Adventuring with kids

20130419-221439.jpgThis is a blog I wrote for Chill a few weeks ago.  As we adventure with Obie, I often wonder – am I doing this for me or for him?  It’s a good perspective to maintain.  It’s a long weekend and Scott, Obie and I are going down to Mt Cook National Park to fly in by heli and stay at a high hut then ski the Tasman glacier.  I do this a lot for work but the boys haven’t done it so I think it’s fair to say this is a bonafide family trip!

Oh and I didn’t run the Snow Safety courses during the spring holidays.  Look out for them in the next July holidays.  They’ll be advertised on my website.

Kids and Adventure

Is it a good idea to take kids into the backcountry or side country?  Since side country is backcountry in terms of being outside the ski area boundary, then there’s really no difference.  Here in the Craigies at least, it feels like it’s a bit of an issue as people duck in and out of the ski areas.  It’s easy to take the kids on missions with short hikes.

I recently read world champion Adventure Racer, Nathan Fa’ave’s book “Adventurer at Heart.”  I was both inspired and appalled by the level of adventure he was prepared to hit with his kids.  Sea kayaking around D’Urville island, Nathan paddled a double sea kayak with his three kids while his extremely able wife, Jodie, paddled a single kayak.  They got caught in rising seas and a tricky tide as they tried to negotiate their way past a headland into sheltered waters and camp.  Nathan’s water experience from 20 years at the top of Adventure Racing, as a sea kayak guide and his sheer physical strength got them through but I was left wondering: “What if they’d bailed out?  Three kids and Nathan swimming and Jodie trying to pick up the pieces in rough seas…”  Although I’m ok in a boat (I can take care of myself only) sea kayaking is not my thing.  It’s easier for me to view the scenario in the mountains:  Myself and another able adult take three kids into the backcountry – say the Ryton from Mt Cheeseman.  We are two hours from Cheeseman ski field at the quickest and two hours from Mt Olympus ski field.  Weather comes in and stability is changing rapidly – a fast moving southerly hits hours earlier than expected.  Can we adults handle it?  Can the kids?  Are we equipped for it?  We may need to change course and hike further with skis on packs.  We may need to drop straight to the valley or take a longer route on the ridges to get to safety. Worst case – we may need to dig in and wait out the storm.

I’m a proponent of adventure with kids and like Nathan and Jodie, I believe in the benefits in terms of life skills and resilience gained in the outdoors.  However, skiing in avalanche terrain (which the Fa’aves don’t do with their children) takes a new level of seriousness to me.  Last year two promising 20 year olds (friends of a friend) from the US junior ski team died in an avalanche after they crossed a boundary rope in Colorado.  Fresh powder would have been clearly visible from the ski area.
When our kids ski black diamond runs so young, it’s natural that we’d seek out better runs for them – or they’d find it for themselves.  My son (9.5) has been asking to go into Crystal valley for a couple of years now.  I did take him there last year with some other kids and adults but we pulled the pin at the top due to poor visibility and deteriorating snow stability.  Once you commit to skiing into Crystal, there are huge slopes above and you cannot escape.  It was better to leave it for another year.  Everyone was a bit disappointed.

The thing that bothers me about these mostly stable recent years in the Craigieburns is that one year, it will change and become a season with persistent weak layers in the snow pack.  And we must be able to adapt to that change and change our behaviour.  How and what we model to our kids is especially important.  We are churning out these solid skiers.  Where will they take their skiing?  To Europe?  To the great off-piste runs of Chamonix?  To North America (Whistler, the Colorado and Canadian Rockies, Red Mountain, Montana, Utah, California)?  To Japan – where the hazard rises and falls very quickly due to ongoing snowfall?  To Northern India?  In these amazing places, access to the backcountry may be very easy but avalanche conditions can be decidedly less defined.    A world of ski adventure awaits.

