Climbing With Kids: In Praise of the Third Wheel
As climbers, when we become parents, most of us become boulderers by default. I can feel the cringe from some Valley locals now, but at least for my family, it’s true. Fortunately, Randy and I love bouldering, but there’s no doubt that bouldering can been the easiest form of climbing with kiddo in tow. Single-pitch cragging almost always means finding a third person so that one parent is able to watch and attend to the child (unless you are in the pre-mobile stage or self entertaining stage, both of which we are not). And multi-pitch only has only worked for us when we are lucky enough to have a doting grandparent around or peel away from each other and climb with a friend.
Last spring, we planned a three-month trip abroad. Randy got time off of work and we set out to visit some of our favorite destinations, this time with Theo in tow. We’d go to Font and meet up with a handful of friends with kids and then drop down to the southern hemisphere and visit Rocklands. See, all bouldering.
Our plans weren’t set in stone, however. After booking our tickets to France I casually mentioned, “Man, wouldn’t it be amazing to go to Ceuse, too?” I clearly was searching for the cherry on top.
“Um yeah, but how’s that going to work?” Randy, the pragmatist, countered. “I can’t really see hiking up uphill an hour each day carrying Theo and then one of us bumming belays from someone?”
Alas, he was right. But I’m a pretty stubborn person and couldn’t shake the dream of impeccable French limestone routes high on a hill in the Alps. Plus, I really started to miss climbing on a rope. So I started thinking of other ways to make it happen.
My first thought would be to invite another family. Why? Because they already get it. They get ALL of it. They know that there will be delays. They know that things can take 10 times longer than they should. Their expectations won’t involve sending really hard or racking up more pitches than an El Cap route every day. And they would know that we all commit to watching and protecting each other’s children at all times, all while being mindful of making sure everyone gets a fair turn on the rock.
But most of our friends are boulderers and had already committed to joining us in Font and couldn’t swing more time off for a voyage down to Provence.
Both sets of grandparents were busy caring for their parents, so I started entertaining an idea that was so unattainable, so preposterous, so unlikely that the chances of it ever working out were less than nil. But it was our only hope, there was no harm in trying.
I would try to find a Third Wheel.
I pictured this Third Wheel as a unicorn, a soldier, a saint. A climber who willingly signs up to be the third member of a climbing-family junk show. It is a person who pulls double belay duty and endures lengthy game-day delays as we parents endure through tears and fits about why you can’t leave the house without pants and shoes. It takes a special type of person to fly halfway around the world to endure this kind of anxiety-inducing state, all with a big smile.
There was one person who immediately came to mind as a potential Third Wheel: My dear friend Emily Harrington—who as many of you know is a badass climber, skier, and connoisseur of fun and adventure.
I’d traveled, climbed and lived with Emily enough to know that I could be honest and ask her without insulting her. Afterall, Theo’s first nights away from home when he was only 7 weeks old were at Emily’s house in Tahoe. She’d seen me in my most fragile state, asking her to come climbing seemed mellow compared to showing her my broken postpartum body…however I didn’t want to seem too desperate.
“Em! Adrian heading to Everest in April?” Her boyfriend, Adrian, is an Everest guide—again, she’s not your average person.
“Yeah, AB doing a big hike in April… I’m around!” she said. Perfect! I threw my arms up in happiness. She was available, now all I had to do was be upfront about expectations. I couldn’t sugarcoat it, but also didn’t want it sound worse than it’s (probably maybe) going to be (fingers crossed).
“Any chance you’d want to come with us to Ceuse? It’ll be perfect conditions and we’ll have long days to get in tons of pitches and get into shape. Randy and I would trade Theo duties so you could climb as much as you want. Theo is pretty mellow right now, aside from the occasional toddler meltdown. And we make really good food, too!”
I cringed hitting send, in part because Theo was currently melting down about his missing bulldozer. Emily responded:
“I would LOVE to go sport climbing and see what your family circus is all about!”
