Flow, Five-Year Old Mountaineers and Other Tales from the Edge
When Trish Herr became pregnant with her first daughter, Alex, she and her husband, Hugh, vowed to instill a bond with nature in their children. By the time Alex was five, her over-the-top energy levels led Trish to believe that her very young daughter might be capable of hiking adult-sized mountains.
Over the course of fifteen months, Alex and Trish embarked on a peakbagging spree, climbing all of New Hampshire’s 48 mountains whose summits rise higher than 4,000 feet. Their story is recounted in Herr’s recently released Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure.
Trish was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email:
Was there any moment during Alex’s quest when you felt, as a mother, that this was too dangerous an endeavor for a very young child?
Though there were moments of danger, the thought of giving up never occurred to me. Sometimes it was necessary to turn around and go home, but we never thought any particular peak was unattainable. Perhaps it wasn’t attainable on that particular day, but it would certainly be attainable later. Such was my thinking, such is the girls’ thinking. When you meet an obstacle, you might have to back down…but not permanently. There will eventually be a way.
What would you say to the skeptics who feel the girls are too young?
Never dismiss someone’s abilities based on age. To do so is to engage in an act of prejudice. If a child says she wants to do something and is showing that she can physically handle it, then there’s no reason to hold her back. Spot and support her; don’t stand in her way.
It’s interesting that one of the first lessons Alex learned on the trail was about how much perspective shapes reality—a fairly heavy lesson for a five year old—how has this impacted her in the years since?
During our first couple years of hiking, when Alex was five and six, she was almost constantly greeted with surprise from adults on the trails. She listened as hikers asked me questions about her ability and she watched as (thankfully few) people expressed negative assumptions. Alex quickly learned to ignore those adults who could not see beyond their own limited experiences and expectations. In short, she learned that attitude has a lot to do with accomplishment. People who think things can be done generally find a way to do them. People who think things can’t be done not only fail at the task at hand, but bristle when someone else manages to do it. Alex now understands, firsthand, that the first step to accomplishment is believing that you’ll succeed.
You talk about “hiker’s high” in Up. Do you think this is the same as a flow state?
Based on my layperson’s interpretation of the literature, it certainly seems that ”hiker’s high” could be a flow state.
There is a myth (of sorts) that both animals and children live in a perpetual now—essentially a low-grade flow state—but the fact that Alex occasionally got a hiker’s high seems to disprove this notion?
Not necessarily. Hypothetically, one could live in a “perpetual now” but still have one’s senses and emotions heightened after a lengthy period of exercise.
Since completing the 48, what’s next on Alex’s climbing agenda?
Alex recently finished hiking another round of the NH48, this time during calendar winters. Next on the agenda are two long-term goals: highpointing and the “50 in 50.” Highpointing is standing on the highest point of every state; as of right now, we’ve done 39 out of 50. The “50 in 50″ is hiking and/or biking 50 miles in each of the 50 states.
In light of your experience, how much does society hamstring our children’s development by trying to keep them safe at all costs? What are the downstream impacts of this attitude?
It’s a mistake to try to keep children “safe at all costs.” A child can’t learn how well she can balance, climb, jump, or run unless she’s given the freedom and opportunity to explore such movements on her own. I’m not a child development expert, but I’m of the opinion that bubble wrapping a kid leads to a significant delay in that kid’s maturation and independence. If you’re constantly hovering, then you’re constantly giving your child the message that you have no faith in her abilities.
What lessons do you feel your daughters have learned from their time hiking?
Many, so many! Here’s a small handful: We live in a beautiful world; nature is worth preserving. Respect and admire wildlife. Different altitudes have different ecological niches. With hard work and sweat, one can achieve any goal. They (the girls) are strong, tough, and capable individuals. Ignore people who underestimate you. Listen to your instincts
Would you be disappointed if Alex or Sage told you she no longer wanted to hike?
Though I’d be disappointed to lose her/their very good company on the trails, I’d do my best not to let that show. It’s important they pursue their passions. If their passion becomes skiing, bike riding, swimming, etc., then so be it. It’s my job to support them in whatever it is they want to do, as long as what they want to do is healthy.