One month after my father’s 67th birthday this year, he will embark on a weeklong Introduction to Mountaineering Course in the North Cascades.
I am absolutely psyched for Dad’s decision. He and I got into climbing together, we were each other’s inspiration and only experience with the sport. Then a few years ago I signed up for the same mountaineering class that he will take, and my obsession with alpine climbing took off. I started to travel to climb, and I’ve been dedicating a lot more time to local peaks in the last few years. I’m stoked to hear that Dad is catching up to me, and I’m already mentally mapping out the rest of a summer full of tougher (and higher) peaks together.
My father is a practical man. He has tangible, measurable motives he wants to achieve in this class: Learn the navigational and compass skills we never studied before, practice rope techniques on mixed ice and rock, and most importantly – prepare for a late summer climb of Mont Blanc in France, the tallest peak in Western Europe.
But there are even more equivocal reasons why Dad is taking on this impressive objective. Here are a few.
There’s only so much you can learn from an armchair
Dad and I are avid nonfiction readers. Over the years, we’ve collected no less than three dozen mountaineering books telling of feats and tragedies across the world. Invariably each holiday season, our Christmas tree is littered with new stories from either famed climbers or first-time writers. We’ve also managed to devour every single climbing movie and documentary that we could stream on Netflix. We absorb these facts, and learn these lessons second-hand, and he’s ready to put them into practice.
Plus: it feels great to get out of your comfort zone once in a while. Pushing your boundaries, both mentally and physically, is part of the drive that keeps us human. Through his experience with mountaineering so far, my dad has learned how to find comfort in the uncomfortable, and be okay with getting a little sweaty and dirty from time to time.
Learn new skills and brush up on old
My father and I have been mountaineering for eight years now. We started with an annual hike every summer after I graduated high school and moved out of my childhood home – it was our “us” time.
Our first big feat was South Sister, the 3rd-tallest mountain in Oregon, the first hike we’d ever needed trekking poles on. The next year we attempted Middle Sister, 5th-tallest in the state, and were turned around for our own poor navigational skills. That third summer we picked up two pairs of crampons and ice axes for our first real climb of Mt. Adams. Helmets and harnesses came shortly thereafter, on ascents of Mt. Shasta and Mt. Hood, respectively.
We sort of just fell into the sport, without any deliberate planning for our future as climbers. Which is why it makes sense to me why my dad wants to backtrack and take a course to cover the fundamentals of mountaineering and backcountry safety. He’ll get to fine-tune the glacier travel and step techniques we’ve been practicing for years. He’ll learn how to read a slope for avalanche danger, and follow a ridgeline like a handrail to descend safely in whiteout conditions. He’ll get to learn the basics, and so much more.
“I’ve got to get smart about this stuff if I’m going to keep doing it,” he told me.
He’s just getting started
I haven’t yet touched on what some people will see as the biggest wow-factor to my dad’s decision to further his mountaineering education: His age.
My dad is strong. He was raised a farmer, and carries that hard workmanship mentality through all of his professional and recreational projects. When he sets a goal, he works towards it. When we plan a climb, he trains hard.
On all of our previous climbs, he has been by far the oldest climber on the mountain. Those first few years he and I together made two of the least experienced people attempting whatever mountain. But over the last near-decade of climbing, we’ve been getting stronger, and smarter, and tougher when it comes to the goals we set and climbs we chase. My father in particular has a never-ending curiosity as to how far he can push his limits, and he’s always willing to “give it a shot” without holding himself to too high of expectations. He has many great qualities, and one of them is in fact his age.
I have no doubt that my dad will enjoy his weeklong alpine education course, that he’ll kick ass on Mont Blanc, and that he won’t let anything stand in the way of living the life he wants to lead.