Connecting kids with nature is a simple matter of allowing that inevitable relationship to happen. The difficult part is deciding what boundaries to set, letting go, and helping children deal with the unexpected challenges they may encounter. How to do that? One path is described in Up – A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure, by Patricia Ellis Herr (Broadway Paperbacks, 2012) , the story of Patricia Ellis Herr and her daughters Alex and Sage, and the quest of her older daughter Alex, then five, to summit all forty-eight of New Hampshire’s peaks over four thousand feet before Alex turned seven.
Herr begins the book with an anecdote about a failed attempt to summit Mt. Tom, thwarted by a lightning storm. This story sets the tone for the book: the weather forced Herr to make tough calls, and to explain her rationale for those decisions and the results to her daughters, including the realization that things can happen for which it can be impossible to prepare. Also, there was chocolate at the end.
The idea to bag all of New Hampshire’s four thousand footers was born following another hike, this one of Mount Tecumseh in April 2008, when Herr and her daughters eventually turned back, unprepared for the deep snow at higher elevations. Herr then researched the appropriate hiking gear and preparation, and they returned to summit Tecumseh that June, unknowingly beginning Alex’s quest.
During the peakbagging journey, they encounter unexpected obstacles, including the fear of “stranger danger,” the preconceived notions of other hikers regarding women and young children, and an aggressive spruce grouse. Herr turns these challenges into teachable moments, and Alex quickly gains confidence, and even makes some converts.
Alex is clearly a unique child, and uses a fountain of energy to power up and down the mountains in the beginning. Herr brings Alex back to earth, however, with a lesson from Alex and Sage’s father, Hugh, who relates the story to the girls of how he lost his legs on Mount Washington in the winter of 1982. A rescuer was killed by an avalanche while looking for Hugh and his climbing partner, a mental burden still carried by Hugh. The story has the desired effect, and Alex learns to be more careful, and respect the danger inherent in the White Mountains. This comes in handy during the ensuing months, as Herr and Alex hike through the winter and spring seasons, and learn, “Real hikers know when to continue and when to turn back.”
By the time the family, by this time accompanied by well-wishers, summits peak number forty-eight, Mount Moosilauke, in August 2009, they have accomplished much more than the physical challenge. Herr and her daughters have had conversations along the way wrestling with existential questions, mortality, motherhood, gender roles, and societal expectations:
What matters now is that they know, from experience, that they can accomplish something big, something huge. What matters is that, for the rest of their lives, both my daughters understand that to reach a goal, they must put one foot in front of the other and persevere. They know that they must expect and prepare for challenges. They know to ignore the naysayers and, instead, to have faith in themselves and their abilities to learn what they need to know. Above all else, they know that little does not mean weak, that girls are indeed strong, and that practically anything is possible.
This winning book, punctuated by mountaintop photos and small, sweet moments, shares a family’s triumph, and illuminates the lessons inherent in nature, waiting there to be elucidated by a mindful parent.