My 16-year-old and I scaled the Alps – it was the ultimate bonding experience


When I became a mum, I didn’t want to lose my identity (Picture: Anita Hanchet)

On the border between Switzerland and Italy, 4,164m above sea level, standing on the summit of Breithorn, we looked out across the view.

‘You did it,’ I smiled at my 16-year-old son Ollie. ‘No, mum,’ he smiled back. ‘We did it!’

After three hours of scaling the peak against the odds, we’d achieved what we’d set out to do. Together. On our first real adventure.

When I became a mum, I didn’t want to lose my identity. Sport was a major part of my childhood, gymnastics especially, and I still wanted to have goals to focus on.

In 2009, when Ollie was four, I took part in my first expedition. I’d been watching a bunch of celebrities climbing Kilimanjaro in aid of Comic Relief on TV, and I made a passing comment to my husband that I would love to do the same. He bought me the trip for my Christmas present that year!

But I lacked self-confidence and I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go! I was just a mum from Tunbridge Wells. Who was going to be interested in me? What did I have to talk about, other than children? Could I really do this?

It was life changing.

Everything about the trip pushed me out of my comfort zone, physically, mentally and emotionally: from meeting new people to travelling alone, camping on the mountain and missing home.

Over the years I trekked the Sahara Desert, trekked to Everest Base Camp, summited Kala Patthar and snowshoed across the Arctic (Picture: Anita Hanchet)

I hadn’t focused on any of my own goals since becoming a mum but as the days passed, I could feel myself becoming more confident in my ability, more relaxed within myself and rediscovering my sense of purpose.

I loved it. I felt free. I felt fulfilled. I felt like me again.

After that, I felt compelled to keep pushing myself, to keep experiencing new things, new cultures, new adventures.

Over the years I trekked the Sahara Desert, trekked to Everest Base Camp, summited Kala Patthar and snowshoed across the Arctic. 

Ollie grew up watching my expeditions and saw how happy and fulfilled they made me – and not just the expeditions, but the months of training beforehand.

I was told on all my trips that I was irresponsible leaving my family to pursue my own interests, putting myself at risk when I was a parent.

But I was living life and I hoped I was inspiring Ollie to live his life too.

And Ollie was active. He loved travelling and family holidays became our adventures. Downhill mountain biking, walking, skiing, scuba diving and climbing – all these activities became our norm.

It was life changing (Picture: Anita Hanchet)

Ollie was developing a great sense of adventure and I knew one day we’d conquer some difficult feats together.

And when he turned 16 last year, he decided that he too wanted to summit a 4000m peak. He wanted to experience expedition life and I agreed instantly.

Ollie needed training, as it was his first challenge, and I found a guide willing to spend a week training us both in mountaineering skills in the French Alps.

We bought Ollie’s kit, and worked hard on our fitness: running, weight training and walking with loaded packs.

After he’d sat his GCSEs, we spent a week working as a team in France, looking out for each other, encouraging each other and having the best experience.

I was living life and I hoped I was inspiring Ollie to live his life too (Picture: Anita Hanchet)
Teamwork was vital (Picture: Anita Hanchet)

We undertook scrambling and rock climbing training and ropework, using crampons and a mountaineering ice axe, safe glacier travel and crevasse rescue techniques.

We both had our strengths and weaknesses during the week. Ollie is a competent rock climber, me not so much. It makes me nervous, but our skill sets complimented each other.

Last summer, the Alps had seen record temperatures, which had accelerated the melting of the glaciers. Many of the 4,000m peaks were closed to mountaineers: including Gran Paradiso, the peak we were hoping to climb.

But we were lucky enough to get the go ahead that Breithorn was climbable. Although hearing the glacial streams under our feet during our crossing certainly made us feel nervous

On the morning of the climb, we left our accommodation in France at 3am, took the two and a half hour drive to Switzerland and then a further two train journeys, before stepping out of the last cable car at 3,883m. It was 6:30am.

Oxygen levels were noticeably lower – we felt the shortness of breath while doing simple tasks such as putting on crampons.

But, adjusting to the altitude, we put on our crampons, made sure our harnesses were on, ice axes in hand, and we were safely roped together with our guide.

I’ve been on lots of trips before (Picture: Anita Hanchet)

Teamwork was vital and we each had a last reminder to manage our expectations during the climb.   

It was already getting warm when we started with a glacial traverse.

We had been in the French Alps all week learning new skills to prepare us for this mountain, but crevasse rescue was one of those skills we were hoping not to use! Crevasses are deep cracks in the glacier and rescuing someone requires a huge amount of physical effort over a prolonged period of time. Coupled with the lack of oxygen at altitude, it’s extremely challenging. 

We were nervous; nervous for ourselves and nervous for each other – but our guide was brilliant. We had to put our trust in him and work as a team. 

After safely crossing the glacier, we took a break, had some snacks and removed more layers. Altitude was affecting Ollie, giving him a headache, but thankfully he was OK to continue.

We shortened the rope between us, to safeguard us from slipping or falling too far on exposed terrain, and prepared to climb.

We followed a steep, narrow path that zigzagged its way up. We were slow as we had to deal with the high altitude. We rounded the bend onto an icy ridge that led us straight to the summit – concentrating hard as we didn’t want to fall off the ridge, tiredness setting in and breathless all the while from the altitude.  

Thanks to our shared sense of adventure, we have built a strong bond (Picture: Anita Hanchet)

The views from the ridge were spectacular – definitely our favourite part of the climb – we were surrounded by the Swiss and Italian Alps as far as you could see –but then, at 10:30am, we reached the summit. 

We were elated. It’s quite something to stand on the summit of a mountain, but to do it with your son who has dreamed of this moment for most of his childhood is euphoric, a really special moment for both of us and one we won’t forget.

We were the only ones there. To experience this special mother and son moment, above the clouds was truly exhilarating.

After soaking up the mighty views we made our way down the same way we had come. It was hot now and as we descended, others were making their way up. 

Of course, it was hard at times. There were moments when the tiredness was overwhelming, and I did question myself about bringing him along on such an adventure. Was he ready? Was he going to be OK?

But he loved it. Most importantly he learned a lot about himself through doing it. By testing his physical and mental resolve, he discovered what he was truly capable of. And I know neither of us would have changed it for the world.    

Thanks to our shared sense of adventure, we have built a strong bond.

If anyone wants to strengthen a solid, trusting bond with their children, it doesn’t require anything complex. Find a level of understanding that allows you to appreciate and respect each other. Participate in each other’s lives and if you can, find a common interest.

But most of all, have fun together! 

This year our adventure takes us to Greenland. Hiking the remote, vast landscapes and mountains and wild camping in one of the most pristine wilderness settings on the planet.

Needless to say, neither of us can wait.

You can find out more about Anita here

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