Struggling to balance parenthood and projects? Pete Edwards shares his top tips on bouldering with babies...
The thing with having a baby is that it gives you several months to mentally prepare yourself for what is about to come. Of course, there's nothing anyone can say that can actually prepare you for it, but it does give you a chance to think and try and figure out how you want things to work out for you.
For us, and me in particular, when we were expecting our first, we didn't want the new arrival to derail our existing lives completely. Yes - having a baby is possibly the biggest life-altering event that can happen to you but that doesn't mean you have to give up on who you are and suddenly become someone different. Or at least, that's what I was hoping!
As a dedicated boulderer (no string climbing for me anymore!) it seemed possible at least to try and maintain some of my old life, with my little one alongside for the ride. #babyatthecrag perhaps? That was the plan from very early on and was still the plan once she was six months old as I prepared for three months of shared parental leave.
When Rosie was about eighteen months old, we had our second: Hannah. Hannah is now at that six month stage and between the four of us, we've had loads of adventures; from local days out with Rosie and me at the RAC boulders or the Braichmelyn, right the way up to our recent trip to the Bowderstone with the whole tribe in tow. We've had a family trip to Fontainebleau, taken a very young Rosie to Glendalough and enjoyed many trips to the local wall. In the last two years, I have actually succeeded in continuing to be an active climber while also being an active parent.
With a recent surge in climbers I know having children, I'm keen to impart some of that hard-earned knowledge. So here are some nuggets of advice to help you try and balance parenthood and climbing.
Rosie, my first, was mostly bottle fed. Hannah, meanwhile, was exclusively breast fed, meaning there was a totally different situation to deal with. Every child is different, as any parent will attest, so it is important to remain flexible in any approach you take.
There is a window after your child arrives and before they've started crawling and this is your best chance to get out. Once they start moving, they move fast and your tactics change very quickly. Before they can move, the dangers to your child are quite limited but as soon as that crawling starts, they'll get hold of all sorts and while we all want them to experience the outdoors from an early age, the risks of them picking up something nasty from something nasty they've picked up becomes a lot higher. It may seem like a small window (a few months) but that's when you'll want to be aiming for and it's that time period I'm addressing here.
As mentioned above, I'm a dedicated boulderer – a branch of climbing that lends itself to being able to dip in and out during the day with long breaks. Trad or sport climbing would doubtless be much more difficult. While there may be some crossover, I am definitely aiming this article at getting out to the local boulders rather than getting on the lead.
Childbirth is also a very physically traumatic experience for the mother and there is a period of physical recovery that happens afterwards. This is, after all, why parental leave defaults to the mum; they need the time for themselves more than dads. Obviously, I'm a guy, so it's difficult for me to write from that point of view and I will look at climbing for mums specifically in a later piece. For now, I would recommend to mums to read this piece anyway and take as much from it as possible, while bearing in mind the physical recovery that is also occurring.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that this article focuses on bouldering outside with your wee one. Most climbing walls (in my experience) are friendly and accommodating and with a modicum of common sense – like not setting them free in the middle of the mats at peak time, for example – will be more than happy to let you both in. Have a chat with your local wall to check first.
"Baby Crags are different to toddler crags. Some places are ideal with babies, where you can just put them down in the right place and they're fine but there's no way you could take a toddler with you." Dave Noden, Indy Climbing Wall.
Figure Out Your Approach…
You'll need a pretty intimate knowledge of your area for this one as you'll be amazed how tracks you thought were pushchair friendly before your offspring appeared can bounce the little bugger all over the place. Conversely, there might be some that you thought were an absolute no that turn out to be a lot easier than expected. Now you've been pushing them around for a while, the best bet is to go on a scouting mission (if you can) and decide for yourself with fresh eyes.
Guidebooks don't normally help you with this and that's not a complaint: most climbers don't take babies bouldering with them so there's no real reason the guide should dedicate precious space to this niche group. Some do, though, so take a look.
Obviously roadside crags are better in this respect but have other drawbacks and to limit yourself only to roadside neglects 95% of worldwide boulders, if not more [note: there is no evidence for these figures but you get the point]. Don't forget you also need some space around the base of the boulders to leave your little one and pavements aren't really ideal. Sometimes they work, though, and Rosie's very first crag was Parisella's Cave. It worked a treat.
… To A Crag That Works For You
That was fine for me, as I have plenty of projects there but many people don't. Don't forget, as much as the fresh air and scenery will help your child's cognitive development, you're going through all of this so you get to go climbing. You won't be doing anyone any favours if you pick somewhere that doesn't tick your boxes. Make sure the crag has what you want with the right problems for you to go at.
Projects are undoubtedly best to go at, as relocating is going to be a bore if you're constantly flashing climbs. For example, the idea of trying to do a circuit in Fontainbleau with all the associated baby and bouldering paraphernalia couldn't fill me with more dread. Having a climb you can throw yourself at then take a break to deal with the little one keeps everyone happy. So you'll need to bear this in mind when you're choosing your venue.
