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The hardest thing we’ve done with our son turned out to be one of the best

As I hiked past the majestic Grand Teton mountain last August while camping and rock climbing with my family in Wyoming, I looked up at the summit and asked my guide what it would take to get to the top.

“Three days,” she said. “One to prep and two to climb.”

I tried to think of friends that liked rock climbing enough to take time out of their life, fly to Wyoming and take on that summit.

“If I came out here solo next year, would you guide me?” That's when my 8-year-old Jack looked up at me with his big blue eyes and said, “I’ll do it with you mama! Can I?”

Our guide Jes paused a moment and replied in a way that only Jack would see as an invitation.

“You know what Jack, if you do this, you’d be the youngest kid that our guide service has ever taken up to the summit, I think there was once a boy your age that went up but he was an Exum guide’s son…”

Jack paused. And then he smiled. As he looked up at the summit, he simply said, “Let’s do it mama.”

It was decided. Bobby happily said he would join us on our hopeful adventure and the three of us locked it in the calendar, and looked forward to it all year long. Seeing Free Solo may have freaked me out, but seemed to get Jack even more excited for his mountain adventure. Underneath it all, I knew that even flying out west together and trying something hard would be a bonding experience in and of itself…and so we planned.

The following August arrived and the skies were good to us. The Grand Teton's ragged edges stood up majestically against a crystal blue Wyoming sky and its expanse once again took my breath away. Day one's prep day went well, Jack was reminded of the basics in rock climbing, the many rules that become critical in such a technical sport. I watched him gain energy as the day went on, eager for all that was ahead. I am constantly fascinated by the way my son comes alive in nature, his mind expands, he talks more excitedly and he bounds his way up and down trails like a billie goat. He is his best self when moving, exercising and outdoors, connected to the Earth. So many of us feel this way when we find ourselves reconnecting with nature, appreciating the trees and rocks that existed thousands of years before us and will remain thousands of years after we are gone. The perspective one feels in nature brings a kind of peace and recognition of the present moment. The excitement one gains from a challenging adventure brings a newness and a healthy fear that demand we both learn and grow.

We packed our backpacks, Bobby and I each carrying about 50 pounds, taking much of Jack’s food and winter layers up for him so he could focus on his feet and the task ahead. The first day was mostly hiking, and we relished the trails, the crisp air, and the cool water we sterilized from the mountain’s streams. We got accustomed to our giant backpacks, even though my lower back screamed stop every so often, and my shoulders began to burn. When we reached base camp later that day, we unpacked, reorganized our backpacks and set up shop in our 3-person tent. Our tent was next to the hikers’ hut that is set up at base camp as a permanent fixture from May to September, until the snows get too heavy and the winds make it hard to climb safely. Watching my now 9-year-old son engage with adults, climbers who had come from all over the world to take on the Grand Teton, was a feeling of both awe and joy. Joy is a feeling deeper than happiness, the kind you savor on a level that reminds you how grateful you are to have this life. This child.

We watched the sun set over neighboring Idaho and the most dramatic orange sky emerged, before night fell, stars appeared, and we were hit once again with that reminder of both our tiny size and our short time on this beautiful earth. The stars! I love raising my children in New York City but I often miss the ability to walk outside and see a sky that is white, white with the stars that surround our planet and express the vastness of simply everything.
As we settled into our evening, Jack told me he had a headache…twice. This is one of the strongest warning signs of altitude sickness. I looked over at Jes and Bobby with concern and we agreed to pay attention to his energy, his mood. As the winds blew and the temperature dropped rapidly, we layered up our clothes (6 layers seemed to do the trick) and then huddled with climbers inside the hut to heat up the meals we carried up for dinner. Jack had been sick with an ear infection before leaving for Wyoming and as people watched me give him his ear drops and final antibiotic dose, I began to wonder if this whole thing was a mistake. Cool mom or crazy mom, I pushed the thoughts aside, and re-committed to the challenge we looked forward to all year. The three of us laughed in the tent until about 930pm when Jack finally fell asleep. Our little guy curled up in his sleeping bag, his cherub-like cheeks, I could almost viscerally see him growing up through this experience.

