What is “appropriate” risk? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately as I read other blog posts about risk taking for the adventurous adult (example, Amy Christensen’s Expand Outdoors). Adults in general, and parents specifically, are constantly evaluating risk as it relates to themselves and their children. Getting in a car, going to an amusement park, and even buying groceries (organic), require parents to determine risk and reward before making a choice.
When we start to plan a family vacation that includes climbing, we run through an analysis of risk factors before a decision can be made. For our children (ages 2 and 4), we consider the following four factors “deal breakers.” If a climbing area has any one of these characteristics, we choose not to bring the kids.
1. Exposure – Does the climbing area (or the approach) have a risk of falling for a mobile child? What is the risk and the fall? Is it everywhere or only in one (avoidable/controllable) location?
2. Rock fall – Is this area known for rock falling from above?
3. Water – is there an abundance of accessible water in which a young child might drown? Is it right near the crag? Is a river crossing required upon approach?
4. Hunting – is it hunting season and is it a location where hunting takes place?
There are other risk factors that seem either less catastrophic or that we believe can be minimized with proper preparation or knowledge. These risk factors include:
1. Bugs & Reptiles – In Pennsylvania, ticks seem to be the most serious threat in our home climbing crags such as Governor Stable, Haycock, Mount Gretna etc. Today’s day trip ended with baths and showers as we did a search for the hard to find burrowers and found one starting to dig in on our four year old’s back. The greatest risk is that deer ticks carry Lyme’s Disease which if left untreated can cause serious neurological damage. To minimize the risk, we use bug repellent (Picaridin) and the kids wear clothing that covers them as much as possible (pants, socks etc). Near PA (nearby WV’s Cooper’s Rock and New River Gorge, for instance) poisonous snakes abound. Similarly, any of the desert states have the same concerns. Staying on alert and allowing children only in areas that have already been disturbed is our way of minimizing their risk.
2. Poison Ivy/Burn Hazel/Poison Oak – Certain areas have an abundance of poisonous plants such as poison ivy. Today’s trip at Governor Stable was a comedy of “don’t touch” and “leaves of three, leave it be” sayings as we tried to keep the kids from playing in patches of poison ivy (which were everywhere). Pants and knowledge are our only weapons – that and a bath as soon as we get home! So far, it’s worth the risk, but I imagine that depends on the severity of your child’s allergic reaction to the itchy plant.
3. Tenuous footing – Many climbing areas have unstable rocks, dirt, felled trees etc. to scramble over in order to trek to the climbing. The risk of a fall is high, but there is little danger of serious physical harm.
4. Traffic – Whether it’s climbing near the road at Smuggler’s Notch (VT) or hanging out near a high traffic four wheeler trail, keeping the kids away from motorized vehicles is a serious priority. Evaluating our ability to protect from this danger is a component to accepting an area as “kid friendly”.
For younger children (not walking), some of these might not be important. Similarly, as the kids get older we expect things will change and adjustments will be needed. With a thirteen year old summitting Everest, 10 year olds sending 5.13s, and families biking from pole to pole with their children, parents seem to be considering both risk and reward as they raise their children to be adventurous citizens of the world. Some risks can be reduced and others can be considered as worthwhile. What risks do you deem acceptable for your children? What are your lines in the sand?