Welcome to my second instalment about pushing the limits of adventure, this time instigated by reading Solo by Vicky McAuley. A word of warning: This story is extremely distressing due to the death of the great climber and kayaker, Andrew McAuley.
The story is told by Andrew’s wife, Vicky, and Andrew himself. Upon completing a solo kayak traverse of the the Tasman sea between Australia and New Zealand, Andrew planned to write a book. In advance of his voyage, he wrote some passages for the book, including the touching ending where he was reunited with his wife and young son on the shores of New Zealand after a month alone in a kayak at sea. Like the climber Alex Honnold and most other people who have stretched the boundaries of what is possible, Andrew was fastidious in his research and preparation, almost obsessive about his mission. He talked to knowledgeable people, read volumes, and became a minor expert in everything he’d need to know to be successful in his challenge. Andrew wrote about how vital it was to make it back safely and be reunited with his family. He regularly promised himself that this would be the last of his most extreme adventures, bargaining for his safe return. He demonstrated rational and cautious decision-making and even turned back after his first attempt when he encountered a problem. He wasn’t crazy – he was unshakeably and thoroughly driven, as responsible as he could be given this undertaking.
In the book, Andrew admits that others might reasonably consider him selfish and Vicky spends a lot of time attempting to explain, even defend, Andrew’s seemingly irresponsible action to take a trip that ultimately cost him his life. This adventure story has a very sad ending, which raises questions about the worthiness of the goal. However, context is everything. Would we feel differently had Andrew’s voyage had been a success? Or would we think him cowardly if he'd turned his back on his dream and stuck to the 9 to 5 job?
Andrew needed this kind of challenge as a fuel for life. Adventurers of this calibre are the kind of people that, in the past, would have journeyed across the seas to discover new lands, also taking great risks with the arguably positive side effect of uniting humankind. In the future, it'll be a similar spirit who will volunteer to be the first to travel to Mars. Maybe it's in your genes, maybe it's your calling. But how do you reconcile extreme dreams and ordinary duties?
As a parent-adventurer, I can relate to this conundrum. Though my pursuits are on the tame side, I thrive on a good adventure and I understand the persistent need to challenge yourself. It is a difficult balance to meet your own needs and to be a responsible parent. Being true to myself means taking on challenges, stretching my comfort zone, and answering the call, whatever that might be. Being a responsible parent means being there for my children, often putting their needs ahead of mine.
As a mother, the most frequent advice I'm given is to take care of myself. Most people even suggest that I should take care of myself first. Happy wife, happy life. Happy mother, happy others. This parenting advice doesn't cleanly apply to Mama-adventurers, though. What if getting a pedicure and a 90-minute massage doesn't fill your cup? What if you need to scale a new mountain, be out in the bush alone for a few days, or dive to new depths to feel centred? What if you need a regular dose of risk-taking to be the best parent you can be?
When I was pregnant for the first time, I was completely unaware, or perhaps in denial, about the magnitude of the changes the new baby would bring. For those 9 months, Jack and I continued to do everything we would normally do; multi-day tramping, climbing, and biking. After our baby was born, my instincts told me to cut back on the wild stuff, both to avoid dangerous situations and to be away for shorter periods of time. Gradually, Jack and I recalibrated our risk tolerance, most of it filed under, It's just not worth it now. It was a hard transition and an ongoing process to revise our definition of fulfilling adventure.
Each day, I consider my own need for adventure and the needs of my family. For me, this adjustment has led to girls' weekends away, mama's-only walks squeezed in between drop off and pick up, and adventure races. For Jack, this has meant long solo runs and bike rides, in place of the ones we used to do together. As my kids grow older, their needs change and opportunities for family adventures have opened up. In reframing my sense of adventure as a parent, I hope that my choices help my children to embrace their authentic selves, follow their path, and figure out their own balance.
If you're an adventurer or parent-adventurer, Solo is highly recommended reading. The heart-breaking story will inspire some serious soul searching questions about your own limits and the positive and negatives impact of your actions.