The glory of climbing mountains pales into insignificance when compared to the true value of outdoor adventures – teaching your children about risk, writes Andrew Magness
Fifteen years ago I was obsessed with adventure. In fact, the third decade of my life was pretty much defined by it. I started out as a climber – questing all over my birth continent of North America and occasionally beyond for rock and ice and wild, vertiginous places. I built my life around these pursuits and they gave me my sense of self. I became attached to my exploits and my accomplishments, and wore my epics like badges of courage. To be honest, I felt superior to non-adventurers. Adventuring was what mattered – not fancy cars, nice clothes, good jobs, or anything else. Weekends measured in metres gained, kilometres paddled, or pitches climbed trumped those measured in number of beers consumed or football games watched. I didn’t understand the way ‘other’ people lived. Adventuring, more than school and university, provided my education.
I learned about finances. I mastered the art of dirt-bagging, discovering that $20 in the hand of a good dirtbagger was worth at least $100 in the hands of anyone else.
I learned about reality. I came to understand that suffering is a part of life that cannot be avoided, but also that perspective can take away its sting and bite and even domesticate it into something useful.
I learned about love. I faced the difficult challenges of choosing between lonely summer evenings high on sun-kissed mountain faces or stir crazy summer mornings staring right through an adoring partner.
I gained strength, courage, wisdom, ingenuity and resourcefulness. I grappled with failure and developed humility, then soared from success and grew in confidence. Sometimes all of this would come in a single climb.
This education was revisited again and again, season after season. The classroom changed over time: big walls gave way to snow capped mountains which flowed into rivers. There were extended learning periods (expeditions that lasted weeks) but also intensive courses (multiday adventure races and other endurance efforts). Over time, I grew to be almost fearless, secure in my ability to take on, or at least attempt, almost anything. I viewed challenge not only as an opportunity to succeed over difficulty, but also as an opportunity to learn from failure, the best teacher, when success was not in the cards.
But nine years ago everything changed and I became a father. And in the intervening years, I’ve realised that pretty much everything I thought and felt before fatherhood, well… it changed too. As I’ve watched my two sons grow, I’ve come to recognise that perhaps the most important part of my adventure education was something I hadn’t even thought of before – a skill I’d mastered that would have a profound impact on my kids’ lives, whether or not they decided to climb or paddle or even go camping. I understood and appreciated the value of risk.
The truth is that life is hard and failure is a part of that hardship. Much of our larger culture seems to be risk averse, behaving as if identifying risk for the purpose of avoiding it is the proper course of action. But the best sweetness in life is tied to risk – asking the girl to dance, quitting the job you hate to go for one you love, or picking your way along the talus-covered knife edge ridge at sunset. Risk always includes the possibility of failure and failure should be a part of everyone’s education. Both risk assessment skills and risk taking confidence are qualities essential for the richest and most fulfilling life.
And as a parent I naturally want this sort of life for my kids. My years of studentship at ‘Adventure University’ and the subsequently earned PHD in ‘managed risk taking’ is paying unforeseen dividends now I am a dad. Because I have adventured, my kids climb really high in trees and on roofs, walk on railings and boulder hop across (semi) rushing rapids. They are encouraged to do these things. Because I have taken risks and developed confidence in my own ability to manage those risks, they get to begin their own education in risk management at an early age. Because I have learned to trust myself when deciding what I am capable of (as opposed to relying on the opinions of others) I am more able to allow them to act on similar beliefs in themselves.
It is my ability to provide a proper education in risk to my boys – and not the glory of the mountain summit – that I now realise will be the most important legacy afforded by that passion for adventure.
And that is why adventure matters.
– Andrew Magness is a self proclaimed jack-of-all-trades adventurer, whose most recent mission has been a spontaneous move from the USA to Te Anau with his wife and two sons.