This guy stopped to take a picture.  I looked back as the rope came taunt to see him with his camera out, looking uphill.  It’s 2pm and the sun has been up for hours warming the glacier we’re crossing.  And he’s standing on top of a small snow bridge over a crevasse.  Oblivious.

I try my best to not be that guy.  The guy oblivious to the danger he’s putting himself and others in.  The guy who gets yelled at to, “MOVE, NOW!” while being pulled forward by his tethered rope.  ( I apologized for my tone, but not my urgency, once we were safer)

Fast forward a few years to my daughter being born.  And things change.  For a while.  At one point I become the sole bread winner in the home and take manly man pride in providing for my family.  Sure, I don’t climb any more, in a gym or otherwise.  But I took a look at all that was around me and realized I want to be where I am, relatively safe.  The best father in the world for my daughter is me and I owe it to her to be around to pass on what I’ve learned.  To pass on my love for her and help her grow up happy and healthy.

Fast forward a bit further.  Separation and then divorce means my daughter is not in my physical world every day and we all get used to a new rhythm.  Making the best of the situation in front of me, and with more time by myself, I adapt.  With the bi-weekly bout of solitude I return to activities I engaged in before marriage (while acknowledging it was not marriage which caused me to back off those activities, but instead a decided refocus in life priorities).  And climbing calls to me the loudest.

I’m starting over with only one new climbing partner.  Then two and three and more.  Safe stuff in the gym.  The weather turns to Fall and any ideas I had of hitting local rock outside fades.

And then someone, a local climbing guide named Matt, puts the bug in my ear.  He’s going back to Nepal in April to trek and climb a peak.  At first I’m not too interested but then he mentions it’s something I could climb.  A hit up Google and find an awesome post highlighting the route up this peak just 30 feet short of Denali, the highest peak in North America.  But I’ll need to learn how to ice climb for the 10 or so pitches of AI1 ice (about 60 degree ice for 1000’+).

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this climb.  At first I was all gung-ho.  It was a challenge in the environment I love most; mountains.  It was remote and I’d be in good hands.  But it will be the hardest climb I’ve ever been on, far from modern aid.  There is real risk.  So why the hell am I doing it?  Am I just being selfish again?  My daughter would still be better off having a living father than one left on a mountain in Nepal.

For me, it comes down to the balance.  I have found as my daughter gets older and more capable of doing things herself, I step back more and more.  I’m still very involved in her life but that natural progression is taking place, the one where parents are replaced with a growing ring of friends and sense of an individual self.  Her world is expanding and I’m thankful for that.  I’m pretty sure this feeling I have now is different for Moms than Dads.  We obviously handle our relationships with children differently and I’m only attempting to explain a bit of what I’m feeling, not every parents’ feelings.

With this easing of a feeling to hover and watch every moment (while still feeling the deep down urge to always provide for her), one that slammed into me like a Mack truck the moment she was born and I first held her while singing Little Miss Magic by Jimmy Buffett, has come a void.  I’m curious to know if other Dads have felt this same thing around the 8 year old stage.  It’s not a bad kinda void.  It’s just that I’m not needed by her the same as when she was 3 (duh).  And for me that gradual, natural separation that grows with children as they find their own selves in this world, while knowing they have a solid safety net in their parents, has led to a gradual easing of my risk profile.

I’d classify this climb in the moderate to low risk category, while acknowledging that all climbing contains risk (and driving and running and and and…).  I have no desire to venture up Mt. Everest just 20 miles from where I’ll be climbing.  That type of stuff never has appealed to me.  I don’t like crowds, for one thing.  But I am learning to balance my passion to push myself to find limits within and without, with my awesome privileges of being a Dad.  Having my daughter in my life has surely changed how I look at risk, value solitude, follow my passions and  approach being  a Dad.

If you’re a Dad, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you may, or may not, have changed your views on risks as your child(ren) aged.  I’m not looking for agreement or a rebuttal, I just want to hear your point of view.

7 Replies to “Balancing Passion, Risk, Solitude and Family”

  1. michael mckee

    Is climbing selfish? Is anything selfish? I believe we all have a need to push ourselves and if climbing responsibly makes you feel more alive, then you will probably be happier. That’s not really selfish. That kind of aliveness can open someone to an aliveness and awareness that benefits the greater community. And pushing just a tiny bit into the realms of danger puts the rest of life in perspective. It’s not even the danger itself, as perceived danger that opens us up. That knife edged ridge with drops of hundreds of feet on each side may seem terrifying. Yet you’re roped and the thing is really 2 feet wide. That long ice pitch is scary, yet you use adequate protection and have good skills. Is it objectively more dangerous than driving I-5 in the rain?

    That’s the heart of the issue, objective vs. perceived risk. Climbing is considered dangerous, but statistically isn’t. With good mountain sense, which your post indicates you have, and good partners, climbing within your limits just isn’t that dangerous. Others may call you reckless and irresponsible. I’ve heard it myself. But is it?

