raising little ones in the great outdoors

Recharging the Batteries — Time Away From the Little Ones

Last summer, my trail-running buddy and neighbor, Nate, confided that he hated winter more and more every year. The dry Arizona heat was starting to sound more appealing by the month. Nate is my training partner. His kids are my kids’ friends. I had to spring into action or risk losing Nate to the Southwest. We would do a winter ski trip. The kids could stay at home this time. I could teach him to look forward to freshly fallen snow. There was only one small complication – Nate had never downhill skied before.

While my “Keep Nate in Idaho” campaign catalyzed me into action, I had other motives. Even the most dedicated outdoor parent needs an occasional trip without children. It’s vital for a couple of reasons.

1. It’s important to build a solid skill base before taking your kids on potentially dangerous trips. Seriously. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have your winter camping system totally dialed before spending the night out in snowy, possibly frigid weather with your children? You could learn on the fly, but in that case I’d recommend staying very close to the car.
2. Doing more adventurous trips with other adults not only sharpens your skills, it recharges your outdoor batteries and renews your excitement for the next family outing.
3. Getting out with other parents inspires me. Sharing stories and ideas helps us all to do a little better with our families.

For several years, I’ve done a late-winter ski trip with some friends. With a great snow year, it was time to take on an objective that had eluded me repeatedly – Grand Teton National Park’s Jackson Lake. The terrain was mellow enough that Nate could start his winter immersion on cross country skis.

mike-paul-jerry-alaska-basinWe set a date for mid-March to take advantage of stable snow, longer days, and warmer temperatures. Above average snowfall last winter ended our drought and filled Jackson Lake. With the lake filled, we could easily ski a couple of miles across the narrow north end, set up a plush base camp, and explore a difficult to reach, seldom visited area of the park. Weather is always a concern when planning a trip with a group. We lucked out and couldn’t have asked for more favorable conditions.

Our group of eight rendezvoused at the lake shore on Thursday afternoon. We pointed our skis toward the western shore and started trudging. One of the great things about winter camping in general, and in the Park in particular, is that you can set up camp pretty much anywhere you want. We found a great spot on a bench near a running stream (so we wouldn’t have to melt snow) and just above what we dubbed the “otter highway”. We never saw any of the playful creatures, but just around the bend from our camp we found a slide over two hundred feet long with probably 80 feet of total vertical drop, including two log jumps. I love otters, what other animal would climb a hill for no other reason than to slide back down? Kindred spirits.

The otter's up track and descent track. Who knew otters ripped?

The otter's up track and descent track. Who knew otters ripped?

Night fell. I’ve read that only 4-5,000 stars are visible to the naked eye under the most ideal conditions. I found that very hard to believe, but with temperatures on their way to a low of -5ยบ, I didn’t stay outside long enough to count for myself. We stayed in our sleeping bags until the sun rose, then, had a leisurely breakfast before heading out for a day of hiking for turns. We’d picked out our objective from across the lake the day before – a non-descript mountain that burned some years earlier. Our maps gave it only a number for a name – Peak 8548.

As our group slowly made progress uphill, I chatted with Mike, one of my outdoor heroes. He’s in his late 50’s but still breaks more than his share of trail. In fact, it seems like he’s always in front with a smile on his face. He’s done the 200+ mile LOTOJA cycling race for the last two years in a row. He’d just gotten back from visiting his son in Colorado where they’d skied together in the backcountry. Mike is the guy who always asks what you’ve been up to and won’t mention his own trips unless prodded. He’s a model outdoor parent. He’s taken his kids on multiple climbs of the Grand Teton, explored the Darby ice caves high on the west slope of the Tetons, and has done probably dozens of other trips I haven’t heard about yet. To bring back a phrase from my younger years, I want to be like Mike.

Mike and I did some calculating and figured that between the seven married guys in our group, we had 31 children and 10 grandchildren. We couldn’t even begin to calculate the number of miles hiked, nights spent in sleeping bags, or days skied by the three old-timers (50-ish) and their 14 children. The number of mosquito bites must be approaching bank bailout figures. Those three guys, Mike, Paul, and Jerry, inspire me. I see them now that their children have mostly grown and moved out, and they’re still doing really cool things.

I admit that I’ve had passing frustrations over the limitations imposed by family life. You know the feeling when there’s two feet of fresh snow, the sun is shining, and you’re stuck at work? I’ve been there, but deep down I know that I’m doing the right thing by sacrificing my personal, selfish agenda for the good of my family. I said sacrifice, but in my experience that’s not really accurate. It’s only superficially sacrificial; the rewards of being with my family, whether in the woods or the backyard, are so much greater than what I could have experienced without them.

