Mountaineering Mums

Isabelle Santoire and Alex  © UKC Articles
Isabelle Santoire and Alex
"For me personally, and I think for many women, either you want to climb or you want to have a family. I don't think many women can do both very well." 

These are the words of American mountaineer Ellen Miller, one of only four women to have summited Everest from both Nepal and Tibet. I admire her. I'm glad those weren't my words though because, to put it mildly, women don't like being accused of being bad mothers and there are plenty who climb. Are they all doing a mediocre-to-miserable job? 

I'm not saying I agree, but I can see why Ellen said it. The maternal instinct is an irresistible pull for many women. For a climber, the lure of rock and ice can be similarly consuming. These are two mentally, physically and emotionally demanding passions that pull in polemic directions. K2 versus a nursery. Or even: Stanage on a Sunday versus helping kids with homework. Is it selfish, irresponsible or even possible to do both? 

One of the world's best mountaineers, Ines Papert has excelled at every kind of climbing she's put her mind to and reckons she's got motherhood wired, too: "My son and mountaineering. These things provide the comfort of my life, the freedom and the power I need," she says confidently. "My son is so important for my balance." 

However, with touching sincerity, top Colorado-based ski mountaineer Hilaree O'Neill admits that of all the incredible feats she's attempted, "balancing the polar opposites" of mountains and motherhood is the hardest. "The self-imposed guilt is insane," she says. "I have to agree [with Ellen]: I do not think it is very easy or very pretty to do both." 

It's not a black and white case, of course; climbing is a career to some and shades of obsession or hobby to others. That said, the opposite pulls of climbing and maternal feelings are apparent at all levels. 

Debbie Tweedie from Curbar climbs at weekends. She tells me: "I don't particularly want my son to climb."

"Why not?" I ask.

"Well, it's dangerous, isn't it?" 

And we've probably all seen a young kid wandering solo at the bottom of a crag, while their parent hastily scrabbles over the top. 

Intrigued, I decided to ring some more climbing mums, from professional mountaineers down to regular climbing mums and find out if (and how) women can multi-task climbing and kids. 

Chamonix-based mountain guide Isabelle Santoire throws me in at the deep end. She's pregnant again, still ice climbing and insists mountaineering is no more dangerous than if you weren't pregnant if you stay within your competence level. "You cannot fall ice climbing. Period," she explains. "Whether you are pregnant or not the consequences are normally bad. OK, we are talking about adding a possible miscarriage." 

The situation recalls Alison Hargreaves, of course; the British woman whose death on K2 caused public outcry about her suitability to be a mother. Two years before K2, Alison was criticised for summiting the Eiger north face while six months pregnant. 

Alison's succinct response to criticism about her ascent was: "I was pregnant, not sick" (Daily Telegraph). 

I'm interested to hear that doctors' advice on climbing while pregnant varies. "This week I had an amniosynthesis done," says Isabelle. "I asked when I could go back to work and the doctor said, 'Just limit any physical exertion today and tomorrow.' 

I said: 'It will be fine then to do some ice climbing in three days?' He was shocked and said, 'You are pregnant and should not do such sports.' But my own doctor recommended: 

'Just listen to your body and don't fall in a crevasse!'" 

Kit and Grace DesLauriers  © UKC Articles
Kit and Grace DesLauriers
The doctor of Kit DesLauriers, the first person to ski down the seven summits, was more specific: she could climb as long as her heart rate stayed below 150 beats per minute. Kit admits the "sheer extra blood volume" pumping through her body made this difficult to stick to when climbing the Grand Teton at six months pregnant. She climbed slowly. 

Ines Papert listened when her pregnant body said: "no climbing". She felt heavier and lost motivation. "I didn't want to lead," she says, "And seconding is not what I'm looking for."  

But even if your body doesn't put limitations on what you can achieve when pregnant: just because you can climb, does that mean you should? 

British mountaineer Mike 'Twid' Turner points out that for these women mountaineering is a job. "It's a job to earn money," he says. "There's loads of dangerous jobs. You're more likely to get stabbed as a taxi driver than die guiding." 

But what if it's not your job? When Scottish mother of four Jo Horne was pregnant she carried on climbing till seven months in, dropping her grade from E2 to mod "due to an inability to hang on with increased weight and bump." 

Jude Calvert-Toulmin is a grandmother and Peak District-based climber. Her opinion is: "Accidents happen and exposing your unborn baby to risks for a hobby is selfish."  

If (I wonder objectively), by exposing yourself to dangers when pregnant you risk killing your baby, by extension, when the baby is born, don't you risk leaving your child motherless? 

This really gets Twid's goat: "Being 18 stone, smoking and eating lard are far more dangerous for a baby, especially if they turn out like that. Nobody goes, 'She's that fat – she's so dangerous she shouldn't have kids,'" he says. 

"She's that fat – she's so dangerous she shouldn't have kids."

Jo Horne agrees though, and considers the consequences for her youngest son. "We don't climb together as husband and wife," she says. "It's an unsaid reason – if anything does happen, at least one will be here to raise James." 

Because she's a mother Jo has upped her self-preservation level: she only does winter routes if SAIS predicts minimal danger and only solos "reasonable" highball problems. It's the same story with all the mums I speak to. Debbie Tweedie made a rule: no soloing; no headpointing. Isabelle Santoire uses her instinct to "listen for a bell alerting danger" and systematically ropes crevassed terrain. Ines Papert "avoids dangerous climbs, or waits for the perfect conditions." 

A non-climbing parent would still probably think these women are crazy. But, in the words of Chris Bonington:  

"At the end of the day, climbing probably is irresponsible. But we're better parents because we're doing things that fulfil us" (In the Shadow of the Mountain). 

