Fatherhood in The Mountains: Examining Risk in the Context of Family

Four men in the mountains hiking alongside each other.
Being a dad is hard work, but you gotta make some time to hit the playground. Photo: Brad Slack

This article is part of the Mountain Life Isolation Reading List

Introducing our Curated COVID-19 Isolation reading list. Editors from each of our publications have gone through and compiled a list of pieces from past issues of Mountain Life for you to enjoy, and we’re excited to share them with you. Sit back and relax, because we might be in this for the long haul. But most importantly, let’s not forget to do this together.

words :: David McKinnon 

Life in the mountains evolves. Our passions change as new priorities emerge, and the rewards we take from the hills feel different. Time in the alpine remains essential—central to a life well-lived. But as we build lives adjacent to high places, we encounter certain responsibilities that demand reflection. For men in Pemberton, BC, fatherhood is perhaps the most significant. Here, fatherhood and the mountains are fundamental forces. Most of the time the two are complementary, aligning in deeply enriching ways. But mountain families know a tension, a complex anxiety born of risk, responsibility, and the preservation of self. 

Calm, cool and calculated. You can’t rush an old goat. Experience is key and Joe is dedicated to the craft. Photo: Brad Slack

Several of my friends are fathers. Chris Ankeny, Dave Basterrechea, Joe Lax, Brad Slack, and Delaney Zayac had kids within the last decade, when they were about my age. I look up to these guys—their riding inspires me, and their mentorship has been a significant driver in my development as a snowboarder. They’ve also helped me lay the groundwork for life in the valley. Their advice has influenced my work, my relationships, even my finances, and when I think about starting a family I look to them as role models. Because I need the mountains, my best-case scenario for a future with kids doesn’t stray too far from their example.

The thing is, that doesn’t paint an entirely facile picture of the road ahead. Already, my dedication to snowboarding precludes a typical home life. My partner has compromised as I work a year’s worth of hours each summer, and accepted time apart as I set out on adventures in winter. We do our best to find a balance through shared adventures and a deeply loving day-to-day life, but I could do a better job of making time. And there’s the risk. When I hang it out in the mountains, I expose her to a pretty grim possibility. As safe as I strive to be, hazards can’t be mitigated completely. 

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“As the adrenaline ramped up, I just focused on what we were doing. I was in the moment. But after the trip, with some heavy lines in the bag, I had this overwhelming feeling of being torn between being a responsible father and continuing to do what I love.”

My friends live with the extensions of this reality, with the compounded responsibility of another ten years on this path. They’ve risen to the occasion, finding ways to provide for their families that allow the flexibility to continue riding. Chris owns Mount Currie Coffee Company, Delaney runs Ice Cap Organics Farm with his family. Dave started a snowmobile accessory company, Cheetah Factory Racing. Brad’s a carpenter and an action sports photographer, and Joe works in the BC Wildfire Service in summer and rides for Jones Snowboards in winter. 

Accountability extends beyond their home lives—professionally, they have duties to clients, employees and the general public. Their kids motivate them to live up to these responsibilities. “It’s the craziest thing, seeing the birth of your children,” says Chris. “You’re overwhelmed with a sense of happiness, which quickly flips to having a serious duty to raise these kids and do anything for them.” Delaney adds, “Life has become more important, and the way I live affects more than just me.” 

Their attitudes reflect a change. There was a time when the mountains were the clear priority for these guys, when they’d set everything aside to undertake an expedition to the Waddington range, or spend weeks camped on a glacier in Southeast Alaska. Their dedication was deep enough to allow them to progress into the upper echelon of big mountain skiing and snowboarding, pioneering many of the lines that people like me covet. 

Dave Basterrechea testing out gear from his other baby, the brand Cheetah Factory Racing. Photo: Brad Slack

“Before I had kids I was a boarder in his early thirties,” says Joe. “I was reasonably settled down, comfortable in a routine of working in summer and snowboarding in winter. My whole world revolved around life in the mountains. When we were expecting our first child, I felt a need to get after it—as if life as I knew it was soon going to be over. I rode a lot of days that season.” 

Brad remembers a trip with Joe and Dave that year, the winter he and Joe became fathers: “It was the first time I rode in the Meager area. Jeanne [Brad’s daughter] was two months old, and there was something in the back of my head the whole time. I didn’t even know what it was yet—it took me a while to understand. It wasn’t like I was a different person all of a sudden. As the adrenaline ramped up, I just focused on what we were doing. I was in the moment. But after the trip, with some heavy lines in the bag, I had this overwhelming feeling of being torn between being a responsible father and continuing to do what I love.” He’s blunt, and tells me how he’d never felt like that before his daughter came along. “I have these weird fantasies of moving to the woods—my way of telling myself I’d have to remove myself completely. It’s everything or nothing. This isn’t a recreational pursuit. And I know I’m not going to stop. I know I’m doing the right thing for me.”

He’s out there, silently slaying big mountain lines and still getting home for dinner and bath time. Joe Lax juggling the responsibilities of the modern man. Photo:Brad Slack

Brad’s words resonate. Climbing and riding big peaks is like nothing else. You feel the mountain’s energy extending through your body, experience continuity with the snow, rock, and ice. Descending is euphoric—through the greatest rush you can imagine, you come to understand the planet’s power in raw, physical terms. When things line up, you feel at the bleeding edge of tactile and perceptual capacity—you
move with faith in what the mountain tells you, and there’s a sense you’re being guided by some underlying magic. It’s an elevated state that can’t be duplicated in the flats, nor achieved reasonably without immersion.