Risky behaviour is fine when there’s low risk and you are aware of the risks you are taking.  However low avalanche hazard never means no hazard and it’s important to understand that – and understand what it takes for hazard to change.  If you have the experience to go backcountry or side country with your kids, teach them about avalanches.  The younger ones can’t really probe or dig – but they should know how to use their avalanche beacons.  Older kids should carry a probe and shovel.  They should be aware of what exactly is avalanche terrain and have an understanding of slope angle, aspect, elevation and slope shape – and how these factors work together to create avalanches if there is unstable snow.  There are simple tricks for understanding surface snow instability and kids can easily be taught the class one signs (avalanches running, cracking, collapsing, snow or wind loading, rapid warming etc) to help them identify when the  likelihood of avalanches increases.  Teach safe travel protocols – how to spread out and how to identify and regroup at islands of safety.

To alleviate my angst over this issue, I’m running a snow safety course for youth (12-18) at Broken River on the best day of September 27 or 28.  Numbers are limited to 8.  Tune into BR for details:  http://www.brokenriver.co.nz/prices/avalanche-courses/
Next year I plan to run them earlier in the season at both Mt Olympus and Broken River.  I’ll probably take 10 year olds by then!

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Thoughts on trekking to altitude with kids

Obie and i just arrived back in utah. Someone suggested that i write my thoughts on trekking in Nepal and taking kids to altitude

Health and hygiene

Start with a good multi-vitamin before you leave. Preferably a tasty one.
I would have taken extra vitamin c for Obie.
He had the odd bout of mild diarrhea and I would empty half a probiotic pill into something yummy that he was eating.
Have lots of little hand sanitizer packets and get the kids used to them and accepting
Really emphasize no nose picking and eating (seriously) and to keep hands away from mouth unless eating with clean hands
Use a buff or similar that can be pulled over the kids mouth and nose on the dusty trails. The Khumbu cough starts below Namche where the track is most dusty and crowded.
Obie slept in his own sleeping bag in the Teahouses. Not only cozy but avoided any bugs, germs that may linger from other Trekkers
Keep kids heads warm as altitude increases. This helps them acclimatize apparently.
Obie never wore his gore-tex but I kept his hooded down jacket handy (great buys in both Namche and in Kathmandu) plus gloves and warm hat and sun hat.
I gave paracetamol in yummy liquid form for headaches. Obie used it twice but make sure you follow directions carefully.
Peak Promotion, our outfitters, sent us with a bottle of oxygen in case of any trouble. We never used it but reassuring to have (and heavy)
Have some kind of moisturizing oil like jojoba – Obie’s cheeks got quite chapped and he got some dry skin on his bum and upper thighs as well.
Wet wipes and toilet paper in the top of your pack.
Wet wipes for grimy faces and hands
Scott has a steri-pen for sterilizing but I mostly used a gravity filter. I would leave it to filter while at breakfast and it took about half an hour (depending on the grittiness of the water) to filter 3 liters. I would then pop an iodine tablet into each bottle just to be sure and would later use the neutralizer pills to take away the iodine taste. Obie carried a camel back and this was invaluable. Keep the nozzle tucked back inside the shoulder strap to keep it clean.
I took lots of nuts, bars, nori snacks and fruit leathers for the trail. There is plenty of food at the Teahouses so I reckon I overdid it. Last time I was here there were not so many snickers bars and kitkats!
Doctors – Namche, Kumjung and Pheriche
Get good rescue insurance for peace of mind that includes heli rescue. I used International Medical Group. Alpine clubs also offer good rescue insurance packages. You need to be a club member and you have to organize it in advance.

