I’m the Daredevil Dad that Terrifies You
Do I push my daughter too far?
by Joe Antol
March 19, 2010
Soon after my daughter was born, I began her training. Kelly was barely a week old when I attempted to calculate her Ape Index – the ratio of wingspan to height. I despaired when I came up with a decidedly unfavorable score, but I still loved this little pink legume even if she lacked the physical endowments of a great alpinist. I reassured myself that with proper coaching she could overcome any deficit.
Babs, my wife of fifteen years, and I were first smitten by the mountains during our honeymoon in Switzerland. Sixteen days of hiking through some of the most compelling terrain in the world ignited our passion for high, remote places and physical challenges. Since then we’ve spent virtually every weekend either climbing or training, and every vacation has had climbing as its sole intent. We’ve traveled from the granite aiguilles of Chamonix France and the Dolomites of northern Italy to the sandstone towers of Red Rocks near Las Vegas and the three-thousand foot limestone walls of El Potrero Chico in northern Mexico. We’ve endured sprained ankles 1,000 feet off the deck, broken legs, wet bivouacs, and innumerable near-death experiences. Our best vacations are most people’s worst nightmare.
Climbing is one of the few sports that both sexes can perform equally well. Grace, balance, and flexibility are the coin of the vertical realm; brute strength can actually be a liability as there’s more mass to haul up the mountain. My wife has a T-shirt with a drawing of a woman crooking her arms in a body-builder’s pose with the caption: Climb Like a Girl. As a competitive father with a daughter, you can understand the appeal.
Kelly was born in the spring of 2003. While she was lightweight, portable and non-ambulatory, I took her to some small crags in Connecticut and New Hampshire, always carefully positioning her so she could watch Mommy and Daddy and hopefully imbibe some climbing juju. As she grew, I tried to short-circuit any childhood acrophobia by tossing her high in the air, terrifying bystanders to the point where her daycare director sent me a stern letter indicating that such behavior was not socially acceptable.
Her first words are lost to memory, but her first sentence was “Higher, Dada! Higher!”
Once she began to walk, I encouraged her to scramble up scaffolding and climb on buildings while I chanted our mantra: “Bones heal, pain is temporary, boys dig scars and glory is forever.” Now she requires no encouragement. Her fearless stunts on the playground have caused at least one overly protective mom to drag her little snowflake from play time with Kelly. My wife tolerates these antics but does not necessarily approve.
“You need to make friends with other parents, not scare them away!” shouted Babs when I told her the story.
“Honey, Kelly’s a climber,” I replied. “She’s different than the other kids; we’re different than other parents. And why do we want more non-climbing friends anyway?”
“No,” she retorted, “You’re different, she’s a little girl. Climbing and sex, that’s all you ever want to do,” she sneered, turning and walking away.
By the time Kelly was four, it was time to get her on a wall. My first attempt was a disaster. I anchored myself at the top of an easy, low-angled, twenty-foot slab. Babs stayed at the bottom. Kelly tried to climb, crawl and scramble over the smooth rock, but she kept slipping, bashing her knees, elbows and forehead. She started to cry.
“It’s ok, honey. You can come down,” Babs cooed.
“NO!” she sobbed, “I want to go to Daddy.”
I should have felt sympathy for my wailing progeny; instead I felt pride. Despite her torment, she wanted nothing more than to please me. I knew I was on perilous ground. Pride is foremost of the Seven Deadlies and I knew if I kept encouraging her, years of therapy or a deadbeat climber boyfriend could easily lie ahead. Selfishly, I flicked the good angel off my shoulder.
“Again, Dada,” she chirped through her tears after she reached me at the anchor. “Let’s do it again.” She had the mettle of a true alpinist.
Kelly, now six, is skinny as a feral cat and has the heart of a Viking. She’s been gym climbing during the last two winters and spent much of the summer climbing outdoors. She can regularly make it to the top of a seventy-foot pitch. When I return from a day at the crag, she asks questions about the routes I did and their difficulty. Some weekends she’d rather swim, ride her bike or play with her friends, but from time to time, I take her with me even if she doesn’t want to go. Once there, if her competitive nature doesn’t compel her to try a route and she sits sulking with her Barbies at the base, I cajole and manipulate her much as parents do when trying to get their kids to eat broccoli or lima beans, and up she goes again.
Am I doing this for me or my family? I know I’m more extreme than most dads since few are guiding their offspring toward activities that are so inherently high-risk.
At my primary crag in upstate New York, virtually every weekend a climber is hauled down the talus to a waiting ambulance. Obituaries are common in climbing magazines, and the annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering is required reading for anyone who takes up the sport.
When I talk to other parents about the dramas of first grade or trips to Disney or the shore, the one topic that never manifests itself is how God-awfully boring parenting can be. I’m desperate to recapture my pre-child life and go back to taking off-the-grid vacations. The only way that will happen is if Kelly can join us. I don’t even want to have another child, in part because it would delay my return to the mountains.
Yes, I know I’m obsessed, and I see that I’m pushing my obsession &mdash dangerous as it is &mdash onto my daughter. And I’ve seen all those sports and pageant parents who obsessively drive their kids so they can live though their accomplishments. But I teach Kelly to climb not only to live through her, but with her. I’m thrilled at seeing the glee on her face as she finishes a climb, but I’m also relieved that I’m not stuck on a play date at the zoo.
As she becomes a more skilled and independent alpinist she’s going to want to try harder, longer and more dangerous routes. Once she’s hooked, the jones to risk life and limb will prove irresistible. This is still a few years away, but as I watch her at the cliffs, I realize if something happens to her, it will be because of my struggle to ease the banality of parenting and to connect with my daughter on the thing I love the most. Does this make me a bad dad? Maybe so.
For now, when we climb, I lead and she follows, but at some point, she’ll want to be on the “sharp end” and pick her own way up the mountain face. If she lets me, I’ll hold her rope and be there to catch her if she falls. But one day, she’s sure to say to me, “Sorry Dad, not this weekend. I want to go climbing with my friends.”
It will probably be the proudest and most frightening day of my life.
- Little League Lost: Why couldn’t my son be better at baseball
- Game On: I forced my kid to play Soccer
- Karate Kid: I watch combat sports with my five year-old
This article was written by Joe Antol for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.