Raising a Badass Kid

A mom’s job is to keep her kids safe and grounded while simultaneously letting them find their wings. It’s an interesting dilemma.

I truly do not know how my daughter got into climbing. Maybe it was TV or that climbing wall at the state fair, but it resonated with her. Almost as a result, when she moved to Golden, Colorado, for an internship when she was 20, she promptly called me to say, “I’m not coming home.” For her, I think Golden had the perfect combination of cliffs, mountains, and opportunities. In staying there, she is now the online store manager for the American Alpine Club. Personally, I had always hoped she’d become a guide, but there’s still time.

Every famous climber has a mom, but this is a story about how any mom can help her kid become fearless and, well, a badass.

Courtesy: Joy Hoffman
Courtesy: Joy Hoffman

Rule 1: Support what they love, even if you know nothing about it

I had never climbed, so she didn’t get it from me. In fact, I can’t really recall when my daughter first climbed anything more than shimmying herself up doorways. Stemming was not a part of her vocabulary yet, and how far could she have really fallen? The reality is, she wanted to learn to climb—really climb.

Now, support doesn’t always mean money, although that helps. I had always tried to make sure she had the chance to learn, practice, and do. And, I learned all I could about climbing, myself. In fact, I probably did more research and reading than she did on it, but I wanted to make sure she had all the opportunities she could want.

Rule 2: Get professional help. No, not the therapy kind

When she was 14, she didn’t know anyone from school who climbed, even though we lived in spitting distance of the Gunks. So, as a responsible mom, I signed her up for the beginning climbing course at Eastern Mountain Sports. After I signed all the waivers, off she went with Eric from EMS to finally climb for real. I remember waiting in the parking lot, worried that they were late coming back, but you have to have faith in the people leading the activity.

When they got back, she was ecstatic. It was all she had hoped for and more. After a few more lessons and some indoor climbing, I realized this wasn’t just a phase.

She also became interested in mountain climbing. She wanted to climb Mt. Washington in the winter, so, when she had just turned 16, we made a December trip up to North Conway for her to do EMS’s overnight at the Mt. Washington Observatory. There, she learned all about self-arrest, ice axes, and much more.

At first, they weren’t sure about her coming along, since she was only 16 and I wasn’t accompanying her, but they saw how much she wanted to do this and that she was in great shape. She was determined, and I was committed to making sure she had the opportunity. Conquering the highest mountain in the Northeast ended up being a great experience for her, and I knew she was in good hands. I also knew this was just the beginning.

Courtesy: Joy Hoffman
Courtesy: Joy Hoffman

Rule 3: Get involved. You might just find out you like it, too

Now came the challenge. How do I get her out there again? Unless you’re Alex Honnold, it’s a two-person adventure. To get involved, I arranged a private lesson with Peter at EMS about setting up top ropes, which she learned how to do while I figured out belaying. We then spent every opportunity we could at Mohonk Preserve to climb the world’s most famous one-pitch routes (because I was a better belayer than a climber). She could finally get out a lot more.

Rule 4: Nothing comes without some risk

The next terrifying step in her progression was ice climbing. A few months after Mt. Washington, she tried her hand at that, once again with EMS. When they got back that evening, she told me about how the person above her on the wall had the ice tool slip out of his hand and come down on hers. Luckily, it was the tool’s less-dangerous end and only caused a slight gash, but it was her first real climbing injury. Some moms might have said, “That’s it—you’re done,” but that might not have gone over well.

Courtesy: Joy Hoffman
Courtesy: Joy Hoffman

Rule 5: Be willing to let them go and have faith in their decision-making

This is probably the hardest rule. By the time she was 17, she was rock (top rope and multi-pitch), ice, and mountain climbing, but it wasn’t until college that she actually had friends who did this stuff with her. As a member of her school’s outdoor club, she led hikes and climbing day trips to the Gunks. Honestly, I kind of missed spending the time with her, but you have to let your kids grow, even if that means they grow away from you.

At some point, you have to have faith that they know what they’re doing. She was extremely responsible. Safety has always come first, and that’s one reason I made sure she had professional help along the way. I joke that when I’m with her at least I’m under adult supervision.

Ultimately, though, You have to trust them. Do I worry? Not much, actually. If anyone will make the right decision, I know she will. And she proves it every time she goes out.

Rule 6: Let them handle their own problems in life

This wasn’t actually a problem for me, since she was very good at taking control. I think that comes from climbing.

At 18, she wanted to climb Mt. Shuksan with a guide company outside of Seattle, so I got her a hotel room, all paid for, and a plane ticket. I remember that, when I was 18, I had no problem traveling by myself, so I knew she would be fine.

I called her about the time I thought she would be at the hotel, but she rather rudely told me she’d have to call back and that she was busy. An hour later, she calls. Apparently, I found out, you have to be 21 to rent a room in Seattle. The hotel was not going to let her register, since she wasn’t 21. Instead of crying to mommy, she told them she wanted to speak with the manager. She advised him that her mother had paid for the room already and that they had a choice: Let her have the room, or she was going to sleep in their lobby. They made a concession and let her have the room.

Courtesy: Joy Hoffman
Courtesy: Joy Hoffman

Rule 7: Find them challenges

When she was 19, I saw on Facebook that the American Climber Science Program, in conjunction with the American Alpine Club, was looking for climbers to spend up to 10 weeks of the summer in Peru as part of an expedition. It wasn’t cheap, but it looked like an unbelievable opportunity, with seven mountains they were going to climb to take snow samples, measure glaciers, and document foliage. Some of these mountains in the Cordillera Blanca are over 20,000 feet tall.

I was so excited when she said she wanted to do it. I also felt that, if a teenage girl is willing to go out for 10 days at a time without being able to take a shower or wash her hair, she must really love mountain climbing. She was either going to come home, saying, “I love it. When can I do it again?” or “I never want to go back.”

I believe part of being a mom is helping your kids not to be afraid of pushing their limits. At that point, she’d never been out for that long in those conditions or at a high altitude. The medical release was frightening. The battery of immunizations and medications, including for malaria, didn’t relieve any parental anxiety, either, but when would she ever get a chance like this again?

For the first time, she wasn’t in the protection of a guide service, and she was thousands of miles away in another country, most of the time completely out of contact with anyone. Those were very long days as a mom, but I knew no call was probably the best sign.

At 19, she was the team’s youngest member. I followed on Facebook and could track where she was and how she was doing. It was great to see her making friends, laughing, learning the cultures, and finding her place in the world of mountain climbing.

She came back, saying she loved it. On one climb, she got to lead the rope team and was second in the line the rest of the time. The leader of the expedition told me he couldn’t have done it without her. Now, maybe that was what he told all the moms, but I’ll take him at his word. I still look back on those photos in awe of what she accomplished.

She’s now 23 and on her own in Colorado, still climbing. She inspires me so much that I even climbed Mt. Washington myself. It was the summer…but still.