Mar 24 2015

Climbing with Kids: Susie Christensen Interview

breastfeeding issues, and the thought of doing the Nose in a day blew my mind. Susie was kind enough to do an amazing, informative, and humble interview. I hope you all are as inspired as I am!!!After I did my interview with Jim Herson, he mentioned that I should interview his friend Susie who had just done a lactating ascent of the Nose. I was still pretty early postpartum and dealing with


Tell me a little about yourself and your history with climbing.


Let me just start off with my favorite quote from my hero Barbara Washburn, who was the first woman to climb Mount McKinley in 1947:


“Over the years, many people have asked me how I trained for such a major climb. I tell them I didn’t train. I didn’t exercise and I didn’t run.  I pushed a baby carriage. That’s how I got in shape for Mount McKinley.”  Barbara Washburn, The Accidental Adventurer


My husband and I live in Oakland, California, but are both originally from Salt Lake City, Utah. We have two kids: Ainsely, 3, and Boone, 18 months. Andrew is an attorney and I am an emergency management planner, which basically means that I write and test emergency plans for government agencies. I have an awesome work setup right now and work from home part time so that I can be with my kids most of the time. Andrew started climbing when he was 12 in the Wasatch Mountains, and I started when I was 18, which was 14 years ago! Sheesh. A group of friends and I were planning to go to Colorado one summer and a couple of people mentioned that we were going to go rock climbing while we were there. I didn’t want to be the clueless one in the bunch, so I signed up for an intro to climbing class at my local climbing gym. Long, lanky, and uncoordinated, I had always been hopeless in the world of athletics; but something about climbing really clicked with me. The movement felt so natural and graceful, and I really enjoyed (and still enjoy) the fact that the only competition is with yourself.


Over the years, I’ve gone through phases of bouldering, sport climbing, single pitch crack climbing, and long free traditional routes. I even spent a dreadful year or so trying to be a big wall climber (after swapping leads on the Shield for 6 days, I decided that I could officially retire from aid climbing).  I’ve learned so much from each discipline and have loved the experiences, friends, and adventures that I’ve gained from each one.


Tell me a little bit about your history with climbing and being active before kids. What was a typical climbing day/weekend for you? What did a typical work week look like for you?


Before having kids I had a pretty standard weekend warrior training schedule. I worked full time, trained at the climbing gym about twice a week, and would head out of town most weekends for climbing trips. Because we lived so close to Yosemite, we focused most of our energy on doing long free routes, like Half Dome and Astroman. We tried to climb most of the major Valley features together. In the winter months, we spent a lot of time at training and redpointing at Gold Wall and Jailhouse.


What led you guys to want to have children? 


We always knew that we wanted to have children; it was just a matter of when. We both had several career and climbing goals that we wanted to accomplish before having kids. I pretty much assumed that my climbing life as I knew it would be gone forever once we had kids, so I had a mental checklist of things I wanted to do before I settled into life as a mom: climb El Cap, the Rostrum, Astroman, Freeblast, and Half Dome; redpoint 5.13; and travel to Europe and Vietnam to climb. Over the years, I worked my way through each goal. The final goal on my list was a trip to France and Spain. On our last day of that trip, moments before we had to leave to catch our flight home from Siuriana, Spain, I redpointed my first 5.13a, La Ardilla Roja. I had been projecting it for a week and thought it was way more difficult than my ability level. I was on cloud nine when I got home.  I remember thinking “Okay, we can have kids now. If I never climb again, I at least got this amazing experience under my belt.” Exactly one year later we had Ainsley.


You mentioned you had a difficult recovery from your first, can you tell me a little about it? How long before you could be active and climbing again?


The recovery from having Ainsley was awful! It was a pretty rough delivery which involved a nurses labor strike, a posterior baby, and a suction device. Only about two years later did my mother in law—a post-partum maternity nurse in Utah—tell me that I had one of the worst recoveries she had ever seen! I was in the hospital for several days after Ainsley was born, then had to return shortly after due to ripped stitches. I was mainly in bed for about the first two weeks and could only stand to walk for short periods of time for a couple months. Needless to say, climbing was out of the question for awhile. I was pretty sad about having to be so sedentary, especially because I had convinced myself that childbirth would be no big deal and that I’d be able to bounce back within a week or two.  In fact, I was invited to an all-girls wingsuit skydiving event which was to take place three weeks after my due date. I naively RSVP’d that I’d be there. HA! The joke was definitely on me.


About three months after I had Ainsley, I braved the 5.7s at the climbing gym and slowly…very slowly…progressed from there. We had a trip to Verdon Gorge, France planned when Ainsley was 8 months old, which provided good motivation to at least get into the gym every once in awhile in preparation. We were really lucky that Ainsley was such an easy baby. She enjoyed being at the climbing gym and being outdoors on our weekend trips, which was a huge advantage from a logistical perspective. She was adaptable to new environments, and was generally okay with us dragging her around from one climbing area to the next with little regard for things like napping schedules. At least for a year or so anyway…


How was the recovery with your second?


My recovery with Boone was completely opposite from my recovery with Ainsley. He was born in three minutes—no exaggeration—and I was able to start climbing again just a few weeks later.  I felt like myself again really quickly, which totally blew my mind. Andrew was really supportive about helping me get back into good climbing shape right away. He talked me into planning a trip to Kalymnos a few months after having the baby to help motivate me to train. He also took one for the team and stayed home with Ainsley while I climbed in Greece for two weeks with six month old baby Boone and one of my girlfriends. I had a great trip and managed to redpoint a couple 5.13 routes (thankfully, the ratings there are soft), so I felt like I was back in the game.


With Boone in Greece.

With Boone in Greece.


How has having a second changed the dynamic or relationship you have with climbing? Was is seamless or many more logistics?


