A long trip on short legs: My kids’ first 14er | MyWindsorNow.com

A long trip on short legs: My kids’ first 14er

"The reason I climb is because of my father, who took me up Longs Peak when I was 15, who dared me to try exposed traverses, who paid for a trip to a winter mountaineering course on Mount Rainier, even when I was out of college and working because he wanted us to experience the adventure together and I couldn't afford it. It's my turn now."

I wrote those words hours after Jayden was born. Jayden is now 12. His twin sisters followed, gleefully offering us a bonus child and the diapers and drama that came with her, two years later. They are now 10.

I have thought about the column I wrote about my love for the mountains, and the fear I felt about it disappearing under a dearth of poop, many times since Jayden was born. I have tried to make it my mission, as I promised him I would, to give my kids the chance to experience and therefore love the outdoors.

Fathers have to find a place in their kids' worlds other than chipping in with chores and care. I can't show them how to shoot a basketball or paint or become popular. But I'm good with dogs, I understand music and I can hike. I can show them the mountains.

It seems to have worked. I'm known in my running group for my ability to point out a bald eagle during our long runs, but Jayden sees them before me now, even from his back seat in our minivan.

The girls chastised me when I didn't plan an annual camping weekend with all three of them. After all the whining they did last time, during a cold night because I didn't bring enough blankets, I didn't think they liked it. It turns out they looked forward to the discomfort because I was there suffering with them.

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They all adore the mountains and the many opportunities they present. I'd done some good work and let Colorado do the rest. And I knew what I was planning could blow all that karma.

When my daughters suggested that they would, in fact, like to camp this year, I thought about what hike to include with the camping trip. You have to include a hike, right? Of course you do. I decided to do a doozy.

I decided that they were ready for their first 14er.

They were old enough, strong enough and experienced enough.

I chose Mount Bierstadt because it's short, not too steep and there's a trail nearly all the way to the top. Although I didn't use the word around my kids, I thought it would be easy. It was certainly easy compared to most of the peaks I'd climbed. Bierstadt was a toddler compared to the NFL linebacker of, say, Longs Peak.

And yet, I learned a tough lesson. No 14er is easy.

• • •

We had a good night's rest for sleeping in a tent in the campground off Guanella Pass, and after we packed everything up, fed ourselves and KC, our golden retriever, we drove the rest of the way up the road to the parking lot.

At 7 a.m. on a Monday morning the lower parking lot was already full, which should tell you all you need to know about the popularity of Bierstadt. I wasn't too worried about a late start, as Bierstadt's short distance allowed us a little luxury. We found spaces in the upper lot, and we were on our way.

KC decided to kick things off by taking relieving himself. Great. I thought I was done with poop, but having a dog changes that.

I bagged it and left it by our front tire. I have seen hikers who leave bags of poop by trail signs with the intent of picking it up later. I will admit I've done this as well — and I have picked it up on the way back — because I've got no good solution for a stinky bag of poop, and KC deserves to go up a 14er, as well.

Any ideas?

The kids darted off on the wooden paths built to help us wade through the willows that used to make this start a much more miserable experience. The trail actually slopes slightly downhill at the start, so they were feeling pretty perky.

Climbing a 14er is easy!

Then they met their first steep hill. That comes, I think, just before 12,000 feet, and by the time we topped out, they were tired.

I've learned little tricks while taking them for many hikes of five miles or more. When kids whine, they usually just need something to eat or drink. Many tiny breaks of just a minute or two really help. Try to help them focus on the beauty and not the fact that it's hard.

Look at the view, kids!

I got scowls in return.

After some Gatorade and snacks, we trudged on to 12,700 feet. Allie began to give me what I call "the whine face" every time I looked back. Her legs hurt, she said. She didn't feel good. Did she mention that her legs hurt? I began to doubt we would make it.

I tried not to yell at them to suck it up and just keep going, which was harder for me than I'd like to admit. I'd had a fairly successful mountaineering and running career learning how to quiet those voices in my head, and now three of those voices were in my ears during much of the hike.

When you take your kids on hikes, you can't make it seem like a chore or push them up because they will hate it. My kids, it seemed to me, were pretty darn resilient for their age, and so I never had to be a drill sergeant to get to our destination. I was also pretty careful about taking them on long hikes, except for the time when I was mad at them after they were awful all weekend and took them eight miles around Horsetooth Mountain Park to essentially run them into the ground.

