Families build the frame for a winter shelter at the Family Winter Mountaineering and Backcountry Weekend at YMCA of the Rockies near Estes Park. (Povided by YMCA of the Rockies)
ESTES PARK, CO -- Wind blasts off the Continental Divide and across the playground, making it almost too cold to play outside in the winter sun -- but not quite. My daughters are nearly oblivious to the crazy gusts as they scream and laugh and run. I sigh, hands in pockets as I watch the activity of the YMCA of the Rockies' first Family Winter Mountaineering and Backcountry Weekend go on around me.
Over there, a small crowd gathers around a man with a shovel in front of the snow shelter he has just hollowed out. Down the hill, a family ecology hike shuffles past the old museum building. In the Assembly Hall, above the cafeteria, is an exhibit from outdoor gear companies, with free beverages from local microbreweries Rock Cut and Lumpy Ridge.
Alas, here I am, watching three girls scuttle in various directions. Between nervous daddy glances to keep track of them all, I try to breathe deeply and appreciate the crazy, snow-coated peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, which surround us on three sides.
Then a pang of regret -- we were supposed to be even closer to those mountains! The whole idea was to strap the 2-year-old on my back and get her older sisters on their first set of cross-country skis. So what if my wife was working and I was on my own? I could do this! But as soon as they protested to piling on the gear and getting back in the car, I caved, chasing them out to the playground instead.
I browse the schedule for the rest of the weekend: outdoor winter survival 101, family snowshoe expeditions, backcountry ski meet-up, snow shelter construction, avalanche awareness. But no, all my kids want is to spin, climb and slide, and I let them.
They refuse to attend the fireside story time and the half-hour child yoga class, preferring to play with their dolls. Eventually, they agree to a hot cocoa mixer in the Sweet Memorial building, where a naturalist entices them to match animal skins with their skulls. I watch their little fingers run over bear, fox and coyote furs and their looks of wonder as they hold the bones.
That evening, reinforcements arrive (my mother-in-law!) to help with bedtime so I can attend the keynote talk. Estes Park-based climber Tommy Caldwell; his wife, Becca; and his father, Mike, are discussing the importance of raising children outdoors -- especially in the winter.
Families pack the room. Tired children run around, cry and drink water from Klean Kanteen sippy cups.
"You can't just hand your kids a bowl of happiness," explains the elder Caldwell, who raised his son outside during the 1980s, camping in the winter in a snow shelter (even changing a diaper!) when Tommy was only 2, and taking him climbing on Lumpy Ridge when he was 3. "So how do you do it? You teach resilience -- we get our kids cold, get 'em hungry, get 'em sunburned, skin their knees," he says.
Using the mountains to teach kids grit and resilience, says Tommy, continuing the talk, is the opposite of spoiling them. I think about my middle child's fall this afternoon -- she slipped on some ice while circumnavigating our cabin for the fifth time. I ran out to find tears and ripped tights, then she was off again, making a fairy ring of pine cones around a pile of elk scat.
The next morning, back on the playground, I have a different perspective on the weekend's organized activities that I'm "missing." My kids found their own adventures anyway. And, as the Caldwells said, there's nothing more important than just "getting outside and being together."
--Joshua Berman is a columnist for The Denver Post and author of six books, including Colorado Camping and Crocodile Love: Travel Tales from an Extended Honeymoon. His website is JoshuaBerman.net.
If you go: Look up the next theme weekend or family camp at www.ymcarockies.org or call 888-613-9622.