by EMILY ORTON
We’re preparing for a rock climbing road trip this fall. Erik will climb big walls (rock faces that take more than one day to climb). The rest of us will stick to hiking and beginner climbs. We will do a lot of camping. I hope our kids will learn to love being outdoors by experience and example. We started moving in the direction of this dream last fall by taking our family camping and rock climbing once a month. (Erik climbs much more frequently.)
Each of us progress at our own pace. For example, Eli is not a happy camper. He tolerates camping. I think he sees Erik and I as the tedious people bent on interrupting his wifi access. He conceded to try the ropes one day, but had such a hard time repelling that he hasn’t harnessed up since. When we take him to the cliffs he says, “How long do we have to stay here?” and “I am so bored.” I say, “I’m glad you’re getting practice being bored in nature. That’s a good thing.”
I noticed that Eli liked sailing significantly more when we gave him the tiller (control of the vessel) and brought Doritos. I wondered if there were some way to wrap camping and rock climbing in more of the things he liked. Maybe we could let him create the driving playlist or pick the snacks. I wondered if he might like it better if his friends were there, too.
Last week we put that theory to the test. We met up with some of our dear sailing friends for a week in Ottawa. We had hiked several Caribbean islands with them, so it was only natural for us to hike together in Canada. Even with friends, Eli was tepid on the hike. But by the time Lily and I arrived at the falls, Eli was already smiling as he picked his way around the cold rushing water.
Two days later we took all the kids to what we thought was a parkour gym. It turned out to be clip and climb. Eli pursed his lips and lowered his eyebrows. I didn’t want a fight. I showed him where the benches were if he decided not to participate and then I clipped in to The Lightening Crack. After that, I didn’t think about Eli because I had to concentrate on the grips and toeholds in front of me. But also because I knew that nagging pressure has never led Eli to love anything.
After scrambling a few walls I checked in with each of the kids. Eli was wandering around the gym. “I’m taking a little break,” he said. That was encouraging. That meant he’d been doing something to take a break from. “Well, I’m going to find something else to climb,” he said. Break was over. Eli climbed almost every route. He was completely unselfconscious. He and his friends were climbing and falling and trying again side by side. He didn’t have to wait for a climb. Nobody critiqued his foot placement or shouted up ideas for holds. I don’t know exactly what created the magic that day: the friends, the neon lights, the autonomy or something else, but Eli leveled up. He reached past his habit of hating climbing and scrambled over his fear of falling. As we turned in our harnesses he smiled, “I loved it. Let's do this again.”