Rules of the Rope: Climbing With Babies

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By Erica Lineberry

When I got pregnant in the summer of 2009, I was shocked at how matter-of-fact people were with their “advice.” Most annoying to me were the comments around my husband’s and my recreational pursuits, specifically climbing: “Kiss all those crazy weekend climbing trips goodbye!” and “I guess you’re not climbing anymore, so what are you guys gonna do for fun instead?” or even “It’s about time you guys settled down and stopped all that climbing business!”

Baby below! Photo: Lloyd Ramsey

I’m sure that most, if not all, of those statements were made out of ignorance rather than cruel intentions. I can brush them off now, but they didn’t sit well with me as a large hormonal pregnant woman, nor did they sound any better when I was a sleep-deprived new parent with cabin fever. Fortuntately, we don’t get those comments anymore. I think we’ve proven that even though we may not fit into the typical mold of most American families, we’re doing what works for us—and, more importantly, having a blast.

Our little cragbaby (a.k.a. C) was born on the first day of spring in 2010. Over the past year we’ve gone on many family climbing adventures, and thankfully have developed a system, more or less. Of course, since cragbaby is changing all the time, we’re constantly having to make adjustments, but the following is a synopsis of what we’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) about how to set up a safe baby/toddler base camp and have a successful climbing day with your little one in tow.

Now that C is in the mix, all the roped stuff we’re doing these days is single-pitch. For safety's sake, it's obviously important that at no point is everyone off the ground. It still shocks me, however, how many people assume that I just strap C on my back and take off up the cliff (these, of course, are the same people that questioned my judgment for top-roping in a full body harness while C was well-protected and padded, floating around in amniotic fluid—but that’s a whole other story). No, I do not recommend climbing with your baby, just near him.

Cragbaby scouts the next climb, New River Gorge, West Virginia. Photo: Steve Lineberry

My husband and I made a pact before we ever took C out cragging that we would never let belayer and baby watcher be the same person. Even though logistically it may have worked before C was mobile, it never seemed worth the risk: There were too many variables outside of our control. We decided to always have a designated person on cragbaby duty at all times. With three climbers, one person is climbing, one person is belaying, and one person is on Canaan-duty. Unless your extra person is just a non-climbing babysitter, it’s important that your third person be an experienced climber that you feel very comfortable with: Remember, the entire day that person will hold either you or your baby's life in their hands.

A less tiring option is to have two extra partners. Four climbers means one person is climbing, one person is belaying, one person is on cragbaby duty, and one person is free to grab a snack, take pictures, scout out the next route, etc. This option is more relaxed, but with a party of four climbing on one rope, don't expect to get in a ton of routes. In our experience, the ideal option is five climbers—two people climbing, two people belaying, and one person with the cragbaby (or cragbabies). You can save time and get in more routes because there are two ropes going up at once, but during the down times, there are a lot more hands on deck. Any more than five and things start getting a little hectic.

Use your best judgment and don't forget you have precious cargo with you. Some climbing areas are better suited for hiking in with a baby than others, so now is not the time to try out a new area. It’s not so much about the distance as it is the terrain. Approaches involving scree slopes, talus-strewn trails, fixed lines, and water crossings are probably a little ambitious when the baby is very young. Also, think about what the cliff base is like: If there is a chance of rain, are there any natural caves/overhangs that you'll be able to take shelter in? Are there steep and rocky places where it will be difficult to put your baby down for naps and diaper changes?

This also goes along with knowing the area, but it’s about more than just having a flat spot to toss a blanket down for naps. Rock fall is fairly common in some areas, and who here has ever accidentally dropped gear? I know I have. That level, out-of-the way area shaded by a tree might have a hornet's nest at the base, or be right beside a patch of poison ivy. Inspect these areas thoroughly. Even though there will always be a person with the baby, it’s still of utmost importance to consider all of these factors in deciding where to set up your baby station.

If you’re still breastfeeding, expect your baby to be thirstier on hot days; he may want to feed more frequently. Nursing is about more than just nutrition; it’s a safe and familiar comfort for your baby when he or she may feel a little anxious about being in a strange environment. And here’s a tip for nursing climbers: You will be more hungry than usual and you should be drinking more than usual. Pack accordingly.

Cragmama & baby bean. Photo: Manuela Eilert

Pre-cragbaby it might have been cool to spray to your friends the next day about how you got stormed off your project just as the sun was setting, had to rap down in the dark because your rope got stuck, then got lost on the hike out and almost got benighted because you just barely made it through before the park ranger closed the gates. This is not cool with a baby on board—do your best to avoid situations that lead to these types of shenanigans. Climb familiar routes and allow plenty of extra time to make it out before dark. Make sure both you and your baby are prepared for any and all types of weather situations you may encounter. Pack extra layers and more food than you think necessary. Do your very best to avoid an epic because, even though it reads as a cliche at the front of every single guidebook I own, it's true: “Rock climbing is a dangerous sport that can result in death, paralysis, or serious injury.”

Stay safe out there, have fun, and before your know it, your own little cragbaby will be climbing alongside you.

Erica Lineberry is the creator of the blog and a sponsored athlete for Trango and Athleta. She lives in North Carolina, near the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, with her husband and toddler son.

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