Mike gets the goods

Mike gets the goods

Mike, Paul, and Jerry – the veterans on our trips – have only strengthened my resolve to be a better parent. When I’m feeling a little bummed that I’ve had to turn down invitations to climb or ski, I remember the good times I have enjoyed and look to my friends for inspiration. In 20 years, I could be cycling thousands of miles, skiing double black diamonds, and climbing 5.12. Every thing has its season, and Mike, Paul, and Jerry have shown me that any “limitations” are temporary, and that the time and energy invested when my children are young will be repaid with interest in later years.

Our lives, especially our children’s lives, are a lot like ephemeral ski tracks on a distant hillside. We live the moment while we can. We know that our present experiences will soon be memories. Long after the snows of time have erased the tracks of family adventures, we will cherish those memories of time spent together.

I won’t bore you with the minutiae of backcountry skiing, it’s the same around the world – you take turns breaking trail uphill, ski down, then repeat until exhaustion. I will say that the skiing was fantastic, the best I’d done all year. Turn after turn of perfect, untracked, boot-top powder. We leapfrogged down the hill, slaloming between burned tree trunks, carving beautiful S’s across the face and never crossing another track.

The rarely visited far shore of Jackson Lake

The rarely visited far shore of Jackson Lake

If this were a glossy magazine, you’d read how we skied lap after lap, or that we moved on to another mountain. None of us had that kind of energy, so we had plenty of time for some great conversation at camp. At one point, we were all shuffling around to keep our toes warm when someone mentioned that we resembled the scene in “March of the Penguins” when the males shuffle around in the frigid darkness, keeping their eggs warm, and the females are home watching TV. Inspired, we made a little video with all of us balancing Nalgenes on our feet, making penguin noises. My kids thought it was hilarious.

The second morning wasn’t quite as cold. We got packed and moving more quickly. The lure of a firm skin track and excellent snow led us back to the same hill and away from exploring the nearby canyon. Climbing the hill was much easier, and we chose a slightly steeper descent line. If anything, the skiing was even better with fresher legs, and I skied out to the lake satisfied that if that was my last run of the year, I could happily transition to other activities.

The blazing sun cooked our faces, even with sunscreen. Nate’s wife, Audra, threatened that if he was permanently disfigured he would never go on another trip with us. Of course sunburn wouldn’t be a concern in Arizona. Apparently she was pretty jealous of our little adventure and wants to go next year. That might just convince my wife, Jennie, to go too. The gears are turning. The plan to make Nate like winter was a huge success – potential knee injury notwithstanding. Even though we regaled him with tales of past epics, this trip went so smoothly that we probably left him with unrealistic expectations. On the way home, we made plans to go to the local ski hill and teach him to ski on groomed runs with lift access, which should be a cakewalk after this experience.

The author enjoying powder turns.

The author enjoying powder turns.

As we settled into our individual paces and spread out for our slog back across the lake, I couldn’t help stopping to turn and admire our little peak and the fresh squiggles down the open faces we’d gawked at two days earlier. The prideful part of me imagined passersby spotting our handiwork across the ice and paying us compliments that we’d never hear. The next day, a storm covered the Tetons in a foot of fresh snow, erasing any evidence of our presence.

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5 Responses to “Recharging the Batteries — Time Away From the Little Ones”

  1. John Fields says:

    Enjoyed the article…taking the kids to climbing comps in Chicago this weekend. Next week going from Wisconsin to Vegas (Red Rock Canyon) with my wife for climbing with another couple(sans kids). We love our kids but they need a break from us sometimes ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Steve says:

      Have fun at Red Rocks! You bring up a good point that Joe also makes in the next comment. It can be good for kids to get away from parents for a bit, it’s fun for them to return and report what they’ve been up to.

  2. Joe says:

    Couldn’t agree more. As a stay-at-home dad as well as an avid climber, it was difficult for a while to strike a balance between the two. With my wife working 65-100 hours a week as a medical resident, she would come home exhausted and needing to sleep, just as I was hoping to get out and climb. Now our two kids go to day care two days a weeks, so I can get outside and climb. This has been an ideal situation for both of us. I get my climbing in, no longer feeling frustrated and cooped up, and then focus all my energy on my kids the rest of the week. For my wife, I can make sure she gets time to rest and time for herself when she needs it, since I’ve already had my time off. The kids enjoy the time at “school” with their friends, coming home excited to show us all the cool things they’ve done. So it works out well for all of us – or maybe I’m just rationalizing it because it works out so well for me…

    I’m glad I stumbled upon this blog. I’ll be checking back regularly, looking forward to more interesting articles and great photos to help keep myself and my family excited for our next adventure.

    • Steve says:

      Glad you’ve found a way to work in some climbing along with your parent time. Thanks for commenting, we’re hoping to provide some motivation, commiseration, whatever, to the parents out there. There are a lot of us in the same boat, it’s great to hear some different strategies.

  3. Anderson says:

    This is really great for family bonding. I’ll let my family read this so that they will be encourage to do this kind of adventurous trip. I always dream to have this kind of activity together with my family.

    Thanks for posting. Nice pictures there!

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