Kids On Belay

Climbing with Children
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One of the recent recommendations by the President's Council on Children's Health was the need for, "major emphasis [on] lifetime physical fitness activities for the development of strength, endurance and flexibility... " The report went on to suggest recreational climbing as an ideal pursuit for children to develop these crucial skills, and after years of witnessing first-hand how children take to climbing and appreciate its rewards I couldn't agree more.

The reason is that kids don't have many opportunities for supervised recreation. Schools have physical education programs that run the gamut from inadequate to superb (very few states mandate physical education), but one study found that since school physical education tends to spotlight team sports, kids spend a lot of time standing around waiting their turn. They get enough exercise to raise their heart rates to a positive level only two to four minutes out of a thirty-five minute period. In other words, we can't rely on schools alone—it's up to us, the parents, to involve ourselves in our children's' physical development.

If you enjoy climbing then it follows that you should climb with your children. It's a great skill to teach them because, aside from the emphasis on strength and coordination, it's something they can take advantage of long after the team-sport days of their youth are gone. You've just got to go about it correctly from the start, both physically and mentally.

A Family Sport

My daughter and son started climbing at ages nine and six, respectively. They are two children with personality differences in extremis, proverbial night and day siblings. We've always told them that one was switched at the hospital, but we never figured out which one it was. Keeps 'em guessing. My daughter is most like myself; my son, like mom.

Mom, the non-climber in this particular family unit, figures into this story as well. She has, for years, tolerated her husband's adrenaline-searching/envelope-pushing lifestyle, and has tried everything at least once. These first hand experiences have been helpful in allowing her to understand the activities I've introduced to the children (they've tried their hands in kayaking, scuba diving, skiing and surfing). In the case of rock climbing, she saw how the safety system inherent to free climbing actually worked, and this understanding made it easier for our little ones to take up the sport.

Climbing is an activity that, whether all climb or some climb, can involve the whole family. A camping trip can be turned into a climbing trip; a hike in the woods the same. Not everyone has to do what everyone else is doing, nor does the entire day have to be spent doing anything. Climbing is for those who like to climb, and a working knowledge of exactly what goes on makes the whole process more palatable for everyone involved. Take time to explain the process to your partner as well as your children—don't present it fait accompli.

When my children were young, the only way to include them in my leisure time was to bring them along, and that was how their interest in climbing evolved. In the years since, I've been glad for that choice. I've had the pleasure of their company (I hope the feeling was mutual), and spent some truly quality time with them away from the customary parental pressures. I've opened up a new world to them, taught them things they were capable of, and watched them grow. In return they've let me share their world, kept me entertained, and done things that I never expected.

Climbing is fun, and (if you'll pardon the rhyme) that's rule number one. In these halcyon days of trying to stay even or get ahead, climbing with your children will improve your relationship with these amazing little people who will eventually grow up, become adults, and go through the entire cycle all over again.

I'm certainly the wiser for having had that experience.

What's It Really Like?

As my two kids chow down peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the parking lot of our climbing site, I begin the meticulous process of sorting through our gear. I throw my wallet into my pack and look up at the sky. Bright blue. I throw windbreakers into the pack and pull everything else out. I check the whereabouts of my car keys and throw them in the pack. I go to the driver's door and pop the automatic locks to make sure all the doors are open. I throw the plastic canister of change under the seat, go back to the pack, take all the excess keys off and throw them in the glove compartment. I put the keys back in pack. I load water bottles, binoculars, camera, Frisbee, ball, my book, and writing pad (ha!). I take off sandals and put on socks and sneakers. I look at the sandals and throw them in the pack—I have an eerie but unformed feeling I won't be doing a lot of climbing today. I check for my keys again. Finally, I look at all the climbing gear and think "this isn't gonna' work."

"Who wants to carry the rope?"

Chorus: "Me!"

I drape it over my daughter who has beaten her brother to the back of the car. The rope is coiled too long and hits her leg just below the knee. That isn't going to work.

