Words by D’Arcy McLeish. Photos by Robin O’Neill
“It will be my hardest guiding job ever.” I’m sitting in a cozy alpine lodge in Jackson, Wyoming with Nat Patridge, President and Lead Guide at Exum Guides. He’s talking about his two boys, now 4 and 8 years old and what he sees as his most difficult task as a father and guide. How do we teach our children to stay alive and be savvy to the dangers of the mountains? An IMFGA guide, Nat is a quiet, thoughtful mountain man and doesn’t go out of his way to advertise the fact he’s spent his life in the hard to reach places of the world; climbing, skiing and looking for the best in himself.
As parents, we discuss how teaching our kids anything can be difficult. But how do we go about teaching them to stay safe in the mountains? As a mountain professional, I have pondered this question a lot. As a guide, Nat sees the challenge even more clearly. “First and foremost, a guide is an educator.” says Nat. He believes a guide is there to teach people about the mountain environment and part of that education is learning to manage risk. “Risk is often misunderstood out there. Even something small like a sprained ankle can kill you if you’re not aware of the real hazards in the mountains.” So what message can we impart to our children about staying alive in the mountains, without them feeling like we’re shoving a bunch of contrived values down their throats?
There are days in the mountains when everything is perfect. Days when the hazard is low, the snow is all time, and everything lines up. You know the ones I mean. Those days where you can ski the steepest line and leave the consequences at home. But they’re rare. All of us live for those days, but “…it takes a lifetime to learn when those perfect moments arrive.”
“In the mountains we can express and seek the best form of ourselves”, says Nat. But he goes on to say those perfect moments still have a huge learning curve to them. Learning to recognize those days is a long and treacherous road. One he has travelled extensively. “I spent too much of my thirties injured from bad decisions I made and learning about risk the hard way. ” One of those decisions landed him in a coma for six days in Chamonix. He knows he is one of the lucky ones. His best friend, Hans Saari, died in the mountains while Nat was in that coma.
Being lucky enough to learn how to do things properly is not lost on either of us as we sit there sipping a warm beverage. The mountains are a beautiful and wondrous place. There is a connection in the wilderness you can’t find anywhere else. We’ve both seen glimpses of that wonder in our sons. “Wisdom is born from experience, but getting that experience can be dangerous.” Nat’s right. I have felt that danger. One of the most important things in learning to move through the mountain environment is humility; something so many of us lack until it’s too late. “Charging out there and hoping it goes right is unfortunately how so many of us learn and it’s not the way to go.”
I tended towards the do first and think later model and it almost got me killed a few times. So I learned humility the hard way and have, like Nat, had enough close calls to understand that we don’t know everything and the road to staying alive in the mountains happens over a lifetime.
“I want my sons to feel the freedom of the mountains, have enough leeway to figure stuff out themselves but still be aware of the risks.” That’s a tall order for any parent, but more so for someone who has spent their life teaching people to survive in the mountains. We don’t want to be overbearing parents, but we don’t want them to open themselves up to unnecessary risk, as we once did.
On any given day in the backcountry, we can find a deep connection to ourselves and those around us. Burly terrain and waist deep turns tend to forge bonds for life. It’s one of the reasons any backcountry enthusiast wants to be in the mountains. But there is risk associated with leaving the ski area boundary. One, more and more, that people don’t seem willing to understand or take steps to lessen.
There’s a huge explosion of folks heading into the backcountry these days and Nat’s on the sharp end of that. He’s out there, guiding and teaching, every day. But he worries the spontaneous nature of being in a remote setting dissuades people from learning how to do things properly. “Real skills are essential. If you think of a ski mountaineer, you need a vast array of skills. Part rock and ice climber, mountaineer, avalanche forecaster, good technical skier, rope rescue specialist and meteorologist.” Acquiring that skillset, if not done properly, with tutelage and mentorship, can expose us to massive risk. “For me, I want to mentor my sons, but as a parent, I understand how hard that can be.” He hopes he’s taking a balanced approach and letting them discover things while very gently nudging them in how they manage their own risk.
Nat has climbed, skied and guided all over the world and was instrumental in opening up the boundary to skiers around Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. His lifelong passion to education is born from wisdom. But he understands he’s had luck. “I survived, and many others have not. As a guide, my goal is to impart the right tools to people so they can safely discover the freedom and spontaneity the mountains can afford us all.”
A tall order, especially with your own children. They aren’t paying clients and any parent can attest to how difficult it is to impart wisdom and experience to a child that will often see the worst in their mom and dad. But the brighter part of that equation is attraction, rather than promotion. The mountains speak for themselves and will offer up a better sales pitch any parent can come up with. We both agree the times we’ve seen our children’s faces light up just by being somewhere wild is what has to be the focus. It’s what fires all of us to get outside. We need only to fan the flame and make sure they don’t burn themselves too much. As a father and a guide, Nat is doing just that.
Be safe, ski hard.
D’Arcy McLeish is a Squamish, BC-based writer, professional ski patroller, rope access technician, mountain rescue specialist, coffee addict and CBC listener. When not doing any of these things D’Arcy is reading, climbing or riding his bike.
Read more about Robin O’Neill.