    I climbed for 16 years until an industrial accident gave me an unreliable leg. In all that time I suffered only one climbing related injury that mildly incapacitate me, a sprained ankle. And, that was on a hike out reaching for some berries by a stream. The bank gave way and I fell in. In the same period I had three bicycle commuting accidents that required doctor visits.

    Yet bicycling is perceived as a reasonable activity. Look into the number of deaths per capita for bicyclist vs mountain climbers. When I did that 20 years ago, bicycling was by far the more dangerous sport. This isn’t about convincing others, you won’t but at least you can be honest with yourself. If you are honestly called to climb at least be honest about the risks. Some mountains are dangerous, others much less so. There’s risks in everything, even taking a shower. A surprising number of emergency room visits result from carelessly cutting bagels.

    Others often won’t understand the need to climb, nor the actual lack of danger, but at least you’ll know if you’re being unreasonable.

  2. Steve Gallow


    I’m a father of 3. Two of my children have graduated from college, are living away from my house, and have jobs. The third is graduating from High School this year.

    Before they were born, I used to ride motorcycle. When the oldest was very young, I stopped riding. I felt that I needed to be around for her. So I did have that feeling of responsibility.

    I’m not a mountain climber (except for hikes in what we call mountains, which are probably considered hills where you live.) So, I guess the closet things that I continue to do that are risky are trail and road races running. I don’t think either are too risky.

    I also think that we are examples to our children. If we want our children’s lives to be full of adventure, and living life to the fullest, we have to do so ourselves.

    Of course, this is all just reality as I see it, you mileage may differ.


  3. Peter West Carey Post author

    Michael and Steve, thank you both for the thoughtful and intelligent responses. I agree with you both, that the dangers are often perceived and that life needs to be authentically lived in order to be a good example to our children.

  4. Mike Rupp

    To play devil’s advocate a little here with what Michael said, there are risks that we take on a daily basis that we need to as part of everyday life and risks that we don’t. Driving in a car on I5 is most likely something that we have to do as part of our lives. Climbing isn’t. So while statistically they may be the same, they aren’t apples to apples.

    Your discussion implies that there is doubt in your mind as to whether or not you should be doing it in the first place. The last thing that you want when you are in the middle of nowhere climbing ice is doubt. You need to be in the moment.

    Like Steve, before children, I used to ride motorcross motorcycles and snowmobiles. Like climbing, these are adrenaline filled pastimes. One night I was snowmobiling on a lake with other snowmobilers when I saw an accident where two guys hit each other head on doing about 60mph. One guy lived and the other died in front of me about 30 seconds after a few of us realized what happened.

    That event changed my life. When I got back to my room that night, I didn’t sleep, not a wink.

    That put things in perspective for me. I realized that along with children comes responsibility. I kind of knew what that meant, but after that accident, it became crystal clear.

    Only you can determine what types of risks are acceptable and what aren’t. Pushing the edge just doesn’t matter to me anymore. Watching my 5 year old run up to her 2 year old sister and hug her because she was crying is what I thrive on now, not pushing myself on a snowmobile.

  5. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales

    @Michael On “deaths per capita”. It sounds like you’re either misinterpreting statistics or being disingenuous. There are more bicyclists in the population than there are climbers (and it’s also a more high-frequency activity). So of course deaths per capita are going to be higher. Similarly, more people die from being mauled by dogs than mauled by lions in this country. Yet if you are going to engage one to one with an animal, lions are still more dangerous.

    I’m not saying that climbing is super-dangerous and that people shouldn’t do it, but let’s be serious and not distort statistics to prove a point.

    @Peter I loved your post, but I don’t understand why you only want to hear from dads, not mothers or non-parents.

  6. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales

    If a female non-parent is permitted to comment, I believe that a low to medium risk climb is justified. I think it would be justified for a mother too. I don’t think avoiding all risks is the answer to responsible parenting – and if it were, you would never drive.

    You might want to look into life insurance though, if you haven’t already. You can’t compensate for the loss of a father’s love, but you can at least make sure the rest is covered.

  7. Kayt Sukel

    Now that I’ve gotten permission to comment…=)

    I realize I’m not a Dad but I do love a thrill. Before my son was born I skydived, SCUBA dived, trekked, climbed and did about anything else that might get my heart rate up.

    Though I’m not doing them as much anymore – more due to logistics and money than anything else – I have no existential crisis about doing so when I get the chance.

    In my opinion, there’s a profound difference between risky and stupid. You want to cut down on the stupid behaviors once you have kids. The impetuous, I-am-invincible-I-don’t-need-a-net type stuff. Risky, I believe, is actually a good thing for your kids to witness.

    You want to climb that peak? Well, do it with trusted partners and a climbing outfitter that comes highly recommended. That’s risky but smart. Doing it on a whim, with people you don’t know or a company that gives you the skeevies is stupid. Maybe it’s splitting hairs – but for me, the difference is important.

    When it comes down to it, you are more likely to get killed on the way to the supermarket than climbing or skydiving or even swimming with sharks. Taking planned, calculated risks gives your kids something to emulate.


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