I began to ask them, sweetly, if they wanted to turn around every time they whined. The question was sincere. We'd had a good day.

No, they said. Jayden, in fact, was pretty insistent on making it to the top, whether or not his sisters could do it.

So I looked up the trail, found a big boulder and called it a checkpoint. Let's make it there, I said, and we can take a tiny break.

I repeated that three more times until we had 500 feet to the top, and that's when Allie whined again. I asked her if she wanted to turn around, but this time she had an answer: "Daddy, I want to keep going, but I also want to turn around."

Honey, I said, that sounds like 75 percent of all the mountains I've climbed.

That, and me pointing out that the summit was right there seemed to perk her up. As we approached the summit, with less than 100 feet to go, it was Andie's turn to cause problems.

Andie has anxiety. She is afraid of heights. She began to cry. Then she slipped a bit and banged her knee a touch, and she began to bawl.

Bierstadt is not exposed, but any mountain has a lot of open air around it near the top, especially the high ones such as Bierstadt that offer views of a significant chunk of Colorado.

I hugged her and took her backpack. I told her to look at the boulders that kept us grounded and not the open air that surrounded us. She swallowed her tears and, with Allie's encouragement, we topped out.

A summit is a special place, and it was a great feeling to share it with my kids the way my father shared many with me years ago. I was too focused on them to really dig into the moment and choke up, but I would have, if Andie wasn't kind of terrified.

Things have changed. When I was climbing the 14ers, people didn't take cardboard signs with the name of the mountain in large black letters, and they didn't celebrate with selfies on their smartphones. We didn't have smartphones back then.

But we still took a photo because you have to (with our smartphone, no less), and Andie got really nervous again, so we started to head down.

Going up is always just an option, but going down isn't. You have to get home. So I was prepared to push them on the way down. But I didn't have to. They were ready to get off the mountain. They were sore and tired, and Jayden got a bad headache from the altitude and being a little dehydrated, but they moved well, and we were back in the car in a couple hours.

Here's what it's like to climb a mountain: You get some bumps and scratches, and you probably get wet and cold and uncomfortable, and you may get sick or a bad headache from the altitude, and it's a long, tough way up to the top. I'd learned over many years to overcome those obstacles, and over those many years, I'd even learned to forget them.

But my kids were new to this. They had to experience all of that for the first time. It was quite a shock. And yet they overcame all that and climbed a mountain.

I can't think of a time when I've been prouder as a parent. Maybe I should be prouder over a math quiz, but I'm not. The mountains are harder than math.

Next year, the kids won't have to suggest we go camping and hike another 14er. It'll be my turn now.

— Dan England has climbed more than 150 peaks, including all of the state's 54 14ers, and logged thousands of miles on Colorado's great trails. He is the features editor for The Tribune. He also occasionally guides hikes and snowshoes, mostly 14ers. He can be reached at dengland@greeleytribune.com or (970) 392-4418. Follow him on Twitter, @DanEngland.

Tips on climbing a 14er with your kids:

» This one goes without saying, but pick one that is short, not too steep and with a trail all the way to the top. That’s not Longs Peak.

» Don’t say it will be easy. Talk about the challenges they will face and tell them you may have to turn around because of fatigue, sickness or the weather.

» Give them permission to stop once they’ve had enough. If you force them up the mountain, they won’t want to go again.

» Break the hike up into small points. Pick out a rock a quarter-mile away and make that the immediate goal. Take a tiny break when you make it.

» Bring more water and snacks than you think you will need. When kids whine, it doesn’t always mean they’re tired. Many times it means they need a snack or a drink. It’s OK to make them carry some of their water and snacks, but you may have to carry their pack every once in a while.

» Put sunscreen on them. Don’t leave that up to them, even if they’re older and give you a lot of sass.

» Keep bandages handy. You get dinged up on mountains. Call them souvenirs when the kids get them. It will make them look cool.

» Be conservative on the weather, and make sure they have enough clothing to withstand whatever the mountains throw at you (and that’s a lot).

» Remain positive, even through all the whining and your own weariness. This is not easy to do.