"Who wants to carry the hardware?"

Chorus: "Me!"

A well placed elbow pushes sister out of the way.





"Knock it off."

The gear on the sling brushes the ground near my son's feet. This isn't going to work. I should have brought the kid's schoolbags... excuse me... daypacks along, then they could carry some of this stuff and I... Maybe I'll sew another sling for next time, too. Maybe...

I heft my pack onto my back as the children watch, pick up my rack and rope and throw them over my shoulders. No. I take off the climbing gear, remove the pack and stuff the hardware into it, throw it back on, and replace the rope.

"Where're the car keys, daddy?"

"They're in the little pocket on my pack. Check it, would you honey?"

"I can't find them."

A visceral moan emanates from deep within me. I bounce up and down violently but hear no jingle. I take the rope and pack off and open the rear pocket. I'd taken the keys apart, and she hadn't seen the two small car keys that I KNEW I PUT THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE! &%@!!

I calm down, take both children firmly by the hand and walk to the roadway, do the old "look-right-look-left-look-right-and-run," across.


"What now, Megan?"

"Did you lock the car?"

Remember how Ralph Cramden on the Honeymooners used to go "H-a-a-a-y-y-y, Alice. Pow, zoom... " etc.? I tell them both to take a seat, while I go back to the car, lock the doors, and return. Off we go, single file, as we make our way to a staircase cut into the hill.

We climb to the sound of my voice telling them to look at their feet, and reach the Lower Carriage Road, a wide, dirt road that winds its way along the base of the cliffs at the Trapps section of the Gunks.

It is early for climbers. A girl jogs towards us and nods as she passes. A dog follows her, tongue lolling, at a distance. The dog stops and laps water from an outflow pipe that faucets clear, cold spring water from the rock.

"What's that?"

"That's where we get the water. Remember I told you... "

They're off to see the water pipe, which sticks from the road's base over a ten foot drop. I trundle after them. "Whoa, slow down!"

The kids are amazed that a cup is tied to the pipe and look at me pleading to try it. I tell them to wash it first, then say okay. This becomes a high point of the trip for some reason and is the first thing they mention when we return home. I have no idea why.

I fill our water bottles and suggest we check things out. The kids fan out in front of me like bloodhounds trying to pick up a trail. "Lookit this, lookit that, look over there, look up there," on and on. My son spots the snake, basking in the sun. "Yo-o-o-w-w, looka' this."

The snake slithers under the rock before I can get there, my son a safe distance behind it. "Megan, you shoulda' seen it! What kind was it, dad?"

Hell if I know.

"So whenawe gonna' climb, dad?"

I launch into how I've considered the problem and what I intend to do about it. We'll head back the way we came, check out the bulletin board, and start off at a nice little climb I know of. I sit down, dig the route book out of the pack, and show them where we are currently situated and where we will climb, then I hand them the book which they gratefully peruse for a bit. I the meantime I manage to get halfway through a cigarette before my daughter notices and begins lecturing me on the evils of coffin nails.

I field strip the butt, throw the filter in the pack—any enjoyment now gone—and we head off.

The climbs go well, although dad is inordinately nervous and checks and rechecks anchors all day. My son makes up in strength what he lacks in technique, and manages a no-feet pull-up on one route. My daughter's concentration soars to the forefront on one move her brother can't make; her long legs and gymnastic training put amply to the test.

I get more climbing in than I thought I would (mostly checking anchors, but what the heck, it's better than none), including one unplanned solo that went a bit further than intended. Son managed an unsupervised solo of his own that was witnessed for posterity by daughter. I got a very nice compliment from some younger climbers vis a vis parent/child relationships. We went swimming in a nearby swimming hole, ate lots of food, drank lots of drinks, and got home dead-dog tired.

And, in the end, I got to hear both Megan and James say, "Dad, that was the best time I ever had."

It's called rock climbing with your kids, and it sure is worth the effort.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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