The transition from one to two was a lot easier than I expected. I think that in general it is easier to go from one to two kids than it is going from zero to one kid. I already had a system down and the resources in place for bringing a baby along climbing, so it wasn’t as difficult as I expected adding Boone into the mix. Of course, as the kids get older, the logistics also change. Now that Boone is entering the toddler phase he wants to run around and explore everything, so he needs constant attention. Ainsley, on the other hand, is old enough now that she’s happy to play with rocks, leaves, or little toys that we bring for her. She’s got her own little harness and shoes now, too, so she feels like she’s included in the climbing trip.


You did a lactating Nose In A Day ascent this fall, this is beyond incredible sounding to me – can you tell me a little about the day? Who did you do it with? Did you pump right before you started and right after you topped out as well?


Doing the Nose in a Day had long been a goal of mine, and my husband and I really wanted to do it together. The logistics of getting to a point where both of us could be away from our kids for two days was the biggest challenge of the whole experience. There were so many aspects that had to line up just perfectly to make the route successful: regaining post-baby fitness, learning to speed climb, finding a good weather window, ensuring that Boone could sleep through the night, and arranging overnight childcare for each kid. Boone was an awful sleeper for his first year and we don’t live near family members for babysitting, so overnight child care was particularly challenging.


Boone was about 13 months when we finally got everything in place, and we went for it full steam. I pumped immediately before we started the route, and then again on the summit. I had planned to pump on the route as well, but we were climbing in blocks pretty fast and were only on the route for about 13 hours, so I didn’t end up having time to stop and do it on route. I was definitely uncomfortable those last few pitches while racing to the summit before sunset! After pumping an impressive amount of milk on the summit, we hiked down and drove straight back home. It was an intense day. As for the milk I pumped at the summit, I actually ended up saving it so that Boone could have some bona fide El Cap milk!


The logistics of pumping and climbing are really pretty simple; it’s just a matter of bringing a hand pump and a bottle. As a nursing mother for a total of about three years, I’ve done a lot of pumping while climbing. I’ve pumped on the NW Face of Half Dome, the West Face of El Cap, the Rostrum, and a handful of other routes. It has definitely created a few awkward moments with my male climbing partners, but luckily I’ve always managed to find a relatively private place behind a rock or tree while they wait for me.


What are your goals for climbing? Do you have personal goals and then goals to do with your kids?


Right now I’m really enjoying long free routes. I recently did the Chouinard-Herbert, Freestone, and Gates of Delirium in Yosemite, working up for an attempt to free Half Dome or Scarface on Liberty Cap sometime this season. For the longer term, I’d really like to climb 8a (5.13b), so there will definitely be some sport climbing training coming up in my future.


My climbing goals for my kids are quite a bit less structured. Ultimately I just want them to grow up in a fun, active environment. Of course I dream of doing long routes with them someday, but for now I just want them to feel happy and included whenever we all go climbing together. My biggest fear is that they get burned out on climbing at a young age or feel resentment toward it because we focus too much on climbing ourselves and not enough time paying attention to them. I guess my overarching goal is to have climbing be a medium for family togetherness and good memories for my kids.


What are a few tips that you would tell active women who are thinking about having kids and how it might change their lives?


I think it’s really important to be goal oriented.  Setting specific goals both pre- and post- children provided me a great way to feel fulfilled before having kids and has been a fantastic motivator for keeping me active afterward. It is equally important to have a positive support system in place for helping you meet your goals. Andrew has been extremely supportive in helping me meet my climbing goals, and I’ve done the same for him. For example, last year when Boone was nursing and not sleeping well, I stayed home with the kids many weekends while Andrew climbed long routes. He climbed El Cap 5 or 6 times last season, so now it’s my turn. This season Andrew is staying on the ground with the kids most weekends while I climb long routes. We love seeing each other succeed, and we both enjoy the support role as much as the climbing role.


On a more practical level, yes, kids are definitely a game changer. Not a game ender, just a game changer. I think that’s an important distinction that I didn’t understand until after I had kids. So many people convinced me that I’d have to give up many of the activities I enjoyed after Ainsley was born, but I found that it doesn’t have to be that way. After we had her we made it a point to continue doing the same things—climbing gym, camping, cragging, skydiving—and make her a part of it.  If you are willing to be adaptable and make a few sacrifices here and there, adding kids into the mix only makes the experiences better. It’s important to have the perspective that your children are the primary source of joy in life, and sharing activities you love with them is what makes life so great.


What are a few tips that you would tell new mamas that have helped you remain active with kids?


For climbing, the rule of three is imperative at the gym or at the crag.  There should always be one person climbing, one person belaying, and one person dedicated to the kids. Having the right kid containment device is really important with babies and toddlers as well.  I wrote a little blurb on Touchstone Climbing’s blog about what I’ve used that worked for us:


We tried a lot of things, including a baby portaledge and Andrew carrying a 22 pound portable crib up to the crag in a big wall haul bag.


Were there any women or families that you drew inspiration from? Or that you leaned on for advice? (I know I have my go to moms that I’m always texting with 🙂


Andrew’s parents have been a great inspiration for raising an active family and for providing continual encouragement and advice. They had four children, and were constantly doing activities as a family like snow skiing, water skiing, camping, and road trips. We learned from their example that the real joy in life is in bringing kids into the family adventures, rather than focusing primarily on our own fun. For the logistics of integrating kids into climbing though, we just made it up as we went along!


Happy family!

Happy family!

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  • Great article. And as a lactating mother and avid climber, I find it really inspiring. Thanks.

    March 24, 2015 at 4:14 pm
  • Thanks for the comment Karyn! I found it incredibly inspiring as well 🙂

    March 24, 2015 at 5:26 pm