A couple of my friends recently introduced future rock stars into the world, so with them in mind, Mike and I asked our wives Janelle and Kate to help us draft a few tips on climbing with an infant. Everything written here is twice mother-approved (grandmother, not necessarily 🙂 ). This post assumes mother and father are climbing together with baby, and without a dedicated sitter. Obviously its optimal to have a third adult to help with baby, but we are realists, not optimists. In my experience, if you only climb when you have a third adult, you won’t climb very often. I know there are many other climbing parents reading this, some with far more experience than I have, so if you have any useful tips, please share them! For those of you who don’t have kids (yet?), perhaps this post will take some of the mystery away and reduce any potential apprehensions to climbing parenthood.
Kids are constantly evolving, so what works one season may be obsolete the next. As climber-parents, we need to be constantly adapting and thinking about ways to improve the crag experience for our kids. These tips are intended for kids who haven’t started crawling. For new parents, this will likely be the simplest time to take your child climbing for at least three or four years. At this age, babies mostly sleep, they’re immobile, highly adaptable, and the absurd amount of “stuff” you have to drag along to the crag is relatively small and light. As with many aspects of parenthood, it never really gets easier as your child grows, it just gets different.
The first question to consider is how early to start climbing outside with your new baby. Healthy babies are tremendously resilient. What’s more, they love being outside–they like to look at trees and rocks, listen to birds chirp, and watch the clouds float by. They don’t like being pent up inside for weeks on end any more than adults do. I just finished reading Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage”, a biography of Meriweather Lewis, and he notes that while the most accomplished woodsmen of their time gallantly struggled to traverse our vast continent, a teen-aged Sacagawea managed the trip, sans complaint, with a newborn baby boy in tow (and he turned out just fine). The real question is, how soon can mother start climbing outside?
Obviously that depends on a lot of factors. Make sure she can wear a harness safely and comfortably before committing to any roped climbing (in some cases, a full body harness can be helpful). Wait at least until mother’s doctor gives the thumbs-up at the six-week checkup. Even then, it’s probably a good idea for mother to stick to topropes for a few more weeks after that. Timelines will probably be significantly longer for Cesarian deliveries (if anyone out there has a data point, please share!).
Furthermore, despite our society’s advancements in gender equality, it seems that climbing with baby is still far more taxing and stressful for mothers than it is for fathers. If mother is psyched the experience will be much better for everyone. Usually after a month or two of sitting around the house, mother will be antsy to get outside and do something.
Once the family has agreed to take the plunge, the next pressing matter is crag selection. Mutli-pitch climbing is right out, so you can cross the Black Canyon off your list 🙂 Bouldering, Sport climbing, and single-pitch trad are all potential options, as long as you can lower-off the routes you plan to climb. The most critical factor is rock fall (for that reason, ice climbing is not recommended). Ideally you can find a crag with solid, monolithic stone and minimal loose rock. Furthermore, the steeper the crag the better. Assuming mom &/or dad will be lead climbing, the belayer will need to be near the cliff base (and baby should always be within arm’s reach of the belayer). Usually when rock falls from an overhanging route, it lands far away from where the cliff meets the ground. If you must climb at a vertical (or under) crag, find an overhang or alcove low to the ground where baby will be sheltered from rock fall.
Next, consider the popularity of your destination. As many an internet forum has concluded, nobody wants to climb near a screaming baby, but that’s not the best reason to avoid crowded cliffs. Once again, rock fall is the most critical factor. Greater crowds increases the risk of rock (or other random objects) flying through the air toward your precious bundle of joy. If all nearby crags are always crowded, consider visiting the crag on a weekday. Dogs are another consideration. It’s hard to predict how somebody else’s dog may react to your child, so best to remove any doubt and seek isolation. Most parents prefer solitude anyway, because when baby inevitably starts crying, as all babies do whether they are at the crag or at home, there is nobody outside the climbing party to offend.
Follow your pediatricians’ recommendations, but generally newborns should not be exposed to direct sunlight, especially in high-altitude environments where many crags are located. Ideally your destination will have enough shade to keep baby out of the sun at all times, but if not, bring a white sheet (large burp cloths work well) to drape over baby’s chair to create shade. Have infant sunscreen on-hand in case you’re unable to avoid sun exposure, but generally you shouldn’t plan on using it.
