Dear Mr. and Mrs. Cruz,
I am writing this letter hoping to convince you to allow your son to climb mountains.
I know where you are coming from. I have my parents too, and I remember, several years ago in the wilderness of Palawan, climbing a tall tree just to have one bar of cellphone signal, just to send that text message to tell my mom that I'm okay. We mountaineers worry about you, as much as you worry about us. Oftentimes, it is the thought of you worrying that worry us, which is why I hope you will not worry. In other words, I don't want you to simply allow your son to climb mountains. I want you to believe in the outdoors as a positive experience for him - one that will not cause you sleepless nights.
The element of danger will always be there, and I cannot explain it away by saying that it does not exist. But do not be swayed by the reports of accidents in the mountains. Death and injury are things that can happen anywhere - in the streets of Manila, in a basketball court, in the highways and superhighways, and even at home. As a medical doctor, I can personally attest to this. Balance whatever news you get with the fact that every year, thousands of people go up and down the mountains safely, finding joy and fulfillment in the process. Every day, car accidents happen; every year, plane crashes happen. This does not mean we will abandon these forms of transportation.
I am reminded of a saying I heard in India: "The greatest risk in life is not taking any risks at all." Risks will always be there. Moreover, it can be minimized with adequate preparation - both mental and physical - and this is something that your son will have when he climbs with experienced mountaineers or the hiking club he wants to join. It is a healthy concern of yours - one that I share - to make sure that he does not just go mountain climbing without proper guidance.
Life, they say, is a weighing of risks and benefits and I want to highlight the benefits of climbing mountains.
The pursuit of the outdoors is not an out-of-this world experience that is entirely unrelated to the everyday. You would probably not appreciate the fact that he will learn all sorts of knots - though that, too, can come in handy in times of emergency. You may also probably not appreciate his newfound awareness of north, south, east, and west - though that too may be useful when you're on a family roadtrip and for some reason, you've lost your bearings on the way to Baguio. But I'm sure you will be surprised - and delighted - to know that your son will also learn how to cook, and that doesn't mean just frying some hotdogs in a pan, but preparing rice and real meals, and not in a kitchen - but in the most basic of stoves, amid the rain, darkness, and wind. There is no such thing as a sheltered existence in the mountains, for comfort is the enemy of adventure. He will learn to pitch his tent in the campsite and take care of his belongings. There will be consequences when he forgets to bring his headlamp, or his jacket. Implicit in all of these is the acquisition of a sense of responsibility.
Did you ever call your son 'burara' when you see his bedroom? There in the outdoors, there is no choice but to fold the tent neatly or else it wouldn't fit. There is no other way to fit in so many things inside a backpack but to do it in an orderly way, with clothes, food, and gear stowed into discrete packets so they won't get wet and so they are easy to access. And we mountaineers are very strict when it comes to cleaning up our mess, and we are sworn never to leave trash behind when we climb mountains. If growing up is learning to care for others, then mountaineering can help, because before you can care for others, you have to know how to care for yourself, and this is what the outdoors forces us to learn.
Remember those field trips that schools make you pay for - to pencil factories, museums, and other places of interesrt? Think of mountain climbing as a field trip, but this time, instead of going to a zoo or a botanical garden, there is the opportunity of seeing a real forest, with animals living in their true habitat. Instead of a candy factory or a pencil factory, your son will have the opportunity to see the realities of the country more than any social studies textbook can: the illegal logging that sadly goes on in the forests, the plight - and the beautiful cultures - of the indigenous peoples - the state of our transportation system, and many more.
Why am I mentioning all of these things? Because, if you value his education and if you view education as something that necessarily goes beyond the confines of the classroom, you will appreciate that fact that your son will learn skills and attitudes that will make him a better man. If you read Conrado de Quiros or Randy David and care about our country, I would also make the point that hiking will make him a better Filipino - for I believe seeing the country and meeting the people that comprise it are key ingredients in making him care about Inang Bayan. You cannot love what you do not appreciate, and you cannot appreciate what you have not seen, or heard, or felt.
I do not want your son to be addicted to the mountains at the expense of his schooling, or his work. But I want him to be passionate about life, a passion for the peaks that can find its way in all else that you do. The mountains out there are metaphors for the larger adventure of life.
Parents often rant about their children being to hooked to computers, the Internet, Facebook, and cellphones - essentially a daily dependence in technology, that creates the unfortunate situation where we can be physically together but disconnected, lost in our separate, virtual worlds. But in the outdoors, people walk together and do the things that people have been doing since time immemorial: talking around the warmth of a tiny stove, huddling beneath a tarpaulin amid the incessant rain, and awaiting and watching the sunrise - essentially, experiencing nature in an unadulterated way. Isn't that what life is all about? If you ever felt the need to say "Noong araw..." to your children, letting them go hiking is a chance for them to experience many of things you experienced when you were younger: sleeping in a nipa hut (which usually happens at the end or the beginning of a hike), swimming in a river - or a underneath a waterfall - and experiencing life without electricity, plus many more. Like I reflected recently:
"Masarap pala ang tubig kahit hindi malamig. Ang sarap palang pagpawisan, o mabasa ng tubig-ulan. Ang sarap kumain ng tinapay kahit walang palaman, at matulog ng pagod kahit walang unan...The pursuit of the outdoors makes us appreciate the things we take for granted in everyday life." In the appreciation of these simple things, we learn humility and contentment.
Given a choice between your son spending the whole weekend in front of his computer - or partying in a friend's house - and immersing himself in nature - traveling to places you've never heard of, learning about his country and the world, what choice will you have for him? Before rejecting the outdoors, think of the alternatives.
I can go on and on, because hiking has personally taught me a lot of things: about the world, about my country, about others, and about myself. And I guess at this point I have to thank my parents a lot for allowing me to enrich my life through the mountains. There will be many more rewards of allowing your son to climb mountains - but they are best experienced, and seen - rather than told.
Just as a person standing atop a human pyramid cannot claim victory on his own, a hiker cannot reach the mountaintop without people supporting him. Mental strength is what makes people reach the summit, and that strength comes from the moral support from the people that important to him. Again, I do not want you to allow him to climb mountains but with a reluctance than will make him feel guilty whenever he is away. Do not deprive him of the moral support that brings strength more than a granola bar or a Gatorade bottle can ever give. And when he is far beyond the reach of any cellphone signal - do not be too hard on him. Let the mountains be his home, if only for a while. Wherever we go, we will remain, to use the lyrics of that hopeful song, 'underneath the same big sky'; God will watch over us and ultimately be our guide. As Wordsworth once said:
Nature never did betray /
The heart that loved her.
And so, buy him that backpack! Give him the tent he's been asking for, and don't deprive him of that extra allowance he needs for the mountain he's been looking forward to all semester. Make him deserve it, of course - discipline and hardwork are at the heart of mountaineering. There are no shortcuts - or elevators - to reach the peak, and so it is with life. But importantly, allow him to climb mountains, and support him wholeheartedly.
When he reaches the top, he will bring a part of you there also, for there is no greater joy for a child than to make his parents proud. You who taught him how to walk will have the pleasure of seeing him walk around the world, above the clouds... and back home.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
October 10, 2013