Father and Son Trek
Father Son Adventures
It was minus 27C outside and close to that inside the tea house. I lay there on my back, snug in my sleeping bag, watching my breathe billow out of my mouth as I exhaled. From a few feet away I heard “Hey Dad I can see my breath!” It was my son Max, laying in his bed doing exactly what I was doing, observing how cold it was in our room. I looked over with a smile on my face, to see him puffing away. The apple really doesn't fall far from the tree. We were at Gorek Shep only 2 hours from the base of the planets highest peak, Mt Everest and we were on a Father and Son adventure to Everest Base Camp.
I learnt a lot over those 18 days with my son. I learnt that Max and I were very similar people, but I also learnt that he was his own person, with his own journey and lessons to be learnt. I also realised how special it was to spend 18 days with your child, mostly in nature, together. Experiencing the same hills and passes, the same cold, the same conditions. They became shared experiences, events we can reminisce, moments that deepened our relationship, times that have bound us. And so, I would like to share my thoughts with any Father (or Mother) that wishes to travel into nature with their child or children, because I believe that nature, the remote, has lessons for us all, and is a great backdrop to develop your relationship with your children.
Before I share these thoughts I need to share a little background about Max and myself because each relationship is different. My ex-wife and I divorced 10 years ago. We had 4 children together (3 boys and a girl). I have remarried. During the last 10 years, Max and I stopped seeing each other. Max had decided that life was a lot easier to cut me off. For 4 long years, the only time I saw Max was when I went to watch him play sport. I continued to send Birthday and Christmas presents as well as occasional notes letting him know I loved him and I was still around. This was an extremely painful time in my life, as my second son Jett had followed Max's lead and stopped seeing me.
On Max's 17th Birthday I sent him a text message asking if he would like to have cake together. I did this every year and never received a reply. Except for this time, Max replied, saying sorry he and I hadn't been seeing each other and he would like to catch up for some cake. Tears welled up, my throat tightened and emotion poured out, all over a simple acknowledgement from him. Over the following months, we started to see each other, a dinner here, a lunch there. We even had a 1 week family holiday together on Flinders Island. It was after this holiday that I wanted to offer Max and me a trip to Everest Base Camp later that year as congratulations for him finishing his final year at High School. Though I was nervous to ask, he accepted immediately. Wow, we had come a long way already.
The following are some of the things I had put thought into before the trip and things I learnt along the way.
REALLY THINK about what you want to get out of the experience
Each relationship is different and each relationship has its' own needs. As such, what was good for my son and me, may not be right for you and your child. I already work in the adventure travel space and have done this all my life. Thus, Max had grown up with a Dad that loved the outdoors and as it happened so did he. I tested this on Flinders Island. Comments like “I love being out here” or “I love hiking” rang true with me, so the step to offering Everest was not huge.
I also wanted a place that would challenge us both, possibly force us at times closer and was quiet. These aspects would help us bond, to forge memories that would add depth to our relationship, and for me, it would give Max an anchor point where he could attach trust in me. It would be a proving ground for trust; emotionally, physically, spiritually.
Everest Base Camp is not normally a quiet place with thousands of trekkers every year. However, in December, numbers drop to a trickle as the cold winter sets in. This was great because I knew the weather would be fine but very cold, so we should get to see awesome scenery and be uncomfortable at times due to the cold and altitude. Out of adversity comes camaraderie. I also knew that I could handle the trip, confident in the fact that if things got tough I could make the right decisions for us both.
For you, this may be completely different. Maybe you don't need to build trust, you may need a deeper intellectual or emotional connection. And maybe the outdoors aren't for you or your child (however I can't think of a better place to build a relationship, with no distractions other than the scenery, maybe some discomfort, colourful cultures, challenges and the list goes on). I think the reason to go is more important than the destination. Once you have discovered why you should spend time with your child, the place(s) will flood in. Just remember this is time for you and your child, it is not a family holiday where you and your child mostly do things separately. It is time for you and him or her to bond.
Don't plan too much
While the thought of a destination and the reasoning behind the trip may take a lot of planning, I learnt not to plan too much on the trip. Before we left for Nepal, I had in my head things I would maybe like to discuss while we were away, histories that needed to be clarified jokes to tell, deep insights I would like to share with Max. I was becoming stressed about it, worried that I wouldn't cover these planned topics and then the entire trip would be for nothing.
It soon became apparent that I didn't need to say these things. Our conversations flowed easily and eventually over the 18 days topics I had thought of before the trip became irrelevant and new unexpected ones came to the fore. You see, if my initial intent was to build trust, then trust is gained through actions, not words. By being there for him when he was feeling the effects of altitude, taking his oxygen saturations each morning and night, maybe even getting a hot chocolate for him at a tea house spoke volumes to Max. It showed him that I was still there looking after him, even though he was a young man. And I listened and I didn't judge (topics I will expand on), building a deeper emotional trust.
