Climbing With Kids: Zoe Hart Interview
I met Zoe Hart and her two adorable boys last fall in El Cap Meadow. I was just embarking my journey of being solo with a four-month Theo in Yosemite for the next few months – nervous, anxious, excited and a little bit proud of myself. Zoe was on a long road trip across the United States with both of her kids, solo, living in a rented camper van. They had thought of getting their own camper van, but when they looked at the fact that they would need to get camper van insurance and all the other bits and bobs that come with a van, they thought it would be easier to just rent it for the time being (but might change their mind in the future). I was immediately amazed. Mattias was about two and a half and Mika almost a year. “How the heck is she doing it?” I thought to myself. The boys were running around, covered in sand and dirt with smiles plastered across their faces. Seeing her and her boys helped my fears about solo parenting in the mountains tip more to exited than nervous.
Zoe is one of the most accomplished women alpinists out there. She lives with her family in Chamonix, France, one of the best playgrounds for alpine rock climbing and skiing in the world. After chatting with her last fall, I was relieved to hear that she was able to get back to full strength after a difficult first postpartum recovery with her first. And, equally relieved to hear that her recovery with her second was much easier.
She was kind enough to open up about her decisions on having kids, how it’s changed her life, and how she still gets after it with two young boys running around. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, thanks Zoe!
You are one of the first American women to get their IMFGA certification – an amazing accomplishment and super rad. Can you tell me a little bit on how you got into climbing, what led you to pursue alpinism, etc?
When I was a freshman in college my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack when he was on a run, at the age of 43. That pretty much rocked my world. Up until then I was ‘living the dream’ of the average college kid, partying a lot, and playing Division 1 Sports. After losing my father that didn’t seem to make much sense.
I went home to New Jersey where my family is for a year and while I’m glad I did, living in New Jersey felt suffocating. I found a NOLS course and went off for a month in the north cascades. It was like I found my people and my home. My parents had bought a dodge van when they got married, traded all their wedding gifts in for camping gear, and took off out west. They lived and camped and hung out with the beat generation in Boulder, Portland, and beyond. While they ultimately made it back home to be near family with their kids they spent most of their life telling us those stories about their beat experiences and I wanted the same sort of life. Climbing was the perfect mix of the beat life and sports.
After college I moved to the West Coast and lived in my car, found my way to Chamonix, and continued on that path ever since. When the kids arrived, I knew that they wouldn’t be able to climb with me. I then started looking at the best hoverboards for offroading and decided to buy them one to play with whilst I was climbing. I didn’t want them to be stuck inside on their phones so a hoverboard seemed like the perfect option. Now that they’re older they can come climbing with me, so that’s fun!
How did you and Max make the decision to start a family? Did it come easy for two professional mountain guides?
Funny enough, I really didn’t want kids, I didn’t want to get married either. As a kid or young adult I felt that all the barriers or stereotypes, as I saw them then, were oppressive, and I didn’t want to fall into the ‘normal life’ of marriage and mom. It wasn’t until I met max that the thought started to enter my mind. Slowly it crept in and each time we were having an epic in the mountains or I was walking in the dark up Mont Blanc at midnight, I kept going to the idea of wanting kids.
In spring of 2011 I had an accident speed riding, I had a brain hemorrhage. Before that we had been pushing the boat out quite a bit and it felt like I didn’t know how to find a way to stop. I think when you identify yourself as an alpinist it feels like you have to push more and more and further and harder to make your career have meaning. I started thinking of Sue Nott who was a mentor of mine, who was 36 when she died, and she was climbing super hard and hanging it out there. I had so much respect for her. But I also knew she wanted a family with Jon Varco, her partner, at some point and that never happened. So for me it felt like maybe it was time to make a change.
Max was sick and ended up in surgery just a few weeks after my injury that really made me think. If something were to happen to him or us I would regret not having kids. That is when we began to wrap our heads around it. While I would never go back and change things, it was also kind of a tough decision. I wasn’t really ready for it, but also had realized I didn’t want to miss out on having kids.
I know you mentioned that your recovery from Mathias (your first) was pretty rough, but then not so bad with Mika (your second), can you tell me a little about each recovery, and how soon you were able to get back to climbing and skiing? What limitations were you faced with?
For me pregnancy was hard, not physically, I was able to do a lot, ski, climb, guide. I guided until about 7 months pregnant and was skiing until about 7.5. My kids were big and healthy. But psychologically it was tough. We are used to being in control of our bodies and when I was pregnant I wasn’t. Body image issues came out of nowhere that I never imagined I loved the feeling of growing a being, but I had such a hard time with my pregnant body, the changing, putting on weight, etc.
