Climbing For Two

Betsy Lam
Betsy Lam
Dec 9, 2015 · 6 min read
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Hitting the last sloper on “Iron Man Traverse,” The Buttermilks, CA July 2012

One awesome night in September 2010, I climbed an indoor rock wall for the first time. It was no more than 30 feet high, but it was exhilarating. From the start, I knew climbing would be more than a fling — it would be a lifelong love.

I’d been rock climbing for nearly 2 1/2 years when Dan & I found out we were expecting. I was so excited for this little human to join our family, and for the new adventures that lie ahead.

With the new comes change; I was nervous about the change it would bring to my climbing. Carrying and protecting the wee life would mean slowing the momentum and strength I’d worked so hard to build the last couple years. More than that, it would mean relinquishing much of the joy and fulfillment climbing gave me.

Climbing is a centering, positive force in my life. How would I be myself without it, even temporarily? How would I be the happy mom I wanted to be for the little embryo growing in my belly?

I read about pregnant climbing — advice in climbing publications, other pregnant climbers’ stories. I also picked up the book, Exercising Through Your Pregnancy, which dispels a lot of negative myths and espouses the scientific benefits of continued exercise during pregnancy (I’d recommend the book to all pregnant women).

I found a handful of great climbing mama blogs (like Mama Climbs), and watched inspirational videos of pregnant women climbing (like this one of Carrie Cooper, climbing at 39 weeks). And while I read lots of positives, I also encountered an alarming amount of mean and ignorant commentary along the way.

I knew this was a thing, of course, but I became more aware of it once pregnant: You-Have-A-Baby-In-You-And-I-Will-Judge-Everything-You-Do Phenomenon. Women’s pregnancies embolden the self-righteous. How should we be nurturing our babies? What should we be doing with our bodies? What should we not be doing with our bodies? How can we best prove our motherly love and devotion? The peanut gallery will tell us.

I’ve gotten a fair share of side-eye and passive-aggressive responses to climbing pregnant: from mentioning miscarriage to, “Did the doctor say that’s ok?” and “Is that safe?” and “Are you allowed to do that?” and “You’re going to stop soon, right?” Almost every person who’s reacted this way has never been an athlete, and knows nothing about rock climbing.

Recently, I read about Lea-Anne Ellison, whose Facebook photos of lifting weights while 8 1/2 months pregnant with her third baby caused an uproar.

“This is actually sickening,” and, “If anything happens to your baby due to your stupidity, I hope you’ll be able to handle your guilt,” were just a few of the hateful comments that made my head hot and claws curl.

Ellison is no shrinking violet — and, thankfully, not all feedback was nasty. She says the stir has made her prouder and stronger: “I strongly believe that pregnancy is not an illness, but a time to relish in your body’s capabilities to kick ass.”

Exactly! Though pregnancy brings on nausea, fatigue, aches & pains for many of us, it doesn’t mean that pregnancy itself is an illness. Barring a medical condition, it doesn’t mean that we become invalids and porcelain dolls. Our bodies are powerful, resilient and capable of amazing things.

The key to staying active and healthy while nurturing the babe is listening acutely to your mind and body — knowing when to push a little bit, when to cruise and when to dial back.

Climbing is not inherently a high impact sport, which is awesome news for pregnant women everywhere. This means we can, potentially, climb throughout our pregnancies. We just need to keep adapting to accommodate our growing bellies, increasing weight, and lungs-for-two.

Pregnancy has forced me to climb more slowly and efficiently. No more muscling through a route — I need lighter feet and more frequent rests.

Probably the biggest change has been psychological. I love the challenge and process of pushing my mind and body to the brink. I love the goal that a rated route presents. And I love working on a problem that is clearly out of my league. But with a baby in my belly, I’ve had to get back to basics. Each time I climb, I have to readjust my expectations, and climb for climbing’s sake, not for what can be squeezed out of it. Which is not a bad thing at all.

For safety, I avoid routes and moves that make me more susceptible to falls, swings and reduced oxygen flow — like overhanging routes. The vertical climb is my friend (though I have to say, I’ve always preferred vertical climbs, anyway). After awhile, I stopped bouldering, sticking only to top rope versus lead climbs.

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Baby’s first bouldering competition (& the last of my bouldering while pregnant),
Finals at Climb On, February 2013.

For all the non-climbers out there: Bouldering is ropeless climbing on routes less than 20 feet tall. Lead climbing requires that the climber secures the rope along the route as she climbs, which can mean big falls — and potentially impactful ones. Lots of pregnant climbers continue to safely lead climb well into their second trimester. In top roping, the climber is tethered to the top of the route at an anchor and back down to the belayer on the ground. If the climber falls, she only falls the insignificant length of the rope stretch.

Being a climber in Chicago, you don’t have the option to climb real rock during the week. If you want to climb outdoors on the weekend, your drive will be no less than 3 hours to, say, Wisconsin, or 7 hours to Kentucky. So, you have to train in the gym. There are a few gyms in the city, but I prefer the gym in the suburbs, which is about a 45 minute drive on weeknights.

Admittedly, sometimes it’s been tough to find the mental and physical motivation to get to the gym, especially after a full day’s work in front of the computer. But I always, always, always feel better and more energetic after a climb. On the days I come home from work and immediately take to the couch for the rest of the night, more often than not, I feel crappy — and, I have time to think about just how crappy.

During the first trimester, the famed pregnant exhaustion hit me like a ton of bricks, but I continued to climb pretty hard, a couple times a week. I was super happy to send a 5.12a indoors, and one-hang a 5.12a (yeah, Beef Stick!) outdoors at The Red.

Shortly into the second trimester, ironically, when pregnancy fatigue lessens a bit, I was placed under doctor’s exercise and travel restrictions. I was super bummed. I didn’t climb for 5 weeks — it felt like a very, very long 5 weeks.

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Pregnant-friendly stemming at 8 months, September, 2013

By the third trimester, my exercise restrictions were lifted. I was heavier, bumpier and clumsier, but so glad to be climbing again.

My last climb was at Week 36. It was a good one to end on: after lumbering to the anchors of a once-easy 5.9, a group of climbers below, who I’d never met, sent up a sweet round of applause.

We’re in the homestretch now, heading into Week 39, making the last preparations for our little guy’s arrival.

I cannot imagine my pregnancy without climbing. Pregnancy is magical, but it’s also tough. So many things are changing — and so quickly and dramatically. Your lifestyle, partnership and priorities evolve. Your body becomes unfamiliar and alien-like. Your sense of self becomes fragile in places.

Climbing gave me strength, energy and confidence. It fed my soul, and I’m pretty sure it fed the little soul camped out in my belly, too.

Oct. 20, 2013

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Mammoth Lakes, CA, July 2012. I can’t wait to show our little Louie photos of climbing with him before he was out & about. I can’t wait to tell him how active and tumbly he’d get after a climb. Even if it isn’t his thing, I’m so excited to share climbing with him. I think it’s so important for kids to know their parents are passionate about something, to see them doing what they love, to see them enjoying life.

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