I didn’t climb much during the first trimester. I was tired a lot, and the few times I did get out I felt at risk of throwing up on my belayer, which wouldn’t have been a very nice experience for either of us. By week 14 I couldn’t even do a pull-up anymore – I don’t think it was the weight, because I hadn’t put on much by then – it just felt like my core muscles had shut down. So I thought my climbing days were over for a while. But when the nausea and sleepiness of the first trimester started to dissipate, I found I really wanted to get back to climbing. Some inspiring articles and blogs from other women who climbed through their pregnancies prompted me to start looking at full-body harnesses on line (they fit around your legs and shoulders, and have a tie in point at chest level, above the bump). At first it seemed a bit frivolous to spend £80 on a harness when I wasn’t sure for how long and how much I’d be able to climb. And the harness, a Petzl 8003, is pretty much the only option, and it’s not designed with pregnant rock climbers in mind — no padding, the gear loops are tiny and in the way, and the smaller of the two sizes is still far too large for me, so there’s lots of extra webbing hanging off it. But I definitely don’t regret buying it. The only time it’s been really uncomfortable was on a longer mountain route with hanging belays and long abseils. With lots of gear to carry and no padding, it was pinchy and awkward — not on the bump, but pretty much everywhere else. For the indoor wall and single pitches outside it does the job well enough, though.
I was a bit nervous the first time I wore the full-body harness at the climbing wall. I’d never seen anyone climbing pregnant there before and I wasn’t sure how people would react. I knew that what I was doing felt perfectly safe and healthy, but being pregnant can make you self-conscious – perhaps justifiably so, since a lot of people who previously wouldn’t have given you a second glance, upon noticing your belly, suddenly have an opinion. It’s usually a positive one though, at least in my experience, and such was the case at the climbing wall — everyone was really encouraging and I felt comfortable right away, so I needn’t have worried. I still feel conspicuous though, especially when I’m lowering off an overhanging route, which is awkward with a big belly and the high tie-in point — you feel a bit like a carcass dangling on a meat hook. But the climbing itself, that feels great. Aside from yoga and swimming (neither of which I’m crazy about), I can’t think of any activities that are as low-impact, safe, and good for your back and pelvis muscles as straightforward toproping at an indoor climbing wall.
Thanks to Brad, I have managed to get climbing outside at least a dozen times this season as well, despite it being, so far anyway, the rainiest summer on record here. I’ve been picky about locations and conditions – I’ve avoided loose rock, sketchy approaches, awkward rappels, and any risk of getting caught out by high tides. Moreover, as soon as I got the full-body harness I stopped leading — it was too awkward to carry much gear anyway, and while falling would probably be fine, I just wouldn’t know for sure until it happened, and I didn’t want to take the risk. Because I’m just out to have fun following other people up whatever they want to climb, I haven’t been as willing to put up with uncomfortable conditions, like cold/wind/wet. Despite having a lot of criteria, I’ve had some really nice days out, both on the sea cliffs and in the hills. We haven’t been in the hills as much as I’d like, or out to the west coast at all, but all in all, it’s been a far better summer of climbing than I expected. I’m not much of a boulderer anyway, but I also did some easy circuits in Font at around 18 weeks, staying well within my comfort zone and carefully checking the top-outs and descents off each boulder before I went up.
I keep waiting for climbing to start to feel awkward. Now that I’m at 8 months, I waddle to the crag or the wall, and I can barely breathe while I’m lacing up my shoes. My core muscles are gone and I weigh almost 16kg more than I did 8 months ago. So my attitude every time I tie in and start up a route has been to just focus purely on enjoying the exercise, and if it feels hard for the grade or I can’t do it, that’s perfectly fine — just climb something else. But, actually, the climbing really hasn’t reached the point where it feels difficult or awkward. My finger strength, balance, and flexibility are better than ever, and even though I’m not climbing at the same level as I was before, it’s usually because there is some particular thing, like an obstacle near my belly, or an unavoidable high step, that makes me decide to lower off without trying it. I do have to turn my body to one side or the other more, think through the moves before I start them, and be a little more clever with my feet, and some of these techniques probably help, but I think there is also some physiological compensation going on – for example, the body releases the hormone relaxin during pregnancy which makes the hips and pelvis way more flexible than normal. And there’s a huge increase in blood volume (30-50%) and circulating cortisol during pregnancy, which means more energy getting to the muscles. Whatever the reason, the extra weight and loss of core strength hasn’t had as devastating an impact as you’d think. In fact, it feels so natural and easy to be climbing that I almost forget about being huge – it’s only when I top out a route and I’m standing on horizontal ground that I’m back to feeling heavy and off-balance.
I’ve been lucky to feel fit and healthy through the pregnancy – I know better than to take this for granted, and I’m not going to presume it means everything is going to be easier than I thought it would be. We’re both excited about this new turn our lives are about to take, but it wasn’t a decision I took lightly at all — the knowledge of all the things I may have to sacrifice, both at work and in my personal life, weighed really heavily in my mind. Climbing was one of the things I thought I might have to give up, for a while anyway, and I thought that sacrifice would come sooner than the rest. So it’s been a lovely surprise to discover I didn’t have to give it up after all – and being pregnant has even added an interesting new dimension to the climbing experience.