Summer Alpine Adventures with Young Children
Despite the obvious joy and meaning to life that children bring, becoming parents, very definitely clipped our Alpine wings! Being climbing partners as well as life partners presented its own dilemma. Do you do the dirt? (As in find a new climbing partner!?) Abandon your partner, leaving them to wipe up snot and mediate fights over Lego and then deal with the relationship fallout that might entail? Do you link up with other climbers at the same parenting stage, bring the kids with you and take turns? Do you find a minder/family member who can accompany you on trips and take the childcare hit or leave them behind altogether? Or do you just take a step back from your summer alpine adventures whilst the kids are young? After all, the mountains aren’t going anywhere right? Right?
Are the risks still worth it when you’re a parent?
We’ve tried most of these methods with varying degrees of success. Personally, I found it particularly difficult to focus on climbing when the consequences of failure would mean devastating consequences on my young family, bad enough to lose one parent on a rope… but both?
On one particular alpine day, as I punched my fist into the snow with one hand and leaned on my axe with the other, making my way up the steepening snow slope, I made the mistake of looking down. A gaping crevasse smiled, open mouthed, up at me. I glanced up at Ronan ahead of me and wondered, not for the first time, if the risks I was continuing to take were worth the pay off at the end. I shook the fear from my head and kept moving. I had no choice right then, fear only leads to fears becoming reality. I had to push my little boys from my mind, but it wasn’t easy. And I didn’t feel comfortable again until I was sitting with an espresso in La Grave that afternoon, looking up at Le Rateau with the clouds closing in.
Maybe it’s a mother thing.
Because, let’s face it, men don’t seem particularly challenged in the “switching off” department. (Sorry lads!!) Even cragging was a pain in the butt, as, invariably one of them would be whining that they’re bored or hungry or both. Not the ideal scenario with one parent leading and the other belaying!
So, we pulled back a bit from what we wanted from our summer alpine adventures and took everyone’s needs into consideration. After all, isn’t that what parenthood is about? They won’t be young forever, so shouldn’t we make the most of the time we have with them and be ambassadors for the outdoor world we cherish? This was the system we embraced and have found the most fulfilling for us as a family.
Tips for Family Friendly Alpine Adventures
1. Research destinations before you go.
Talk to people you know who have visited different parts of the Alps (with or without kids). Question them on facilities, accessibility etc., not just regarding the mountains themselves, but also for municipal swimming pools, family friendly campsites, playgrounds, kids’ ropes courses, via ferrata, cultural places to visit, restaurants and so on.
Search for information online too – and reach out to local tourist boards. Some places have summer camps for kids so that they can make friends during their stay and also give you a break if you want to get a few climbs in, have an uninterrupted meal – or go back to bed!! 😉 We have visited The Queyras Region, Briançon and The Écrins, Samoëns, Chamonix and Valle D’Aosta. Click on each location for honest reviews and suggestions. We’ve spent quite a lot of time in the Grand Briançonnais area, from La Grave as far south as Gap, so we know this area particularly well.
2. Take baby steps.
It sounds obvious doesn’t it? But it’s easier to say than do! As soon as our youngest was walking steadily (the summer of his 2nd birthday!!), we started with short, slow ‘treks’ involving drives up to a high col or getting up high by cable car and accessing the mountains that way. Really we were only going on a picnic or to one of the many mountain refuges for lunch and tagged on a little walking. But even if we only ambled along for half an hour, it was a start. We took our cue from his pace. We even carried a potty with on those first walks – the loo with the best view!
3. Don’t be that pushy parent.
Try not to push them to go further or faster than they are happy to go. Take your cue from your youngest/least fit child and go at their pace, let them warm their leg muscles up slowly at the beginning of a route. (Related to point 2.) Yes I know you’re used to hiking faster than it says in the guidebook – whoopy doodah! Take a step back and think. What exactly are you trying to achieve here? We want our children to love the mountains, not resent them.
4. Stay below 3000m.
Particularly if this is their first alpine trip. We purposely kept our walks below an altitude of 3000m for quite a few years. In fact, the effects of altitude can kick in at lower levels, much lower than you would think! Click here to find out why. With such limited information on the effects of altitude on young children, we felt it prudent to play it safe. Again – what does it prove? For whose gratification is it to push them higher than they are ready or it is safe to go?
If they want to climb big mountains when they’re older, there’s plenty of time for that. There are many beautiful cols and alpine lakes to visit in the meantime.
5. Plan your routes wisely.
Remember, this is the Alps. Plan a shorter route than you would normally do, then knock another chunk off (little legs remember!) – or at the very least, have an option to turn back or do a shorter loop. Think about water needed en route. Can you refill bottles anywhere or do you have to carry it with you? In drier summers, don’t rely on streams to be there.