I was staring at the ceiling of the tent and meditating for what seemed like hours, our 3:15am wake up time arrived with insistence. Bobby and I totaled about 52 minutes of sleep between us, but we were ready to conquer the day and gently woke up Jack. The billie goat seemed to pop out of bed, talking incessantly, ready for the challenge we were about to face. Coffee was critical and we ate snacks from our packs, before gearing up for the climb with our helmets, headlamps and ropes. As we packed our smaller climbing packs, Jack mumbled to me, “Mom, I have a headache again.”

Full stop. I’ve climbed mountains and have had my share of crazy endurance challenges and adventures. But I did not anticipate how my experience might change when I faced challenge in a new role, as mother. I cautioned going up suggesting that instead we enjoy how far we’d come, that early signs of "altitude" sickness are real….but Jack kept insisting. He was determined to keep going, and so we did. He promised to tell us if he felt any signs of nausea or headache pain, and we paid increased attention to his movements. I became a hawk looking for signs.

At about 4am, we walked out into the pitch black, the night sky a carpet of magnificent stars above us, and we began our second ascent. We hiked slowly, the way you must at altitude, and Jack learned the value of pressure breathing to support his oxygen intake as well as rest steps to give his muscles mini breaks. We climbed and hiked and the exposures and drop offs were real. Each time we’d reach an edge, no matter how safe I knew we were in theory, roped in, I would feel a pang of fear for my son, a mama bear’s instinct to fiercely protect him against everything, even the side of a mountain. As we ascended, Jack complained of nausea and we paused and sat on the edge of a giant rock. As the sun rose, we were exposed to the elements, with thousands of feet dangling below us and… a decision to make. I insisted we turn around, feeling that maternal pull of protection, but Jack kept asking to keep going.

But as we waited, Jack’s nausea increased and Jes made the executive decision to descend to prevent it from getting worse. We reached “Brigg’s Slap,” the summit before the final summit,12,500 feet in the sky, higher that most kids his age have ever climbed. Still, I saw his look of defeat, an even higher summit he would not see that day and an acceptance that his safety would trump everything. Our ambitions, however great, need to also be checked with the reality around us and calmly we celebrated this massive achievement, making it to the Brigg’s Slab summit, before we slowly began to walk back down.

Within an hour, Jack threw up twice from his beginning phases of altitude sickness, confirming our suspicions and helping him understand we made the right choice. The most difficult decisions are sometimes the smartest ones, and despite ego or intention, it’s important to assess and call upon the wisdom of experience to make the right call. Jack was disappointed, but that faded away into relief not to be even sicker and way higher. Jack defined the word resilience that day when I saw him with his head on my lap, as I caressed his hair and fought my urge to give him a piggy back down the mountain, leaving my 50-pound pack behind. I offered this.

“Jack, if I could carry you down this mountain I would…and you know it. I love you more than I love anything in this world. But you can do this. You know you can. The only way out is through. The only way home is down. Now you have to go inside of yourself, find that strength and put one foot in front of the other.” And with that, he stood up, put one foot in front of the other and made his way down, reaching for what can only be called a kind of courage and beginning to believe in himself.

To my delight, in less than an hour, the billie goat was back. He skipped down the trails, chatting (nonstop!) and telling jokes. Jack was himself again and he seemed to be quietly absorbing his own joy in what he had just accomplished. We stopped for a while and Jes set up ropes on some of the most gorgeous rock faces in the Tetons and he rock climbed for hours. Climb after climb after climb, he’d ask to repeat the same route until he'd find an easier way up the holds, trying to ascend more quickly and beat his time before it. He came alive on that rock face, proud of his achievement while connecting with the rocks themselves.

I did not internalize until later just how powerful the entire experience would be for him, or for me. It was a lesson in saying no with wisdom and grace, even when you want to say yes. It was a lesson in resilience and sheer grit, to keep going even when it’s hard. It was a lesson in the immense power of nature to bond, heal, grow...climbing the youngest mountain range on the continent that make up the oldest rocks. Ultimately it was a lesson that each time we choose to keep moving forward in a moment of pain, confusion or internal conflict, it is a chance to grow.

I feel a connection to my billie goat in a way I did not feel before, and it’s deeper, more real. We shared something big. We did something hard. And we promised each other we’d go back again.

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