Driving time is also worth considering. Logan would not tolerate more than 2 hours in the car until he was about 1-year old. Your mileage may vary. If every drive to the crag culminates in an hour of nonstop screaming, you can bet you won’t be climbing as often as you’d like. Best to select crags within a reasonable range of home, and reduce the stress for everyone. Feeding baby just before departure will allow you maximum range. Finally, a few choice crags offer stroller-access. These crags are ideal because baby doesn’t need to be awakened for the approach, or during transitions from crag to crag.
Once you’re at the crag, here are a few items we’ve found useful:
-Baby Bjorn (or similar). Assuming no stroller access, you will need to carry baby from the car to the cliff, and front-carriers like these work great, while allowing you to carry a pack on your back. Furthermore, if its cold you can usually zip baby up inside your jacket for added warmth.
-Baby Bunting Bag (or similar). A “bunting” is essentially an insulated sleeping bag for your baby. Most have a hood, with a zippered sack for the feet. This is the key item for climbing in colder climates. Even in warmer temps, this will keep baby warm and cozy, which are two key ingredients for sound sleep. These come in many shapes, sizes and prices. Be sure to get one that breaks the wind. Some have sleeves and others don’t; we’ve always used an over-sized bag with sleeves, which the kids can grow into. We’ve had both our infants snug and happy in below-freezing temps in these bags. That said, we generally avoid climbing with the kids in temps below 50 degF. If you must, bring blankets and an extra down jacket to layer over baby.
-Baby container. You will likely want some device to hold baby while you’re climbing. At steep crags with soft, flat bases, a simple blanket can work, but at rocky areas where soft sleep surfaces are hard to find, a low profile, reclined “bouncer seat” is really nice. We’ve used one like this for both our children. This model is very light, easy to strap on the outside of my pack, and includes some bonus features like a music box, vibrator, and dangling toys for the kids to stare at. Although rarely necessary, it’s also easy to disassemble for packing. Baby can be strapped securely into the chair, and then the chair can be moved around the crag with ease. Furthermore, having baby in a slightly more upright position makes it easier to see baby’s face and allows for regular eye contact while belaying (which will help keep baby happy). This chair is amazingly stable and durable.
-Backup Binky. Mommy has two pacifiers permanently attached to her chest, so this responsibility will often fall to dad. Just bring 3 or 4 pacifiers everywhere you go. The crag is no exception. You won’t regret it. Another nice accessory is a pacifier lanyard which will help keep the binky out of the hanta-virus-infested dirt and rat feces at the base of many sport crags.
-Diaper Bag contents. By the time you hit the cliff for the first time you should be an expert at changing diapers. Doing it outside is nothing special. It’s a good idea to bring a plastic bag to pack out dirty diapers. Enough said.
-Sun shade, sun hat for baby, and backup sunscreen.
-Play Tent This is optional, but helps protect baby from sun, bugs, and free-range dogs. It also pens them in when their mobility becomes a danger to themselves.
Once baby is situated, climbing can proceed pretty much as normal, but build in some extra time for feeding, burping, and changing the baby. If you’re accustomed to precisely timed 45-minute rest increments you can just toss that right out the window 🙂 Theoretically it’s possible to get a full climbing day in, but realistically everyone involved will tire much earlier than usual. If you manage to tie in four times, at any interval, you’ve had a good day. I’m usually able to get 2-3 warmup pitches and 2 longer burns on my project. We’ve managed to pull off more on some occasions, and on others we’ve felt lucky to accomplish less. If you’re able to climb twice your first time out, you’ve done well.
Each climber should be prepared to go “straight in” whenever its necessary for the belayer to attend to baby (for this reason, Sport Climbing is a bit easier than single-pitch trad). Be prepared to sing songs or play peek-a-boo during belay duty. I find I prefer to work projects at this stage of parenthood (as opposed to onsighting), because when projecting I’m basically on toprope most of the time, and I can quickly go straight in, so the belayer can focus more attention on ensuring baby is safe and happy. Also, projecting allows us to spend most of the day in the same spot, with minimal shuttling of gear, etc from route to route. Once you’re ready to send, ask a third adult to come along to help out, or visit the crag while baby is with a sitter.
Finally, the most productive thing you can accomplish as a climbing parent is to create a safe and fun crag experience for everyone involved. Obviously, safety is paramount. Furthermore, if its no fun (for mother, father, or baby), it won’t last. Consider your first few trips “reconnaissance missions”, where the goal is simply to figure out your system, rather than to send lots of routes. Develop a system that is safe, enjoyable, and therefore sustainable. That approach will provide your family with the most opportunities to climb outside together in the long run.