  “A critical piece for me,” explains Joe, “is if I’m going to ride high-consequence terrain, I need to be out in the mountains frequently, honing my skills and being immersed in that environment.  It feels dangerous to me to expect to ride at this level without frequently being out there.”

Daddy downtime never looked, or felt, so good. Dave Basterrechea, Pemberton, B.C. Photo: Cam Unger

To my eye, the sense of self my friends maintain through their adventures is a prerequisite for parenthood. When raising children, one should understand oneself well enough to flourish. My own experience tells me when I go too long without mountains, the negative effects on my wellbeing can cause me to treat my loved ones poorly. I’d hate to put that on a kid. For mountain people, mountain time is self-care—a good dose gives us what we need to be our best. “Having the mountains in my life allows me to be balanced and happy,” says Delaney. “I’m all jazzed up when I get home from a good day out. I show my kids pictures and tell them about what we did. They love it. The same way, they tell me about their good times.”

As the kids get older, the good times are more often shared. Chris says, “I’m showing my boys how much fun the mountains can provide, which is gratifying on its own. They see how much I love it, and they’re starting to get those feelings for themselves.” Through the mountains, the guys strengthen their bonds with their children and pass on their principal means for experiencing the world at its best.

But then, there’s the risk. There’s the hard problem of knowing that the mountains can kill you. There’s the horrible flood that strikes with the death of a friend. 

I trust Chris, Dave, Joe, Brad and Delaney, and hold their decision-making in high regard. I know the respect and understanding they bring to managing risk. But each of us accepts that safety isn’t guaranteed. “Dave Treadway and Lisa Korthals were both so safe, they had a sixth sense,” Dave says solemnly. “For that to happen to two people in two years who are so dialed, who didn’t make obvious mistakes… it’s just crazy. With other friends I’ve lost who really pushed it for years and years, or who were pushing it when things went wrong, it was less of a surprise. It just goes to show it doesn’t matter who you are. It hits home, makes you think about what your family would do if it happened to you.”

Some days are better than others, Joe Lax feeling like today is the day. Photo: Brad Slack

Yet we continue. Delaney is upfront: “Death in the mountains is something we’re all trying to avoid, but not at all costs. If it were at all costs we just wouldn’t go out. So we are making conscious decisions to take risks. But even as a conscious decision, the force behind it is genetic and non-negotiable. I’m one of the ones that need adventure—that’s it, no alternative. If I’m going to be fully self-actualized and stoked on my life, I need that in my life. The caveman/woman who was always out exploring, trying to find a better cave or berry patch, was more likely to get killed by the saber-toothed tiger. But their adventurous spirit more often rewarded their family.”

Joe adds: “All my friends that have died in the mountains were examples of how to live life. Would it be better if they were here? Yes. We don’t get to choose how we die. Even if you find balance between adventure and family, it doesn’t mean you are immune to death. Same goes if you leave the mountains altogether–there is no immunity. Family is always most important for me but you can’t quit who you are and expect to be happy. Acceptance of risk changes over time. After having our daughter, I vowed to always be there for her, to be a good dad and obviously try not to die. I listen to my inner voice, I listen to the people I trust, and I listen to the mountains. There are many things that aren’t in my confidence or ability level to ride—I don’t ride them, that would be the same with or without kids.”

Kye Petersen lost his father when he was six. Trevor was an incredible skier, bold and technically skilled. Kye’s style is his own, but you can see his dad in his skiing. “He was young, too,” says Kye, remembering his father. “Back then not many of his friends had kids, he was one of the first in his group. And he was happy, he loved it. He worked six months of the year logging and the other six he was travelling to ski and film. He worked hard—he wanted to give our family a good lifestyle. That’s what he was about, what a lot of other people living in Whistler in the 90s were about. But he couldn’t give up what he was passionate about because he had a family, it was more like he wanted to share that passion with his family.”

Chris and Delaney weigh their options. Photo: Brad Slack

He continues: “I think that’s similar to a lot of dads around here. You come here for a certain reason, you end up living in the Coast Mountains because of skiing or snowboarding or climbing or something, and the next best thing to doing those things is sharing them with someone else. The ultimate would be to share that with your own family, you know?”

I ask Kye if he’d change anything. “For sure. I spent my whole life thinking about ‘what ifs’. But it doesn’t change anything. Thinking like that’s not good, it’s not healthy. Life happens for a reason. Everything happens the way the creator, whoever it is, made it happen, you know? For good or for bad. And even if it was something bad, it was created that way for something good to come out of it. I think losing my dad is the worst thing that ever happened to me—but I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for that, either.”

Kye feels a connection to his father, not just in the mountains. He’s thankful for his presence. “Through his friends and his legacy, through the place he raised his family and the places he loved, he’s shaped me and led me on a path I think he would be proud of. You can’t stop doing what you love because that’s going to affect your loved ones in a negative way. Maybe you won’t have risk in your life, but you also won’t have a family that’s quite as healthy or as happy as you want. Look at what Dave [Treadway] shared with Kasper.”

In the end, there’s no resolution. Like lapping waves and shore, fatherhood and the mountains stand together. One pulls from the other as they both stand resolute. A storm will rise from time to time, oceans thrash. Some set out into the sea, others stay on shore. But there’s only one way to see it like it looks like from out there.  — ML

 

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