Paul Andersen: The young lad shoulders my load
The sastrugi was scoured into polished, corrugated ice, making it a bit tricky skittering across the 12,000-foot ridge on my old-school tele skis.
My son, Tait, waited patiently at the rocky knob marking the summit, sizing me up as I skied toward him. His studied appraisal revealed his need to judge the amount of liability I represented.
“This is commitment,” he said, gesturing toward an expanse of alpine wilderness at the headwaters of one of the most remote drainages we have ever skied. Our route led into a vast, rock-strewn basin above a narrow, tree-choked drainage. A high, scalloped ridge stretched above.
“I feel like I’m working you,” said Tait, “like I did on our bike tour in Europe. I don’t want to do that on this tour, so you’d better agree to give me some of your weight.”
When I began to object, he waved me off. “Dad, you’re 66 and I’m 24. It’s time you let me carry you.”
The bike tour last June, from Oslo to Amsterdam, had indeed worked me hard. Northern Europe was wet and cold, with daunting headwinds. At a backwoods camp in Germany we suffered a bad tick infestation, our bodies peppered with freckle-sized blood suckers whose target was our genitals.
Beaten down by the weather and by long days in the saddle, I developed a persistent fever from the tick bites that laid me low. We rode through it because we had to make our distance. I had to dig deep, and Tait knew it.
One day I will be unable to commit to a huge bike tour, or to a ski tour like the one we made last week, so on that high ridge, I acquiesced to the boy I once carried in a pack on my back. “OK, I’ll let you carry my weight.”
With that, we pushed off on a long contour toward a forest glade Tait knew. The sky was blue. There wasn’t a breath of wind. There was no sound. I followed Tait’s track as if he were my Sherpa. This was a first.
Our commitment was to a winter camp — without the comfort of a hut. We used a tent-like shelter and, with the heat of a small stove, were able to camp comfortably. Memories flooded back.
When I lived in Crested Butte in the ’70s and ’80s, winter camps were fashioned from snow caves. Skiing over Pearl Pass or East Maroon, we dug caves at treeline, crawled in, and slept on snow benches. Our cold, damp leather boots we jammed into our down bags to keep them from freezing.
Our gear became damp, but the hardship was worth the rare feeling of remoteness. It was the same now with Tait, skiing into a basin too far for a day tour from even the closest hut.
We made our camp and stayed relatively warm as night fell and the temperature dropped into the single digits. The night was lit by the glow of the silvery moon.
Tait and I revel in shared hardship amid beautiful spectacles of nature. Whether skiing, backpacking or bike touring, we watch out for each other. With age, our roles have gradually reversed. My care giving for him has switched to his care giving for me.
There comes a time when your child eclipses you in judgment and ability, which is both humbling and gratifying. For me there is no better place to greet that new relationship than in the wilderness, on skis, during winter, in a remote mountain basin.
The next morning, I gave Tait some of the weight from my pack, which he shouldered without effort. My pack was light, and so was my heart. Following Tait on the long climb back to the top of the ridge, I felt comfortable with this level of dependence because both of us remain fiercely independent in every other way.
Aging assigns reasonable physical limitations, but it can enhance relationships based on new shared needs that are mutually accepted. There is no one I would rather depend on as I creep reluctantly into old age than my loyal son Tait.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.