Mathias’s birth landed me in a 2 hour operation because he was a large baby, with a large head, and wasn’t descending. I was scared that I would end up in an emergency C-Section and didn’t want that at the time. Due to that I ended up pushing too hard and had a grade 4+ tear.
They gave me Mathias for two minutes and then things got hectic and I got rushed into surgery. Emotionally I didn’t realize how hard the experience was until a long time after. I kind have always just faced the cards I was dealt but actually rather than feeling euphoric about my new baby I felt more like “what the hell just happened to my life?”
I had nurses and doctors pouring in daily saying if I didn’t take time to heal and do the right rehab I would have lifelong problems.
I felt super isolated after that. Many of my girlfriends had had a baby and were climbing a week later. For me, I remember going for my first walk and feeling like I would die. I couldn’t climb or really exercise for 6 months. I had to be super careful carrying Mathias and couldn’t carry him in a baby carrier for a while. Slowly I recovered and emotions healed, but I didn’t climb for almost 6 months, the longest I could remember. It was also hard on my body image again. You don’ t really realize before having a baby how long it takes your body to get back to a semblance of before, and not being able to exercise made me obsess more about body changes. As until then I had always been able to manage it with exercise.
On the other side of that story is the silver lining! I never realized how much I’d love being a mom, and I think that if I were able to do sports right after having Mathias, I would have felt like I needed to prove to myself I could get back after it, I was still who I was before. Chamonix, or any other mountain town for that matter, is a super competitive place, and it’s hard to separate yourself at times. Basically my injury forced me to live slow with Mathias and I realized that while I love climbing and wanted it back in my life, I loved being a mom and was happy to let go some of my ego and my climbing goals.
How has your life changed since having Mathias? And then how has it changed having a second?
I think that having Mathias showed me another side of me that sometimes I don’t want to accept, the side that is okay with going slow, the side that is okay not to climb on a sunny day sometimes. The side that is okay with sitting out a powder day.
With Mathias we travelled a lot. Partly because I wanted to prove to myself we wouldn’t stop moving, and partly because it is how I want him to experience the world. He visited 13 countries before he was 1. We spent 6 weeks in a camper van in Australia and Tasmania. These are some of my best memories, just traveling as a family.
For us, traveling by camper van is the best way to explore a country at your own pace. There is nothing quite like being able to wake up and hit the road on your own time schedule! We are actually in the midst of planning our next road trip and have our sights set on Iceland.
Of course, we would not be able to take our own camper van with us to Iceland so we have been looking at some rental vehicles online. A friend of ours told us that in iceland camper rental companies can get really busy so it is important to hire your camper van before your trip for peace of mind.
Anyway, going back to those early days of our travel adventures, Mika came along quickly, and two is definitely a whole lot more work than one. The first year was hectic and stressful, but Mika is almost two now and their relationship is so awesome and it’s so worth it.
I think the biggest thing that happened was that I finally accepted to go a bit slower, and when that happened we had such a better time. I didn’t realize how small the scale is for kids, and I always wanted to go so big with them. But sometimes puddle jumping in the driveway is the best. There is no stress no rushing, it is familiar and just easy and fun.
For Mika, the doctor instantly wanted to schedule a c-section to avoid the first experience. But I wasn’t convinced. I felt that, yes things can go wrong, but things can go right. So i found a different doctor that was much more in line with how I felt, it meant driving an hour to Annecy to have the baby. In the end he came super quickly, in a natural, drug free birth. It was such a different experience, I remember the joy of the moment of being with Max and Mika and just relaxing. But I value both experiences really. There is so much pressure and stigma now on how you have your birth, and really the hardest pressure to face is your internal expectations. You don’t really need anyone else to add to that.
What does a typical day at home in Chamonix look like? How are you able to climb/ski/get out?
Ha! Typical is funny. What I’ve learned the most intimately about kids is that I am no at all able to have a schedule. I love freedom. Mathias started pre-school this year and it is so hard for me to feel like I have to have him there at a certain time and ask permission to go away.
But while we live far from family we are lucky to have a good socialized support system. Both kids had subsidized nannies from about 8 months to 18 months and then day care. This allows me a lot of freedom.
My jobs have been very flexible, guiding, working for Patagonia as a marketing consultant, writing, finishing my masters at Harvard by distance.
Generally Max (my husband) has less flexibility than me, so I’ve made my schedule work so that I can have some time for myself and some with the kids. Usually they go to school or daycare about 3 days a week. We travel so much that I feel like we get a ton of quality time. I tried working at home with the kids, but felt that it was a better experience for them to get the attention they needed and social interaction at daycare or the nanny, and for me to work hard for a short period of time.
