My daughter, Freya is just about to turn eight and my son, Jackson is four. When I scan my mind for stand out memories from their childhoods so far many are from the outdoor adventures, both big and small that we have shared together as a family.
Now that may in part be that as an adventure professional I view much of life through that prism or that we all often recall memories of holidays and trips, but I believe it is also because family adventures are powerful, formative and unforgettable experiences that everybody should try to share.
My wife, Jess has always been as passionate about outdoor adventure as me so when the kids entered the equation it was inevitable that they would be joining us.
Our first ‘family expedition’ was an ascent of the seven lakes route to the summit of Triglav, the highest peak in the Slovenia, when Freya was 5 and Jackson was 2. Freya walked and climbed the whole way up and down on her own tiny legs, Jess carried Jackson and I carried everything else. This is 40 km alpine tour with 2200m of ascent and descent.
(Please note – this is not recommended as a family trip and suitable only for very experienced alpine families.)
The Julian Alpes are simply magnificent, with much accessible wilderness and pristine nature and many less committing adventures. The famous town of Bled is the main entry point with the crystal clear waters of Lake Bohinj just down the road, not to be missed. After a warm up ascent of a peak called Debla Pec that the kids enjoyed even with a savage thunder storm on the summit we decided to go for Triglav. We stayed in mountain huts that provide evening meals, beds including blankets and from where you can collect day food and water.
The first two days are only hiking but involve a lot of ascent through spectacular terrain. Day three is what Slovenians call ‘a difficult path’ but what the rest us call a via ferrata. I always keep Freya on a short rope on via Ferrata’s that means she only has to do one clip, as opposed to two by herself and means I always have her backed up and should we need to I can haul her up or we can rappel to retreat.
As usual we found she enjoyed the steep difficult terrain more than the hiking. Climbing Triglav is a Slovenian right of passage and a large proportion of the 2 million population have done it at least once. There is usually somebody on the summit who has carried up a slab of beers and fizzy drinks to sell which is a nice treat. The descent from the summit pyramid is also a via ferrata before another night in a hut followed a very long hike through beautiful wilderness back to the van.
Our most memorable and ambitious family expedition so far was the North Ridge of the Piz Badile in Bregaglia, Switzerland last summer when Freya was 7 and Jackson 3. Widely regarded as the best long route of it’s standard anywhere in the world, it is a 1000m tall, sharp granite ridge – certainly not a scramble but a fairly modest rock climb leading to a pointy 3308m summit. A committing and serious climb it is not your average family outing, but free of snow and ice and being such a sharp ridge it is largely unthreatened by rock fall, the main hazard of Alpine rock routes.
We had done a bunch more via ferratas, scrambles, rock climbs and wild camping trips in the two years since Triglav and were confident that if we had a stable weather forecast (the other main hazard) we could try what it with an acceptable margin of safety.
We have developed a technique for multi-pitch climbing as a family group that we find to be far more enjoyable and efficient than the traditional method. It is derived from advanced tactics usually employed for more extreme ascents that I learned in Yosemite. It’s catching on more widely in the States and is now know as ‘fix and follow’. It basically involves the leader fixing a rope on a pitch and the rest of the party ascending the fixed line attached by a two micro-traxion ascension devices, as opposed to being belayed up, tied to the end of the rope.
The main advantage of this technique for family ascents is that it enables the lead climber, usually the most experienced and in our case, me, to climb right along side the rest of party enabling them to point out the ‘hidden fairy stair case’ i.e. the hand and foot holds as well as drastically reducing the sense of fear by being right there with a calm and playful word of encouragement.
Our Piz Badile adventure started way down in the valley of Bregaglia. Since the old approach path was taken out by a major rock fall in 2017 a far more demanding, gruelling five-hour steep slog leads to the spectacular and welcoming Saas Fuca Hut which feels more like a friendly Swiss family chalet that a mountain refuge. Most parties will start very early, climb the north ridge and descend the suit side in one day but we opted to slow the pace and spend an easy day hiking through the alpine meadows and playing in the snow patches beneath the imposing citadel before a night in dramatic campsite on an exposed spur below the mighty ridge. We started early utilising the fix and follow technique. I led with a heavy bag before descending to climb just in front of Freya with Jackson in his trusty carrier on Jess’s back bring up the rear. Another party started just before us and were shocked not only to see a young family right behind them but that we kept pace with them for the first two thirds of the massive climb.
Freya has endurance beyond her years and assisted by her beloved Harry Potter audiobook she climbed the whole route under her own steam. Jackson is always happy on his mums back and his beaming smile brightened our epic day. He escaped the carrier for a couple of pitches near the top where the angle eases and we made it to the summit bivi hut just as the sun started to set.
Luckily we had the compact six-person shelter to ourselves, which the kids thought to be the best den ever.
The next morning was my 40th birthday. We watched a glorious alpine sunrise, a pair of golden eagles swooped close by our perch then we scrambled down the south ridge with six rappels, Freya hung between my legs and Jackson on Jess’s back. We had planned to spend a night at the large hut on the Italian side but arrived at lunch time so enjoyed a delicious Italian meal and then both children skipped down the beautiful Val massing valley where Jess and I had celebrated our honeymoon 14 years earlier. Eventually arriving way down in the valley in Italy and catching a taxi all the way back around to our van in Switzerland.
This was by far our most memorable and epic family adventure so far. The kids loved it, as did we. Our adventure plans for this summer involve a two week spell in a remote wilderness accompanied by two pack Lamas to give the family a taste of real expedition life.
Adventures of any scale are not easy with kids, just getting them out of the house to the local park can be a challenge! But I have always felt that demanding experiences are the most powerful and rewarding, that has been the driving motivation behind all my major expeditions and as long as the kids remain enthusiastic we hope to enjoy many more family expeditions.
As parents it is a joy to share some of the wonderful places and skills I’ve learned with two such enthusiastic kids and perhaps, one day they will be leading me on unorthodox geriatric adventures!