On risk, chasing dreams, and saying goodbye to my child

Guest post by Ashley
By: Matt KowalczykCC BY 2.0

My husband and I are planning our next vacation. My daughter, who will be a month old in a few days, is sleeping. And I am getting the video camera ready to go do something essential — taping a video I hope she will never see. It’s the tape of what I want my last words for her to be if I die.

Let me explain: My husband and I are mountaineers. We spend the precious, expensive vacations we have climbing the finest of God’s creations. It is an itch I must scratch (ever since I was young and my parents introduced me to it). I have heard it called a compulsion, an unstoppable urge. I embrace the famous words of George Mallory, who when asked why he would risk life and limb to climb Everest, just replied “Because it’s there.”

Our personal life goal is to achieve the Seven Summits together (the highest peak on all 7 continents, culminating in Everest). Throughout pregnancy, people told me “”It will be different now that you have a child. You won’t want to take such risks after they’re born.” And I think a part of me wanted to believe that.

But less than a week after giving birth, I was back to scratching the itch. Frequenting the forums to determine what peak would be next, bundling her up to go to the gym for my regular workouts. I realized I could not stop pursuing my life’s dream. I know some people will believe such a hobby is too risky for a parent. It’s unreasonable, has a high chance of failure and a possibility of death. Yes, I know. But I also know that it’s far worse to let dreams die.

If I stopped climbing for my daughter’s sake, I would grow over time to resent her. I would hold it against her that a misplaced sense of obligation not to die kept me from attempting to achieve. I’d rather take the risks that come with climbing and live fulfilled than not and live a resentful life. It’s worth the trade.

But how to explain the decision to risk your life to a child? That’s not so easy.

Once my husband and I decided that we are going to keep climbing, we did have to face the harsh reality — mountain climbing is dangerous. The more advanced peaks you face as you progress are increasingly dangerous. Many things can kill. On some level, you need luck to survive. And the more you do it, the greater chance you face that luck will run out.

So here I am, making a tape for her in the event I do not return. First, I want to tell her I love her. Second, I want to explain to her why her mother chose to climb a mountain despite the risks. Maybe she’s angry with me because I did something risky and unnecessary. But what I want to say is that it is necessary.

People tend to think anything not essential is unnecessary, but I want her to understand that at least trying to achieve your dreams is as essential to life as food or water or healthy love. Giving up your dreams is a death of the heart that ensues. I never want her to experience that. But I know what she’ll think: “Mom, why couldn’t your dream have been safer?”

Even if she never has to experience my loss, I know when she is old enough she will worry during climbs. And I’m not sure I can give her a satisfactory explanation. I want to say that on some level, we don’t get to pick the experiences that thrill us, fill us with satisfaction of the highest degree and make us find a stronger, braver self. I like to think that I didn’t choose the mountains; the mountains chose me. I want her to understand that climbing, for me, makes me a better mom because it helps me realize the power of myself, which makes me more able to be a capable mom for her.

Dreams are important. They are what will drive you forward, keep you going when stuff is hard and why you might have to do things along the way you don’t enjoy just to get to a point where you can do what you love again. If she is fortunate, she’ll have multiple loves in her life — a family, a partner. But she’ll also have the love she cultivates for herself by doing things she enjoys and give her a sense of power. And that is critical to life.

I want her to know that risk is worth it, absolutely, if the risk is taken in the pursuit of happiness and joy. That is what I am doing — I am chasing joy and happiness. I want her to know that even in her short month of life, she had brought me more satisfaction and pride than I imagined. My love for her is what makes me want to impress on her that risk is good and that her parents never stopped chasing their dreams, and neither should she.

The greatest thing I can give to her is the command to pursue her own dreams, whatever they may be. And to give her that, I must give it to myself first. That was what I am trying to do. That is all I can say to her. And up the mountain I go.

Comments on On risk, chasing dreams, and saying goodbye to my child

  1. I had a hard time reading this, and I’m sure it’s mostly due to my own childhood experience. My father died a week after I turned 14, and from my perspective, he chose risk and thrill over being my father. As a mother, this is completely incomprehensible to me. I’ve participated in my share of risky behavior. That much I get. But I didn’t seriously consider having a child until I felt completely done with that. I saw no reason to pick both options. I am very aware that my kid did not ask to be born. We chose to bring her into this world, consciously. I feel obligated to stick around and be her mom to the extent that I have control over. When I drive more cautiously, come home earlier, party less, etc. I don’t feel resentful towards her. It feels like a display of my love and devotion to her.

    • I do find this part of what you said interesting – “to the extent I have control over.” I’ve heard a lot of people say that, and I always feel the need to push back aaginst it, because it’s essentially, to me, always arbitrary. If we are truly serious about minimizing risk, why drive at all? Why only choose to drive when it is absolutely essential? Why party at all? They’re both activities that carry inherent risk. My point isn’t to attack you in any way, but I always find it interesting when people argue against risk, because your line (as well as mine, to some extent) is totally arbitrary. You decide the personal level of risk you personally feel comfortable with. I once had a conversation that was very interesting with one of the doctors. he pointed out that I don’t drive at all, I maintain a super-healthy lifestyle (no alcohol, no meat, etc), among other things. He pointed out that, weirdly enough, even with the mountaineering, I actually probably lived a LESS risky lifestyle than most of my peers, since I avoid the activities that are, on average, far more likely to kill you. I’m actually statistically more likely than most to reach old age. There have been some pieces written that on average, mountaineers might actually enjoy longer than average lifespans due to their generally excellent physical fitness (most deaths occur among those who are repeated HA climbers).

