My Family’s Not that into Climbing—And That’s OK
This article originally appeared on Climbing
Five thousand years ago, when I was a child, my parents would take me running at Altura Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a big triangle of sun-cooked grass lined by cottonwoods a few miles from our home. Both parents were runners--hardcore runners, in fact. My mother won the Albuquerque Marathon multiple years in a row and placed fourth in the Boston Marathon in 1980. My dad once finished out a marathon in a pair of poorly padded shoes (this was the 1970s) despite mounting foot pain, injuring himself so badly he couldn't walk for days.
Altura is a half-mile around, a great length for laps. The goal my parents would give me, as an eight-year-old, was four laps: two miles. On the final lap, my dad would run with me and urge me to go as quickly as possible.
"Sprint, sprint, sprint, sprint, sprint!" he'd say, bolting out in front, daring me to catch up. And sprint I would, or at least I would try. But the thing was, I wasn't made for running. I have bandy legs and sports-induced asthma; I'm not fast or motivated by things like personal records (I don't have an 8a.nu scorecard--so sue me). With each trip to Altura Park, sprinting and hating every second of it, I began to dislike running more and more. It wasn't my thing; it was my parents' thing. Which would have been fine had they not been so hellbent on getting me to love it.
Before we had children, my wife, Kristin, and I climbed together three or four days a week. Post-kids, we've climbed together on rock exactly once, at a scruffy locals' crag north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, while the grandparents watched our son at the cliff base. He began wailing for his milk and a nap as soon as my wife tied in, blowing up the day. After that we had "gym dates" for a few years, then another kid came along, then the pandemic, then a third kid. Today, the family logistics are complex enough that it's almost impossible for us to climb together, so my wife has given up climbing for now.
"It was never really my thing as much as it is for you," she tells me. "I was always a gym bunny anyway."
Still, I feel a little guilty when she says this, since I'm out on rock two days a week (all day, of course--just call me "Dad of the Year"!) and at the gym my other two climbing days. My wife and I are not nearly as motivated as my friends Craig and Cyndi DeMartino, who put heroic effort into climbing as a family, lugging their kids as babies and toddlers out to the cliff, portaging pounds of toys, books, pack-and-plays, diapers, and so on only to get in the few pitches you realistically can with a young family in tow. But today, the DeMartinos' children, now young adults, are passionate climbers: their parents' efforts to share the sport and pass on its values have paid off in spades.
It's not that Kristin and I haven't tried, albeit somewhat haphazardly, to get our kids into climbing.
Our older son took a class when he was a toddler at ABC Kids Climbing, and we used to go to their chaotic Sunday open gym and climb together, my wife and I taking turns bouldering, then belaying our son or spotting him in one of the romper/climbing rooms. He'd climb a little, but he was mostly interested in the zipline and throwing toys down the spiral slide. Later, when we had two kids, we'd take them to the Boulder Rock Club and hide Hershey's Kisses on the holds to coax them up the wall--though they were happiest swinging around on the ropes. In our garage, we have a Grasshopper Wall/MoonBoard and spray walls they'll sometimes mess around on in their socks or bare feet, grabbing random holds, kicking the wood, shouting, "Look at me, look at me, I got to the top the hardest way!" And last year, I took my two sons up the Second Flatiron and we all had a grand time, despite the sketchy #YOLO FREE SOLO antics around us. But I can tell that climbing isn't their thing. These days, my kids are into a million different things--Legos, acting, biking, ninja-warrior obstacle courses, basketball, skiing, choir, video games, horsemanship, scouting--of which climbing is but one. And it seems low on the list.
Over the years, I've come to realize that not everyone wants or needs to be a climber, as much as we might want to share our passion--and the life lessons about preparation and facing fear that it teaches. My parents have both tried climbing, curious about this sport I spend so much time doing. But it never appealed to them. In fact, my poor mother injured herself the one time I took her toproping, getting into a funky drop-knee in a dihedral that blew out her meniscus and required multiple surgeries and apitherapy to fix--effectively ending her running career. (She was too scared to weight the rope, overloading a joint that had been weakened by thousands of miles running on pavement.)
You don't get to be a child for very long--as an adult, watching my children grow, I see those precious years racing right by. My oldest son is almost as tall as me now, but it feels like just yesterday when I could lay him lengthwise on my forearm. He only has so much time to be a kid, and if he doesn't want to spend his childhood climbing, then he shouldn't. This arrangement seems to work for our family, and I'm not bothered by it, just like I'm not bothered by friends and peers whose kids are way into climbing and who even excel at it. Some of us are natural-born climbers, and some of us come to the sport later in life, or not at all; some kids are great at focusing the way climbing demands, while others--like my boys--can't stay still long enough to finish a figure-8 knot.
And yet, some part of me wonders what it would be like to take a family climbing trip somewhere recreational like Hueco Tanks or Joe's Valley. When I hear of climbing families doing this, I get a little jealous. But then I think of the reality and how bored or even turned off by this full immersion my kids might be, especially if I tried to push them. And, to be frank, climbing is my refuge away from our home, which can be a maelstrom of chaos. If I brought them into the climbing world more than occasionally, would my introvert's need for quiet drive me literally off a cliff?
I always knew I wanted to climb: As a child, I'd ask my parents to drive me out to the granite boulders above Albuquerque to screw around in my Keds sneakers, and I had different "routes" threading the limbs of our backyard mulberry tree. There was no question this was something I wanted to do. But it feels different for my kids, at least so far. And yet, our youngest--a daughter--is a little monkey, always climbing up on stuff, swinging from the treadmill, and standing near the edge of our deck and our landing to get the highest vantage. Maybe she's the other big climber in the family. We'll see where she leads us.
Matt Samet is a freelance writer/editor and longtime climber based in Boulder, Colorado.
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