I jumped up and down, did a little dance, and threw a rack of draws and our harnesses into our duffel bags, Emily had just become our unicorn.
We arrived in France in early March and spent six weeks time bouldering in Font. We thoroughly adjusted to the time change before Emily joined us, a very smart move.
Emily arrived on a Tuesday and Randy picked her up at the Paris airport during Theo’s nap time. Her first few days were a deep dive into what it’s like to drag a bunch of kids around to a climbing area. Day one: we momentarily lost Fitz at the boulders, 13-month-old Ingrid got four ticks embedded in her (which required three adults to remove them: one to pin her down, one to soothe her, and another to use tweezers to pluck the microscopic buggers out) and Theo then had a meltdown when I tried to give him a tick check, which was so loud I couldn’t even hear Emily asking me how she could help.
The next day, bleary-eyed, it took us three hours to pack lunches and get dressed, and we spent the rest of the afternoon bouldering in the damp Fontainebleau forest.
“Welcome to your two-week European sport climbing vacation!” I said to Emily. “I hope you don’t hate us by the end.”
After our last two days bouldering in Fontainebleau, we made the long drive down to southern France.
There’s something special about living with a person other than your partner or family. At first there is a break-in period of figuring out how to give each other appropriate space, where you can fit your favorite food in the fridge, who needs coffee or tea first thing, and who can wait. I was nervous that Emily, who doesn’t have kids, would see what it’s really like to have a child. I kept joking that it was the perfect birth control trip, but I was secretly worried that she’d regret coming, or worse, our friendship would be damaged.
But soon, we settled into a groove, and the times before and after climbing when we the four of us were all together ended up being the most memorable, best times of the entire trip. I watched Theo and Emily develop a special bond, at the house and at the crag. They had their morning routine of making coffee, which developed a huge following on Instagram, who knew? Emily painted Theo’s nails, colored with him each night and let him pick the music. She masqueraded as the Easter Bunny, hiking ahead of us with a bagful of chocolates and easter eggs, hiding them in pockets at the base of the crag and helped orchestrate an Easter egg hunt. She coached him through his first time sport climbing, and always waited for him to pull the rope down each time she climbed—a big deal for a two-year-old! She and Theo would FaceTime with Adrian on Everest, which obviously he didn’t understand, but each time the phone would ring, he’d run to her side. She added all those things in and went with the flow on our slow-moving family circus. On top of all of that, she sent hard routes and got fit for her month in Spain after we parted ways.
By the end of the trip, it felt less like a circus and more like a big family.
Theo always asks about Emily whenever there is coffee around or whenever we go sport climbing. “Emily gonna be there?”
So, here’s a big thanks to our Third Wheel, Emily. You are a true saint, and now and always part of our family. We couldn’t have done it without you!
Aira Loren Burkhart
This is so true! We have a close climber friend that our daughter absolutely adores. Whenever she goes climbing with us, I know we are going to have a great day. She even joined us on a day-trip despite knowing that we (spouses) were in the middle of an ugly couple’s fight. Only a true friend could hear, “I hate to tell you this, but we’re in the middle of an epic fight. If you don’t want to join us, I totally understand,” and still throw her bag in the car and settle-in to make faces at our toddler. By the time we reached the crag 2.5 hours later, everyone had chilled out, thanks to our third-wheel/personal saint of cragging.
I am so grateful for the many friends that harness up for the family circus. They make everything possible.
Sounds like you found a gem Aira! Those friends are so amazing and important. We feel fortunate to have a few ourselves 🙂 Thanks for reaching out!
Love this post! We try to organize groups to meet in the gyms. It’s a struggle!
Thanks Trevor! Totally a struggle, but when you can find them it is amazing! All my best.
I’m glad you found someone to climb with you guys! Our friend Jeff was our hero this past summer, braving a month-long road trip with us and our 2 year old through Colorado, Wyoming, & Utah. It was great! 🙂
Aren’t they invaluable!? Glad that you have such a great friend in Jeff doing a month-long road trip! 🙂