Then Figure Out How To Get There
Pushchair? Always the best option but you'll find that there will more often than not be at least a little section which is tricky at best. There are plenty of other baby carrying options on the market but many of them rely on you putting the baby on your back; right where the pad normally goes.
Figuring out this conundrum has been my greatest issue to date. We tried in Ireland on one day where I had an Amawrap with Rosie on my front and a pad on my back, with my climbing bag hanging off the pad and the changing bag mixed in with everything. Problem was that with the baby on my front, I couldn't get the waistband round me to take some of the massive weight so I ended up leaning forward. When I did this, the baby's head drooped and I had to walk holding her head up. Two miles in to Glendalough and I was absolutely shattered when I arrived.
Nevertheless, this is the best system I've found so far and for shorter walk-ins with less crap, would work fine.
Your other option is to carry the car seat in with you. This gives you somewhere safe and secure to leave them, where they're not going to unknowingly roll into a ditch and often lets them sleep a bit more – win win! The downside with this is the time they spend in the car seat (don't forget they'll be in it on the way there and the way back) and there are limits on how long they are advised to stay seated like that. It's another option though and I have seen it done to great effect, obviously depending on the crag.
Pick Somewhere With Plenty of Space
Much as with groups out on the hill, having some space around the bottom of the boulders to spread out the child and your stuff in a safe little spot is really handy. I scouted out a boulder the other day, after bushwacking for quite a way with a baby strapped to my front to find a boulder perched on a hillside with a decent landing but nowhere for me to be able to leave her without her tumbling down the hill. With the best will in the world, there's no way I'd be able to take her there.
There are plenty of crags where your child can have some space in a safe place. It's common sense really but something worth thinking about with a fresh mind and I certainly found this plenty: while you think somewhere will be sensible from your countless times at a venue, you really need to go back since you've become a parent to reassess. Quite simply, you just didn't know what to look for before.
Somewhere That's Quiet
Remember before you were a parent that you didn't really like the sound of crying children? That goes for many others at the crag and so rocking up with a screaming baby at Plantation on a Saturday afternoon probably isn't going to make you that popular. It is important to consider other climbers around the area too and try and think of it from their perspective. Try as we might, none of us can magically silence our child every time they decide to have a meltdown and non-parents don't always appreciate this in the same way. Finding places that are a little quieter or making use of parental leave and going mid-week are often ways to avoid any potential conflict.
Try A Scouting Mission
One good way to figure out the suitability of a crag is to try a scouting mission and it's a personal favourite of mine. When there isn't much time or the weather is bad, I'll leave the climbing stuff at home, strap the baby on my front with a few extra bits and just go check out the walk in. It can be a good way of getting out with a bit less stress.
It can pay dividends. We went to check out Fontainefawr recently; a little known craglet with some nice looking lines that had become locally popular in recent times. We only had a couple of hours anyway, so it was a nice way to have a bit of a walk and check out the baby friendliness of the place. It was a good shout as it turns out it is a candidate for the least baby friendly crag in the world.
I can't understate how much of a surprise it was to me that places I thought were easily accessible turned out not to be. The large paths through the slate quarries around Llanberis? Seems fine but when we took the pushchair, Rosie's eyes didn't stop spinning for the rest of the evening. Once you have more experience with your little one, it's much easier to be able to evaluate what you're looking for.
Go Bouldering, Alpine Style
They say that bouldering is great as it involves taking much less stuff with you, but any regular boulderer will tell you this isn't necessarily true. There are shoes, chalk bags, brushes, other shoes, different chalk bag, more brushes, towel, tape in abundance, Therabands or Power Fingers...the list goes on.
Well, no matter how much stuff you're used to taking for you, the baby has more. Any parent will tell you children come with more accessories than a Barbie doll so all of a sudden, weight now matters. If you don't believe me, try it once and get back to me.
So thin it out. This is bouldering, Alpine style, where anything not immediately essential gets left at home. One brush is plenty; in fact one of anything will suffice. You won't be able to thin out the baby bag that much. Try telling your little one, "I know you want two feeds while we're out but I need the extra shoes today and I can't carry it all!" and see how far that gets you - with the baby and your other half! Trimming your own kit will pay dividends.
… But Not With The Pads
Pads don't count in this. Yes, you'll need one to land on but actually, they're ideal for sticking the baby on when they're thrashing to get out of the car seat you thought would house them all day. You could use the floor, if it's grassy for example, but the pad is much cleaner. Normally cleaner, at least. If it's not, you can easily give it a wash before you go.
This doesn't have to be anything too substantial. Remember you're not gonna be able to just drop them off on it unsupervised and wander off doing a circuit in Font. No, a small supplementary pad is ideal for this, like a Petzl Nimbo or a DMM Spot. It's just to give them somewhere safe to sit and maybe nap and your baby isn't exactly that big anyway. I use one that slips inside my main pad which works a treat.
Recruit Some People
I was lucky to begin with that my better half was off on maternity when we were first getting out and so we could tag team the baby and the climbing. Indoors, this normally involved one of us climbing and the other left holding the baby (literally). But that meant that one of us was climbing…
Outdoors it's even more useful. The environment is much less baby friendly in, say, a forest than in a climbing wall so keeping an eye on the little blighter to make sure they haven't rolled or slid off to somewhere you don't want them to is much more crucial. After all, the prospect of them eating sheep poo just doesn't exist in the climbing wall.