Altitude

Personally I have always gone a bit too fast and worked too hard while still low. I hoped that with Obie, I would acclimatize nice and slow. It seemed to work for him but I think I physiologically struggle to acclimatize to 18000. I just need to take a lot of panadol and/or excedrin (Scott’s recommendation that worked quite well).
So my advice if you decide to take kids up high above 14000 feet/4000m is to absolutely take all the advice for proper acclimatizing: go slow, take rest days where you hike around a wee bit, drink a lot of water and generally do the minimum climbing that you can each day. This is dictated by the position of the Teahouses. Pheriche to Lobuche is a 700m elevation gain (to 5000m) but Lobuche to Gorak Shep is only 300 m and Basecamp is only another 50m. Many go from Lobuche to BC but we stopped at Gorak Shep.
The goal of reaching BC was very loose. I was completely prepared to return to Pheriche if Obie’s pulse oxygen sat was still 60%. I always thought we would just make it to Pheriche or Dingboche. The Sherpas all thought that Pheriche would be the highest Obie would go. There were a lot of comments about how strong he was. I would honestly say that he was significantly better at altitude than me (granted I am susceptible to coughs in recent years, should probably get it checked out. My sinuses were very stuffed up which would not have helped my oxygen uptake). But even when I was 21 in the Indian Himalayas, I suffered going above 18000ft/5000m.
At Gorak Shep I felt like shit but Obie’s energy was great. Scott had to go to Basecamp anyway so why not go once my excedrin kicked in?

Stamina

The real secret weapon to Obie’s health and stamina was Khunga. He basically cruised with Obie all the time and would give him short rides put Obie down then piggy-back him again. I just ambled along with my own pack and the water and food. It was Khunga’s first time into the upper Khumbu so he had his fair share of headaches as well. I felt like it was well worth the money to have Khunga.

*1m=3.3ft

What did Obie think of the trip: he liked the yak and yeti hotel because of the kids and the pool.
What was most memorable for him:
The animals: yaks, pika, horses, danfe, eagles, dokyo, dogs and one very friendly cat!
Response to cold. Doesn’t bother him, was not very cold.
Sherpa attitudes – doubts, concerns, then impressed.
Attitudes from Trekkers – slight notoriety

Making base camp

There was soul searching upon arriving at lobuche at 5000m. Obie ate some pizza and went to sleep for the rest of the day. His oxygen saturation was low at 60% and I told the Sherpas that I was thinking of descending. Karina said wait until morning. By then Obie was a perky 90% to my 75!

We headed to Gorak Shep, 300m higher. Obie said he had a headache but his spirits were fine and appetite good enough (for him). Wally Berg, an American climber who was with Scott in 2010, showed up and babysat while Scott and I hiked up to see base camp from Kala Pattar. By the time we got back, Obie had ditched Wally in favor of Lara, a 9 year old German girl.

April 12, Obie was emotional and once again I considered descending – but only after a few rounds of Go Fish. Obie came right and we headed to Base camp with Scott. I always feel weird upon arriving at 18000 feet and the whole place was surreal anyway. Hundreds of tents arranged around glacier features, rocks like mushrooms perched on narrow pillars of ice, yaks amongst the ice formations….Farewell time was difficult on the edge of the moraine overlooking the field of coloured dots. Glaciers hung above us in immense scale. Khunga and our porter, Kaji stood around awkwardly. The sadness of leaving was somewhat relieved by the sight of a pika/mountain mouse with no tail scurrying among the boulders. Obie was delighted and talked about it for days.

The next morning I awoke with a fearsome headache and the Khumbu cough. Combined with the distress of leaving scottie, i was not at my best. Obie was fine. Only the thought of thicker air got me going. At Pheriche I crashed out on some couches. Obie ate noodles with an American group and I could hear them urging him to eat up and him explaining how his mum had caught his headache and the Khumbu cough. He would occasionally pop over and pat me sympathetically. Finally awakening after two hours, we continued to Pangboche and the lovely lodge of my friend Yangzing. There we met three generations of the bishop family. Barry Bishop was one of the summiteers on the first American expedition to Mt Everest in 1963. His widow Iila, now in her mid 70’s, was a delight and we enjoyed spending time with the family and getting a perspective on the changes in the Khumbu region over the past 50 years. We even got to hike some of the way to Phortse (the surprisingly high route) with Ilana the next day.