Some days they go from about 9-4 and I work, guide, ski, climb for the whole day, and some days I send them for a half day. The days we are all together usually consists of doing something outside, climbing, hiking, biking, going into the mountains on the lift, visiting a farm….ANYTHING Outside.
I try to organize between myself and Max and babysitters that they never spend really long days at school because they are little and I like them to explore outside more than they do at school.
I found it’s been hard to just get out, and for a while I did a lot of shorter days and didn’t accomplish much. I decided it feels most productive to spend super quality days with them and get 2 days outside or for myself rather than 4 half days.
All that said, I struggle a lot with guilt over choosing to climb, or even to work, it is something I need but sometimes feel really guilty about.
Is climbing/the outdoor lifestyle more “normal” in France, particularly Chamonix? Is it pretty normal to see kids and families at the crags or out skiing in the mountains?
I think the outdoor lifestyle in Cham is super normal, but thats because it’s an outdoor resort town. I imagine it would be similar to Telluride or another USA mountain town. But one thing I realized is that we don’t have a ton of baby yoga classes, or baby music classes, or things like that. I thought for a while that was a detriment to my kids. But then I realized we have nature. We go cross country skiing with the Chariot, we go hiking in the mountains. It’s just normal here, that’s what families do.
Climbing with kids is not as common as I feel it is with my USA friends, but mostly I think it is logistics. Many of the crags aren’t safe for kids. That being said this summer we met up with all our friends at a local crag that is good for kids and not for adults and would try to get them to climb all together. Mathias had a climbing birthday party for his 3rd birth day with about 15 other little kids climbing it was so awesome.
How do the boys do traveling so much? Is it just part of their normal routine? Any tips for families wanting to travel climb?
My kids are awesome travelers. That is to say they adapt to change really well, doesn’t mean they don’t have meltdowns on the plane. Because we have done so much travel in their lives it is normal. Mathias calls all the places’ that we rented over the past few years his homes. When we were visiting Patagonia for work that was his California home. Patagonia was super kind and allowed our kids to drop in for 2 weeks while I worked a few times and he calls that his California school. We went kite surfing in North Carolina this year, that was his North Carolina home, etc. Kite Surfing seems to be a favourite among the family, so I would imagine we will be looking for a new place soon to head and do that again.
Some people say their kids will only sleep in their own bed and if you change that they won’t sleep. That freaked me out. But I realized that you can teach your kids to be comfortable with change. Both kids love the idea of change and travel as exciting and new. It also teaches them not to be super attached to material things. They don’t care that much if we bring toys with us when we travel, they play with anything from pots to boxes to dry pasta. And in that they teach me a lot about the lack of importance of possessions.
I have learned to try to slow down a bit for them when we change time zones, that a lot of Mathias’s tantrums came from me pushing him too fast and this is such a great learning process for me.
The harder thing is for them to say goodbye to people they love so often. It is really hard for Mathias. But he loves meeting ‘new fwends’ and loves to tell stories about them to me. We lay in bed at night and ‘dream together’ he tells me what he will dream about, it’s the wanderings of his mind. It usually has to do with travel, friends, places, he even has a globe he sleeps with to pick places he wants to go.
I love how much they learn from travel, meeting new people, seeing new lifestyles.
Hmmm advice. I think the thing is you just have to be ready for it to suck sometimes. For sure being home, having routine, familiarity is easier for little kids. But they are also so resilient so give them a chance. Don’t travel tired. Don’t bring a lot of crap, it’s more hassle to carry it all than to have yet another car. Accept help when its offered. Traveling with two kids solo, which I’ve done a lot because of Max’s work schedule, opens you up to needing and taking help.
Lastly, what was the best advice someone gave you when you wanted to start a family and maintain your lifestyle?
Be open, be flexible, but keep trying. You never know what kind of kid you’ll have or how you will feel, so just see what happens when it comes. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Sometimes I yearn to have been that mom who just wanted to stay home for a year. But also accept who you are. I realized if that’s what I wanted I would have it. Don’t get sucked into the world of toys and crap and that being a way to provide your kids with happiness and you with fulfillment. Just spend a lot of money on good travel toys! Chariot with bike and ski attachment, an Osprey Poco backpack, Ergo baby carrier, and a good off road stroller and you are set! Don’t forget to let your kids teach you watch, learn and listen. It’s normal to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and maxed out, but don’t let that drive you into a state of fear dictated choices. Your kids will get sick, whether it’s at your home or in a developing country. Your kids will get hurt. With all of our travel our biggest accident was when Mathias broke his leg in my mom’s kitchen, walking. It is amazing to be able to give your kids your time, love and attention, but it is also a great gift to show them what your passions are, who you were and are before they showed up, and to inspire them so don’t leave yourself behind in your journey to be a great parent.