The author pumping in the mountains.
The author pumping in the mountains. (Photo: Leah Samberg)

The Many Considerations of Backcountry Breastfeeding

Sure, there's the never-ending mental math and having to deal with frozen pumps in brutal wind. But in the end, it's just one more factor in the complex calculus of a day in the mountains.

The author pumping in the mountains.
Leah Samberg(Photo)
Leah Story

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This is not working.

I’m sitting on my pack, hunched under a wind lip on the side of Mount Yotei, the volcano that dominates the southern part of Hokkaido, Japan. My puffy is draped around my shoulders as I try to turn out of the wind, but my shirt is pulled up and my stomach is goosebumped and growing increasingly pink as I struggle to figure out why my pump is completely failing to draw milk from my freezing-cold nipple.

“I think it’s frozen,” I shout to my husband, Brian. Sure enough, in the biting wind the first squirt of milk had solidified in the valve, rendering the pump all but useless. Cursing, I silently apologize to our five-month-old, Sam, waiting down in the town below us, and vow to keep my ski tours shorter until the coming of warmer weather. “OK, let’s go!” I give up, pull the layers of shirt and coat back down over my body and thump my hands together to regain circulation. We continue up the volcano, skis crunching through rime and scrub and windscour.

Later, as we lap soft, protected powder in the summit crater, my brain does the math, rolling hours backward and forward in grooves fast being worn into habit. How many hours am I going to be out? How many ounces of milk am I missing out on right now? Do I have enough stored up to feed a hungry baby while I ski again tomorrow? Will these long hours on the mountain decrease my production? How long will it take me to build it back up again? Maybe I should wake up for an extra pumping session in the middle of the night?

As we climb back up to the crest of the volcano and transition for the ski down, I look around. I doubt the other parties up here—Italian, Canadian, Japanese, and mostly men—are doing this sort of arithmetic.

It all comes down to how we count time. For me, mountains give weight and substance to the concept of time. The 4 a.m. alarm, then racing daylight to beat darkness or storms or the sun’s heat. Breaking days into miles and vertical feet and pitches and calories. The quiet endless time breathing hard up a ridge, sweat and wind and sunscreen, mountain after mountain coming into view. The waxing and waning hours between the end of the workday and the last bits of sunlight. The beats that give rhythm to the week, the year, anchoring the 40 hours of work, amorphous evenings when the sun slips away without your noticing.

Gender equality stops here: If you are a nursing mom, the clock that counts baby time is in your hands and in your head.

When Brian and I started thinking about marriage and children, we sat down and talked about mountains and time. Over the years, we played in the mountains with friends who had kids; all of them were guys. They structured their time carefully: One day of each weekend was for skiing, climbing, trail running; the other day was spent with family. I made it clear that Brian would not be on this program. For every ski day he got, I would get one as well. By the powers of math, this meant fewer ski days for him than for most of his buddies. Fortunately, this wasn’t a dealbreaker; he married me anyway.

But when the time came and Sam was born, we learned that babies are like mountains in their demand for unwavering attention to the passage of time. A fierce, hungry newborn wraps hours into a loop between crying and nursing and peace. Time to shower and eat, time to sleep, time for yourself, time for your partner. Time racing incomprehensibly as a tiny wild creature becomes a human person in front of your eyes.

And then there’s nursing. Gender equality stops here: If you are a nursing mom, the clock that counts baby time is in your hands and in your head. It’s as relentless as the mountain clock, both in parallel and in opposition. This clock is why most of the parents we skied and climbed with were men.

Sam needed to be fed every few hours. At first, I went on short missions, pushing hard from the car, trying to get up high, touch some wildness and get a workout in a couple hours so I could get back home to snuggle and nurse. When I couldn’t nurse, I had to pump. I started stretching my ski tours to five hours, then six. I pumped some extra ounces the night before, and again in the morning before skiing, so there would be enough for Sam to eat while I was gone. Brian would meet me at the trailhead afterward and thrust a hungry baby into my arms.

I bought a car adapter for my big electric pump so I could go six hours car-to-car, pumping in the truck perched on a dirt road turnoff, engine idling. I bought a hand pump to carry in my pack, with a cooler bag, bottle, all sorts of attachments. By the time we struck out for Japan, we were full of confidence. We quickly learned that hand pumps in below-freezing temperatures are not to be trusted. But we also learned that missing a pumping session isn’t the end of the world.

Being a breastfeeding mom in the mountains isn’t a superhuman feat.

It was the warming weather that finally allowed me to stretch my legs and move freely through long spring days in the mountains. Out for a ski, I’d call Brian every few hours, making sure Sam was eating on schedule, counting hours between feedings every time I stopped for a snack, timing pumping sessions around climbs and descents. I pumped on sunny summits and tucked out of the wind behind boulders, breathing deep to relax and letting the hard pace of the mountains run ahead of me for a little while.

Being a breastfeeding mom in the mountains isn’t a superhuman feat. I struggle to explain this when tales of my days in the hills are received with cries of “Whoa, badass mama!”—the default response that I and my few other backcountry-breastfeeding friends tend to hear. Playing in the mountains is about preparation. It’s about having the right gear and committed partners, understanding the logistics, and putting up with some amount of physical discomfort. Meticulously racking and reracking climbing hardware, unsnarling ropes, waxing skis and gluing skins, slogging through miserable incised drainages, waking up in the dark to descend that exposed face ahead of the sun’s heat—these things aren’t inherently more or less badass than the gear management, preparation, and discomfort involved in backcountry pumping. The running math problem is new, but in some ways it isn’t; mountain travel is one long exercise in counting miles and feet and hours. Timing descents so you can pump out of the wind at roughly the time your baby is taking a bottle? That’s just one more factor in the never-ending calculus of a day in the backcountry.

Lead Photo: Leah Samberg

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