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How To Build Family Bonds In The Backcountry

Author: Matt Mosteller

May 06, 2014

Statistics show today’s youth are maxed out on television and gadget time, and we sometimes feel hard pressed to find ways to get total focus and engagement with our kids, and offer them new experiences. But sometimes the unexpected or tough subjects drive the most connectedness and build bonds in a family.

In our house, getting into the outdoors is one way we all stay connected to each other and nature. But I was surprised recently when I joined my 12-year-old son in signing up for an avalanche skills training course from the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre.

We head out into the mountains a lot, and are always seeking new experiences, but the real-life danger that avalanches present seemed to hit my son with a powerful wave of instinctual need to protect and lead his flock to safety. It also seemed to push an internal button to bond with those he cares about and, to my delight, cut the cord that ties him permanently to his Xbox, at least for a little while.

The first day was a classroom session. My son felt right at home, but considering it has been 30 years since I last rode the pine in the classroom, my eyes were reeling from the ravages of time as I strained to read what the mountain guide was putting up on the screen. Revelations about my son were happening quickly. I realized we both gravitate toward the nosebleed section of the class, feeling some shared comfort with our backs against the wall.

Defying my son’s strict orders not to raise my hand or say anything in class, I punched forward — I wanted to show that participating was good, that worrying about being right or wrong isn’t as important as being engaged. Our lives could depend on what we learn and I wanted him to see that you need to ask questions to get the most out of life while reducing risk as much as possible. He realized I was relentless about this point, and quit asking me to stop in favour of making fun of me when I said something dorky.

A serious look came over my son’s face as a real-life avalanche burial, captured on a victim’s Go Pro camera, aired on the big classroom screen. At one point, all you could hear was the victim, buried by snow, barely breathing, heart pounding loudly. This life-and-death situation gripped us both, hitting him was the seriousness and vital importance of paying close attention and learning all we could, so we would never end up in this situation.

Usually it is a bit of challenge in the best of times to get my son out of bed. He does normal 12-year-old stuff, like eating a cocktail of processed foods and candy late into the night, pushing his brain to the max with a head-spinning video game, falling asleep in exhaustion with cords dangling from his ears. But this was different. As we headed outside for some real-life training, even with the thermometer pushing to the freakish cold limits of -33 C, my son was up, dressed in full winter garb, and excited to go. Taking this very seriously, on his own accord, he was going to make sure were not going to be stars of a tragic video.

Suddenly, this back-of-the-class sitter was rising to the pole position, taking charge as a leader who wanted to learn everything possible. With five layers on to keep us warm, we moved like penguins, striding slowly, high in the Canadian Rockies, in deep snow, to our first practice session of the day.

Our mountain guide, young but full of experience beyond his years, connected directly with my son’s acute interest. Expecting us to be in the back of the pack, hiding behind the other overdressed Michelin men mascots, I couldn’t see my son, until I realized he was a beacon way up front, standing right next to the guide looking up, hanging on every word, like he was listening to the Dalai Lama.

My son rose up that day, shunning his usual style of being reserved around people he did not know. Now, he was fully engaged, sharing ideas with me, and even volunteering to take the leadership role in our group and yelling out search-and-rescue commands to 10 others with militarylike precision. Extreme cold, new people, long days — all these things could have been barriers, but the seriousness of the subject and the importance of knowing how to travel safely in the mountains on our father-and-son trips drove him to get engaged. Not only on the subject, but with me, as well.


Tips For A Deeper Bond With Your Kids

Matt Mosteller

Matt Mosteller is a writer, author, adventurer, traveler, outdoor guide, catalyst for positive change, health crusader and sport coach. Check out Matt’s book, Adventurer’s Guide to Living a Happy Life, at or his ski blog,