Hilaree O'Neill agrees: "The time I take for myself to be in the mountains makes me a better mom. Climbing calms me, helps me focus and just gives me a great rush that makes me feel very alive." 

Making time for yourself as well as for your family is a balancing act all parents understand, whether they climb or not. You can't help thinking some parents know they got it wrong, though. 

"The time I take for myself to be in the mountains makes me a better mom."

American mountaineer Cherie Bremer-Kamp once said: "What I got from the mountains, I've been able to give back to the kids in different ways. Obviously it's been hard for them. But they've grown from it, grown strong in character. Life is never a bed of roses, is it?" (In the Shadow of the Mountain) 

"'Grown strong in character' – hah!" tuts Jo Horne. "Brought themselves up by their bootstraps, she means." 

And she disagrees with Chris Bonington, too: "No we're better people for doing things that fulfil us. Climbing has nothing to do with parenting. You can be a crap parent and climb." 

I've certainly seen some crap parents at the crags. Jo Horne paints an idyllic picture of her and two other mums taking it in turns to boulder, spot and babysit on the grass and there's nothing wrong with that.  

But when mother of four Jacinda Hunter (from Utah) climbs 8c, says her kids were with her for some of her hardest sends and thanks her family "for the time spent", you can't help but wonder – just how much time does working 8c take? 

Jo Horne on Donkey Thunder in the Northern Corries, Cairngorms  © UKC Articles
Jo Horne on Donkey Thunder in the Northern Corries, Cairngorms
You can't take your kids mountaineering though, and this brings its own problems. Twid thinks the main issue with being a mountaineering parent is "time away." 

"But some kids never see their parents as they are down the pub all the time," he argues. His wife Louise is also a mountaineer and they divide their time between North Wales and Chamonix. "We spend all our time with our child when we are in the valley," he says. "I talk to my daughter every day." 

Quality of time over quantity is an argument put forward by Ines Papert, too. But for Isabelle Santoire the quality/quantity equation has gradually turned on its head: 

"There's magic in being a Mum," she says. "It's not the quantity but the quality of the venues I choose to go to now. I seem to appreciate my environment much more, instead of taking it for granted." 

Once, Kit DesLauriers climbed up and skiied down Everest. Nowadays daughter Grace waves her off on lots of shorter days and loves helping her with her gear when she gets home. 

It seems to be a natural progression with many climbing mums that the demands of children come to take priority and the pull of mountains fades. Hilaree O'Neill agrees. Before she had her son she thought the hardest thing would be finding good childcare. She didn't bank on how hard it would be, emotionally, to leave him. 

"When it comes to continuing with big expeditions as a mom, the field gets increasingly smaller," she says. 

There are plenty of mountaineering dads though. 

Does nature dictate mums play a bigger part in kids lives than dads? 

Jude Calvert-Toulmin hated being a climbing widow. "I would get left with the kids while my husband went climbing and I really resented it," she says.  

Debbie Tweedie sympathises and thinks women are more vigilant with children than men, too. "If my partner and I were climbing and our son wanted something, I'd be the one to go to him. I decided we should climb on different days. Then on my day, my partner would 'Just come and watch.' You can guess the rest." 

Jo Horne says some men still think women should be tied to their kitchen sink after childbirth. "But to be honest," she adds, "If women didn't try and argue their point, just got on a climbed then it probably wouldn't create as much fuss and the whole idea would just become 'normal'." 

"Some men still think women should be tied to their kitchen sink after childbirth."

Interestingly, Ines thinks it's "just normal" that mums have more responsibilities than dads: "Our kids grew up inside ourselves. They fit us more completely than they do their dads. It's a different love." 

So is she going to stay home and look after the kids? 

Ines isn't talking in terms of time; she's talking in terms of life and death. "To be fair to our children, women have to care about themselves a bit more than men when climbing," she says. 

For Jude Calvert-Toulmin that isn't enough. It's only fair to put your children's needs in front of "your own selfish risk-filled enjoyment," she says. "The time for soloing death routes is when you're young and carefree with no responsibilities." 

Jo Horne empathises with Ines but agrees with Jude. At first she thought: "Sod it, its my life too, I'll carry on climbing as normal." However, she's come to find herself holding back. "Yes you only have one life," she says, "But let's make it last as long as possible, eh!" 

Both Jo and Jude are grandmothers now, and perhaps hindsight has made them wise. "Children are only borrowed," warns Jude. "One day they'll leave and you'll have all the time in the world to climb." 

Hilaree O'Neill can't cut the thirst for adventure out and hopes her children will understand her life because, as they grow, it will seem normal to them. "I think the lifestyle my husband and I lead could be something wonderful for our kids," she argues. "They will get to see the world and learn different cultures. I am excited for them and for us." 

I don't know what the answer is. There isn't an easy one. But then, what mother ever had an easy life, and what climber ever wanted one? For the record, although Alison Hargreaves' daughter never got to see the world with her mum, she did understand: 

"My mum did exactly what she wanted to," she said, "And I'm glad she did." (Daily Telegraph)

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26 Mar, 2009
Great article and very inspiring. It's hard being a mother and wanting to climb - and people don't think twice about giving their opinion about what constitutes 'good parenting'. Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks.
26 Mar, 2009
top marks to the author for combining both roles brilliantly. It does irk me that climbing mothers are expected to justify themselves "how they justify the dangers and time commitments of climbing when they have young children" far more often than climbing fathers. You would think we had managed to move on a bit by the start of the 21st century
26 Mar, 2009
You took the words out of my mouth....completely agree with what you have said.
26 Mar, 2009
Really excellent and thoughtful article. Thank you very much.
26 Mar, 2009
Great article, interesting and really well written.
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