From Pangboche, we took a direct line up hill with Guy Cotter, Suze Kelly and other members of the AC group headed for Lhotse. We were off to visit Lama Geshe (who blesses expeditions) then our parties would split. The Obie Simper party would take the long and high route to Kumjung. Long and high it was, the track climbed and descended and wound in and out of the folds of the mountain. We passed the Tengboche monastery so close but so far across the valley. Phortse was a gorgeous village, it’s organized terraces and rock walls contrasting the steep backdrop of mountains. Descending through almost blooming rhododendron forest to the river, we crossed the torrent then climbed again, up, up up to Mong-la and a diagonal descent to join the Kumjung junction and into Kumjung – a larger version of Phortse. Less terraced, Kumjung is cozily placed in a large notch with plenty of flat terrain. The center of much of Sir Ed Hillary’s philanthropic work after his Everest ascent, we looked forward to exploring the village the following day. Oh how things can change in the space of one night….

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Into the Khumbu

Kathmandu to Lukla

Elizabeth Hawley met karina and Scott at the Yak and Yeti. Pemba, the lead Sherpa, was there too. He is with us every day checking gear and liaising with Peak Promotion, the trekking company hired for Karina’s expedition. Working with Sherpas is completely professional. As Angela Hawse once told me “somehow they manage to be totally professional and your best friends at the same time”
Back to Liz Hawley. The authority on Himalayan mountaineering, she has recorded the majority of ascents over the past 50 years and maintains an extensive database. I met her 10 years ago when I was here for the Mamas Dablam trip and she was quite elderly then. Now she is very frail at 90 but still steadfast in her meticulous recordings. It is unusual for her to visit for an Everest expedition unless it’s a new route. I was in Karina’s room when Ms Hawley called. Karina had literally been in Nepal for one hour. How she knows almost to the minute that an expedition has arrived, is anyone’s guess.

Scott asked me to take some photos of him with Ms Hawley. He has a soft spot for older ladies. He was very close to his Grandma. So overwhelmed was he in her presence, that he could not actually remember the exact day that he climbed Everest in 2010. “How about being correct,” was the terse comment.

We have arrived by twin otter into Lukla. I can’t believe that I am here with Obie. He has gone to shoot the planes landing with Scott, camera in hand. The Lukla runway is so exciting. At 600 meters long, it abruptly stops against the mountainside. A round of applause and the splat of vomit (not us) ended our flight. Prayer flags fluttered amongst the stone buildings with their bright blue window frames. We wandered up the worn stone trail to a tea house to await our bags. Our bags were too heavy and numerous to come on one flight.

Seeing the mountains from the plane I feel that familiar urge to go climbing. A lightweight pair of crampons and an ice axe are hidden in my luggage. It’s unlikely but you never know!

Namche Bazaar, April 7

The hike up valley has been quite leisurely. Obie and I have often gone ahead with our Sherpa-guide-in-training Khunga. He is 16 and just finished his year 10 exams. A little shy about speaking English, he is very attentive to Obie and likes piggy-backing him . Often Obie insists that I carry him. I got a good work out piggy backing him most of the way up the 2000 foot Namche hill.
Namche Bazaar is so surprising. A large colorful village perched on terraces at 3400 meters, there are numerous shops carrying all kinds of goods – all of which have been either carried up by porter, donkey or dokyo (yak/cattle hybrid that does better at lower elevations than the yak).

We’ll stay here for two nights to begin our acclimatization process. So far everyone feels fine. Obie’s tummy is a bit rumbly but his energy remains good. We have been diligent about keeping up with his schoolwork, spending about one hour a day on reading, writing and maths. I’m also carrying flash cards for on-the-fly reading and maths.

