Kids in the mountains

September 4, 2019

As someone who is both a practicing pediatrician and an outdoor educator, I occasionally confront the confluence of my two careers:  taking children into the wilderness.  There have been two very newsworthy Adirondack items this summer which bring one aspect of this issue into the fore.

The first incident, which no doubt generated a host of guffaws, was a “rescue” from the summit of Blue Mountain, a scenic day hike which has been enjoyed by thousands of folks over the decades.  A bit after 7 PM on a summer evening, a call came from a father on the summit with his wife and children, ages 10 and 6.  He was concerned that the children were too tired to hike down, and requested permission to drive his vehicle to the summit to pick them up.  Although this was quickly deemed not an option, the resolution of the “emergency” involved forest rangers using a vehicle on a service road to bring down the mother and 6 year old.  Details of the story are at https://www.newyorkupstate.com/outdoors/2019/07/injured-lost-ill-prepared-hikers-dec-forest-ranger-rescues.html.

The second story is a bit more complicated, but shares a theme.  A 4 plus year old girl recently become the youngest person ever to summit the 46 mountains historically considered the over 4000’ Adirondack peaks, making her a “46er.”  This story is available at https://poststar.com/outdoors/queensbury-girl-sets-record-as-youngest-ever-adirondack-er/article_a9a86cf4-bf45-5d2d-bdc1-90d3f182a607.html  (I wonder how the 6 year old in the first story feels about the 4 year old in the second!)

Before I proceed, an obvious disclaimer:  I have no primary knowledge of either situation, and do not personally know any of those involved.

That being said, both stories illustrate some points about taking children into wilderness areas.  The first and most obvious is assuring that the experience is a safe one for all concerned.  Arriving at a summit a short time before sundown is simply stupid—a clear violation of the Petzoldt “time control” axiom.  If the climb up Blue Mountain had begun in the early morning, it is likely that the tired six year old could have rested on top and enjoyed a nice snack and drink before being encouraged on the hike down.  This was obviously not an option at 7 PM!

Safety does not appear to have been a concern in the second case.  Indeed, from all reports, the child was in exceptionally good shape, and the parents were highly experienced outdoorspersons.  Her newspaper picture seems to show a fit and happy toddler.

The more difficult and nuanced issue raised by these two cases is that of assessing the developmental and psychological “fitness” of the child for the proposed trek(s).  Taking a child who is not fully ready (physically and emotionally) on a backcountry trek is doubly bad.  Beyond the fact that this may become the set up for a disaster, the child may forever become turned off to the outdoors.  Without knowing more about the previous experience and “dynamics” of the family in the first case, one cannot assess this with certainty.

I have no doubt that a toddler such as the child in the second case could enjoy mountain hiking and camping and be eager to climb a peak.  How much better than asking for a device on which to spend summer days!  However, based upon my understanding of child development, I find it impossible to believe that a four year old could grasp (or, especially, initiate) the concept of becoming a “46er” or the significance of setting a record as the youngest to achieve the distinction.  According to published reports, the child climbed her last peak two days before her fifth birthday.  Did the child actually comprehend that if she had waited two days she would not have been able to claim to have completed the climbs as a four year old?

The child’s parents are accomplished hikers, who have completed the 46 multiple times.  Clearly, the original concept and impetus for the child’s “record” came from them.  Is this wrong?  Certainly, many world class athletes (think Tiger Woods) got their starts from heavy parental influence.  Many Olympians have written about the influence of their parents on their athletic careers, usually long before they could make an “informed choice” about the sport.  Some have become very embittered about these experiences.

There are certainly worse things than having parents encourage children to begin a life of enjoying the outdoors.  Let’s just remember whether it is becoming an Olympic gymnast, a star quarterback, or a young 46er, we must always be sure that we are not imposing our own aspirations on our children!

(For those who do not already know, I should include the disclaimer that I am not a big fan of becoming a “46er” anyway:  http://adirondoc.com/publication/stops-short-of-all-46/)