      The part about giving stuff up as a demonstration of love has always, to be honest, struck me as odd. It’s always felt as though 1.) Love needs to be proved through physical demonstrations or forebearances. And I’ve never gotten that. I’d hope that my daughter knows that I love her absolutely. The idea of giving stuff up as a demonstration of love has always smacked of, how do I phrase this, a kind of emotional extoration. Is my daughter supposed to be grateful to me if I give this up? Should I be able to hold it over her that I gave this up when she’s older and doesn’t act in the way I want? I can understand it, but it sets up, from my view, a really easy way to be able to throw guilt at a child later in life. If one’s priorities change, that is simply one thing that’s totally fine – and I can understand that totally. But the idea of giving up something you love to “prove” how much you love somebody doesn’t.

  2. I find this piece difficult to agree with. Mainly because I had a parent die young.
    Losing my parent has left me broken. You say that you want to encourage your daughter to follow her dreams. My dreams don’t seem as important now as they did before. They seem trivial compared to having the person I loved most in my life.
    ‘During the past 25 years, a period during which a greater percentage of moutaineers climbed above 8,000 meters, the death rate for non-Himalayan climbers descending via the longer Tibetan northeast ridge was 3.4 percent, while on the shorter Nepal route it was 2.5 percent.’
    I just cannot understand how you can look at those figures and think to yourself that this is the risk of you child growing up without a parent and feel that it’s worth it.
    I hope that you come back safely. Of course it is your own life to live. I don’t see a problem with someone looking at say a 1% risk of death climbing everest and deciding that to them the potential gain is worth it, I can’t see how someone could look at a risk like that and see that it is worth having their child be at that much risk of losing their parent.

    • Here’s the issue I always have with the risk argument – it’s arbitrary. You risk death every day when you walk outside. If you drive a car, you’re taking a pretty substantial risk. If you eat certain foods, you take a risk. Weirdly enough, on average, mountaineers are actually LESS likely to die before reaching old age than their non-climbing counterparts. Why? Because as a group, we’re healthier – usually because the pursuit of climbing requires a ton of exercise and physical conditioning, special attention to nutrition and tend to not engage in risky behaviors like drinking, smoking or anything like that. So I always find it humorous when people say I’m more likely to die then them, when the data actually suggests the opposite!

      I’d also say that your data is totally off. For example, you cite the death rate on Everest – which on average, I believe now hovers around 4% for both the North and South routes combined. However, one thing you don’t account for is that not all climbs are created equal. Everest rules permit climbers to make solo and unguided ascents – and those climbers account for a lot of the deaths, given that they have little to no support in cases of emergencies. You’re going off the assumption that there is only one way to climb a mountain, when I can assure you there are many. If you climb Everest with guides, with proper support and training, your risk of death is actually far lower than what you cite (since your citation includes unguided and unsupported climbers, as well as those with limited experience). Google the 1996 disaster on Everest to see what I mean. That created a lot of serious reforms in how Everest is climbed now (but people are still permitted to do the riskier stuff). Just pointing out that your numbers are way off.

  3. I always thought that I should wait to have children until I fulfill my dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Oddly, I have climbing aspirations as well, but I’ve never lumped them together in the same category. Regardless, I’m in my early 30s and in grad school – I will not thru-hike either or those trails in the next two years due to my tiny paychecks. My husband and I talked about how reasonable it would be to take a small child in a carrier on an extended hike but I immediately heard the pubic backlash in my head about how the world would see this as so risky despite the fact that exclusive breastfeeding and elimination communication could make this relatively straight-forward.

    All of this is to say that I have seriously considered not having children because I want to reach my personal goals. Your piece makes me consider that perhaps we can do both, so I’d like to thank you.

    • I think it would be amazing if you took a baby on an extended back-packing trip! My parents started to take me camping and hiking when I was a just a few months old, despite grandparents’ objections, and I love hearing the stories of where I went before I could even walk.

      I am just now realizing that I could actually take a kid with me on my international travels without the world exploding. This makes me think I may want to have a baby sooner than later, hmmm.

  4. “The greatest thing I can give to her is the command to pursue her own dreams, whatever they may be.”

    I hope you won’t forget it when she’s older. And don’t turn around and say “Well, “I” did risky things, but I’m not letting my child risk their life”. My mother did that. And it wasn’t even mountaineering. It was going to college in a different country.

  5. Another thought, and please don’t get offended…But your baby is only 1 month old. You barely know each other. Love you may or may not feel to a newborn is very different than to an older child.
    Looking back, while I cared deeply about my newborn son, now that he’s older I see just how much me and my husband really mean to him. How much he wants to be part of our life and our activities. How hard it is for him when we’re gone. Not that we never leave. We do, it’s a part of life. But getting a better glimpse into his little head really changes a lot. When he was 4 weeks old he was…a tiny baby. There was a connection, but it is just different. I’m sorry, I cannot explain properly..
    I’m not saying that it’ll happen to you, but it is possible that at some stage you might suddenly see the world from your daughters eyes for a second and forego some climbing not as a “show of love” or out of duty and/or resentment, but out of empathy.

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