We are all optimists about where we think we’ll get to when we are planning our treks. Rein it in!! It’s one thing to feel a little tired and under pressure when you’re out with a group of mates, but it’s another thing altogether to have your family reliant on you for their safety and well-being. You should never feel under pressure. Keep it short and have them begging for more.
6. Bring a book.
A guidebook that is. For the route information, names of flora and fauna, geology, local history etc. Bring the mountains to life for both yourself and for them. Point out trees, flowers, butterflies etc. Have them choose a favourite to learn the name of and your route can become a treasure hunt. Show them forts from previous world wars and medieval times. Before you know it, you are where you want to go!
7. Take lots of little breaks.
Young children have limited attention spans and will obviously tire quicker too. You can combine tips 6 and 7 without older/fitter siblings even realising you’re taking a break. Pause along the route, whip out a guidebook and ask them if they can spot a certain item, or hear a marmotte.
8. Singing songs and stories.
Ah, the old distraction technique!! I’ve often been heard singing songs along the trails. Sometimes alone, more often with kids – sometimes on a long descent where the ground is a bit boring and you’ve already pointed out anything interesting, other times at the beginning of a trek to overcome the more immediate ‘my legs are tired’ calls. Silly songs like ‘She’ll be Coming ’round the Mountain’ and ‘Raitlin Bog’ – complete with made up verses – the sillier the better!!
On other occasions, we make up stories along the way. They tend to include snakes, rabbits, dogs and marmottes as the main characters and are almost always rambling and ridiculous! Each person involved makes up a sentence in turn.
9. Snacks & drinks.
My mother is a great fan of the ‘little and often’ concept and it works particularly well on summer alpine adventures. When you’ve whipped out your book and paused to check out some wildflowers or berries, take a seat, eat a square or two of chocolate and have some water.
Every time you stop, get into the habit of drinking something. Every time. Even if they aren’t thirsty. Lead by example. Hunger = tired = moans and groans from kids, and adults with short fuses. Keep everyone topped up and happy.
Many routes have wild strawberries and raspberries to sample along the way. I’ve even seen gooseberries! In early autumn, wild blueberries adorn the tracks.
10. Have more than one goal in mind.
You might be hoping to get to that high mountain lake, but take note of any other features along the way – a waterfall maybe, or a meadow for a picnic. Mark each spot as an achievement for a longer break. Take stock while you’re resting and assess whether to continue to the next goal or call it a day and turn back.
Include your older children in the decision making process. Tell them how far it is to the next goal, the likely effort in relation to the ground already covered (i.e. easier/similar/harder than you’ve done so far). Point it out to them on the map/guidebook. This is invaluable learning of judgement on their behalf. They will surprise you with their learning, their questions and their maturity. If they want to turn back, turn back. Don’t be tempted to cajole them into continuing, it’ll come back to bite you later!
11. Remember your own skill-set & operate within it.
For summer and winter walking, remember you can always hire an IML (International Mountain Leader) to take the stress out of the planning for you. Many tourist offices also have planned family walks which have the benefit of meeting other family groups.
You’ll see lots of mixed groups at climbing crags and you’ll also see family groups, particularly with older children, heading off to do via ferrata. Whilst it’s possible to hire the gear for all activities in most sport shops, they are going to assume that you know what you are doing. You are responsible for yourself and your family.
If rock climbing isn’t your thing, or if it is, but you’ve only done trad or wall climbing and are unsure how to go about getting your rope through the belay point at the top without untying – don’t be arrogant about it – hire a guide for a few hours. No-one will know!! I won’t tell. Honest! Let them either teach you how to do it safely so you can be independent from then on or just enjoy someone else taking the responsibility.
If you’ve never done a via ferrata before, trying it out with your kids is probably not the ideal first time for anyone. There are plenty which are designed with children in mind, but they weren’t all created equally!! Younger children need to be roped to a competent adult in addition to having their own safety lanyard. Again, this is something you can hire a guide from the local Bureau de Guides for.
12. Enjoy some downtime too!
It is a holiday after all. Active people often come home more exhausted than they left! Cramming everything possible into two weeks of annual leave. Don’t forget to chill out at the lake beaches, spend a day at the local Spa – yes, many mountain resorts do have them! Some have family areas too so that one adult can enjoy a treatment while the other plays with the children in the pool. They are more expensive than municipal pools however, so do bear that in mind.
Some of my favourite days have been spent surrounded by the mountains, watching the boys play on the sandy shores of an alpine lake. They won’t be small forever. Enjoy the mountains, but enjoy your children too.