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Kathmandu

Kathmandu Easter Sunday

Traveling far across the planet by plane is tedious. With a six year old, it’s entertaining. Scottie, the most seasoned of travellers appeared positively joyous to be journeying with his son. Our LA to Bangkok flight stopped to refuel in Seoul. Obie called it “coal town, Korea.” I craned to see a manicured-looking land with some tiny cut ski areas visible in the hazily setting sun. I also caught up on years of movies. Life of pi and Cloud Atlas both measured up in my opinion. Both books were so difficult to imagine as movies, yet were fascinating renditions of the original stories.

Asia is not a huge journey from New Zealand. From Salt Lake City, it is 4 flights to Kathmandu and approximately 24 hours of actual flying time. We spent a relaxed 10 hours in the Bangkok transit rooms and toured the airport to both Obie’s and my fascination. Scottie knew all the cool spots – where to find (consumers, I know) and the Buddhist dragon train. We began to see evidence of mountaineers – fellow mountain guides from nz and trekking types. It’s funny being a guide myself, yet in the role of mother travelling with Obie to nepal and coaxing him up a trekking route. Perhaps not so different.

Our arrival in Kathmandu revolved around Scott’s summons to aerial shoot in the Khumbu for film maker, David Breshears and his ongoing Glacier Works project photographing Himalayan glaciers. www.glacierworks.org He headed back to the airport within 18 hours of our arrival, flew to lukla and got to work shooting from a helicopter at 22000 feet. Obie and I went to find the Adventure Consultants group and catch up with Guy, Suze, Lydia, Dean and Mike Roberts. Obie took the constant honking, the dust and grime and busy-ness of Kathmandu completely in stride. Holding my hand tightly as we played dodgems to cross the streets, Obie would shout things like “there’s a kitty” and “bicycle rickshaw!” His jet lag has been worse than mine this time around with some fearsomely early starts and liberal use of the iPad on my part.

I’ve always been a bit of a budget traveler but on this trip we are staying in the salubrious and “raj-like” (if you can make such references in Nepal) Yak and Yeti hotel. With it’s saluting doormen, superb gardens and pool, we are definitely in an oasis of luxury. A guide and driver came to pick us up for the city tour on Saturday. The Pashupati (Monkey) temple, assured me that Nepal is indeed spiritually intact and that several religions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism, live in complete harmony in this land, even sharing places of worship (hardly surprising given mutual beginnings). The monkeys scampered over the stupas to Obie’s fascination. Bunches of prayer flags cut the hazy sky and people lined up to pay respect to the deities and be blessed.

The Ghats beside the Bagmati River revealed several cremations in full swing. It feels uncomfortably voyeuristic to watch the funerals of others, yet in Hinduism and Buddhism, death is not to be feared but is a chance to escape human suffering and seek a better incarnation in the next life. The rituals around the cremations were slow, crowded and deliberate. Smoke curled from the pyres. I hesitated, wondering what to tell Obie. It seemed he had an innate handle on the proceedings and asked sensible questions: “why is the body so close to the river? Why are they waving that branch over the body?” and “why is everyone washing their feet?”. He scampered around like the monkeys as people reached to touch his hair and stroke his face. Small blond kids are obviously rare.

Arjun, our guide, took us through a government-sponsored rest home near the Ghats. A toothless old lady with a beaming smile delighted in Obie and chased us to touch and hug him. He was generous and hugged her back. Another woman weaving called him over to give him a lolly. The place was clean, tidy and a haven of calm after the bustle of the ghats. I am glad I got to visit.

The boudhanath stupa gleams with whitewash looming above the stacked streets surrounding it. Hundreds of Buddhist pilgrims and western tourists strolled clockwise as the benevolent eyes of the stupa looked out in all four directions. Strains of the Buddhist chant “om, mani, padre, om” filtered from the numerous stalls selling Buddhist relics. Obie enthusiastically took to spinning prayer wheels and caught up with other kids hooning around the larger wheels, treating them like merry-go-rounds and simultaneously setting themselves up with good karma. By then the heat and dust and Obie’s alpine start had us a tad thrashed. We retreated back to the Yak and Yeti pool.