In the end, Max and I were comfortable being silent in each others presence. That is quite an achievement.
Remember they are young Men (Women) not children
In some respects, I still saw Max as a little boy. I hadn't “looked after” him for years. The last time he slept over I was still getting his lunch for school, making sure he did his homework and even read a story before bed. Now, he is a 6'3 athletic man. He works to buy clothes and take his girlfriend out. He has a car. Everything had changed. And so too had our relationship and the dynamic. Max no longer needed me to pamper him or reprimand him if he did something wrong.
The flip side to this is I had to let him make mistakes. No packing his stuff, doing his laces, ordering food and drinks, asking the guide a question on his behalf. I let Max show me how mature he had become. There were things that obviously showed me he was still a kid, I was the same at his age (probably worse). But I let him make his own decisions. There was one point as we trekked above 4200 meters, where Max started to suffer from altitude and a bad head cold. For about 24 hours there was the possibility that he couldn’t go on. But I left that with him. He had to make the decision. It was a fine balancing act between giving him professional advice and wanting him to achieve this goal. He worked through the issue privately, all the pros and cons were balanced out and in the end, he made the right decision to keep going.
Of course, I was there to help, I'm still his Dad and he will always be my Son (that you can't take away), but I had to let him stand on his own two feet. All in all, I was very proud of him.
Be open and honest (Your adults now)
After years of being separated from Max I became resilient to the constant pain of not seeing him. I had survived and so too had our relationship. In the “lost years” I constantly tried to stay in contact. I wrote to him and sent him cards and gifts. These things came from my heart. They were honest and pure. So now that we had reconnected I wasn't going to spoil anything by being someone I wasn't nor was I going to spin the truth. What's the point? This was a perfect opportunity to start fresh with someone (how often does that happen in life?).
Thus, when the time came I wasn't afraid to tell Max about my fears. Here was a young man with so many questions about the future on his mind and I thought it was ok to tell him it's ok to be confused about the road ahead. And if any questions arose from the past, questions about what happened during the separation from his mother, then I was going to give him my side of the story. Funny enough it never really came up. I haven't asked him this (maybe I should) but I wondered why he never asked me about it all. He obviously didn't need to talk about it during our trek, or maybe he was worried to ask, or maybe it was more my issue than his.
Bottom line though, I believe it is important to be open and honest and human to your kids. While on the trail Max told me that when he was younger he would tell all his friends his Dad was the toughest Dad of them all. I hope now that he sees another side of me, one that can endure but one that also has his owns fears and foibles.
Don't Judge this leads to tension
There were times on the trail that Max would express a view or act in a way that didn't sit perfectly with me. I am sure there were many times Max thought the same of me. But not once did I judge him. I watched and listened and put the moment into context. Was what he was saying or doing life threatening? A deep seeded belief? One that could affect other people? No once were these questions answered with a Yes!
Max would do things that any young vibrant man would do. He would say things that any person with an inquisitive mind would say. And so I would sit back and watch or I would give him my opinion of the situation, but I would never say he was wrong. I liked this and I think he did too as it once again reinforced the trust we had built over the months leading up to this trip and on the trip itself.
This does not mean discussion cannot be heated and energetic. On the contrary. Max and I would relish a good expression of opinions but these were always well humoured and inoffensive. This trust we had in each other allowed us to open doors of discussion we may not have otherwise had and was a significant factor in the deepening of our relationship.
Much of what I have already written comes down to this simple word; listen. Someone once said we have one mouth and two ears and we should use them in that proportion. I certainly did on this trip. I enjoyed listening to Max ramble on about this and that basketball team, or “Did You know?” statements, or about his friends or his girlfriend and her family or things that happened in the “lost years”. Maybe I just appreciated the moment, the time we were having together or the need to catch up on so much I had missed out on. Whatever the case, I listened to my son. At times I would have something to add to his thoughts and at other times I would just smile at him or give him a big hug and squeeze him (I'm a very tactile person). As I get older I find myself less and less thinking about the next thing to say and more and more just keeping my mouth shut. It's so much more enjoyable hearing what others have to say, especially when the words are coming from your son's mouth.
I have shared these insights because I know so many fathers and mothers that are both physically and emotionally distant from their children. This distance may be no fault of their own. However many of them would like to reconnect with their child(ren) and forge deep and meaningful relationships with them. I believe the outdoors is a perfect backdrop to nurture these relationships. It offers an energy that assists in fostering relationships, it provides scenes that speak to our ancient DNA, it offers challenges and adversity that brings people together and it offers peace and quiet for much-needed reflection.
While our journey has only just begun, Max and I have a deeper, warmer more trusting relationship than we have ever had before. Our journey together allowed me to see Max from so many angles and gave me innumerable insights into myself. I will continue to incorporate the lessons of listening, honesty, openness and relaxing about the relationship into our relationship back home, lessons that I hope ring true for you and your child.