Another pair of hands – either the other parent or a willing friend – makes this much easier. They'll need to be a good friend, no doubt, and to know the score before you head out, but if you can talk someone into it, all the better. Then, of course, you've got someone to share the weight of all the stuff you couldn't leave behind…
Find Some Other Bouldering Parents
Getting a group of climbing parents together makes the whole thing so much easier. After all, you're all in the same boat and people tend to be much more relaxed if their child is supervised by another parent. Climbing is a very sociable sport and there are plenty of other climbers who are in a similar position and equally keen to get out.
There are many Facebook groups for exactly this. They can usually be found with names like "Outdoor Mums and Dads" or "Parents that Rock". A lot of these groups will be predominantly indoors-based but there's no reason that experienced climbers can't lead the way in showing others the outdoors too. If you are taking people who are new to outdoor climbing, though, remember that there are multiple stresses involved in moving outdoors for the first time without children, so don't set your expectations too high and take it nice and steady.
Don't Be Upset If You Don't End Up Going
Babies are to climbing just what the weather is to climbing: often not a problem but potentially session-ending, frustrating and impossible to do anything about.
Your child will possibly have a bit of a routine early on and it's crucial to know this and use it to your advantage. Do they nap after a particular feed in the day? Great! That's exactly when you need to be packing everyone in the car and getting out quick while it's nice and easy (relatively). It's a case of working it in around both of your schedules and giving yourself the best chance of getting out.
But with the best will in the world, some days it just won't happen. They'll fuss, or do the most enormous poo just as you are about to leave (or worse, just when you get there) or something else will happen that means all bets are off and you're heading home before you've even left.
If you accept this is not only a possibility but a probability, it's much easier to deal with when it all goes wrong. Remember there's a reason those parents were saying to you that you'll never climb again; this is hard and can easily just not happen.
You've got to see every session as a bonus, not something that you're entitled to like in your old life. The bright side to that is you will certainly appreciate them all the more.
My climbing kit lives in the car anyway, so I'm pretty much permanently able to get out climbing at the drop of a hat but if yours doesn't, get it ready well in advance. The last thing you want is your darling child being all settled ready to go and you're running around the house looking for the guidebook.
Likewise with your destination. Picking this the day before, with a fairly reliable forecast by this point, and having a plan gives you a much better chance of success. If you're going with other people, you'll obviously need to do this anyway but trust me, the more stress you can eliminate from the actual climbing day, the easier it will be.
This ain't gonna come easy and much like your project line, if you want to do it, you'll need to work for it.
The big thing with this is if you do want your family to join you, chances are it's because you want them to share in what you love and that makes it all the better. I love having Rosie with me at the crag almost as much as going to the crag! The effort reaps a greater reward – which is just what bouldering is all about really! So get your psyche on and get out. If you get it right, it is totally worth the stress.
Some useful UK family-friendly bouldering destinations
RAC Boulders, North Wales. Short walk in, some nice clear areas to leave the changing mat and generally free from livestock. This is a popular space with groups, which while it may be busy at times, suggests how accessible this crag is.
Caseg Fraith Boulder, North Wales. An oft-overlooked venue, it is possible to do shuttle runs in here to deliver both climbing and baby kit (meaning you can take a little bit more of the non-essentials) and the grades go from 4 to 8A, with most of them in between. Easy to run away too. Park considerately in the car park by the A5 and walk to the boulders.
Honister Boulders, Lake District. I haven't actually been here yet but I was very keen to take the family. Roadside and flat, it fit the bill perfectly for a family venue but sadly didn't work for us with the dog and we ran out of time. Worth a look.
The Bowderstone, Lake District. Yes, it's a hardcore venue not for the feint of heart but if the grades fit your abilities, it is an idyllic spot. Pushchair friendly approach with plenty of space around the crag proper.
Burbage South Valley Boulders, Peak District. Another pushchair friendly approach, with an off road buggy. Moving around the circuit might be a bit of a chore but it would easily be possible to leave the buggy near the track, giving a minimal shuttle to your chosen project. A wide grade range here too, to accommodate almost any level.
Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire. It's been nearly 15 years since I was at Brimham but if I was around Yorkshire, it's the first place I'd think of heading. A popular tourist destination close to the parking, there are plenty of nice open spaces for your little one to relax.
Widdop, Yorkshire. Another that I've yet to visit with my kids, this was a favourite old haunt of mine years ago. A flat and easy walk in with large grassy areas, Widdop has some excellent bouldering.
Bonehill Rocks, Dartmoor. Another short and pushchair friendly walk in, Bonehill is a great crag with plenty of climbing to keep you going.
These are, of course, merely some suggestions based on my own experiences and there are parents all over the country who will have more advice. If you agree or disagree with the comments based on your own experiences, or if you have anything useful to add – on crag tactics to venues – please do add them to the forum comments.
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