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Feb 02

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Mother climbing with toddler in a backpack sparks controversy

Climbing Mom, Menna Pritchard, Climbs With Toddler On Her Back – Big News?

This story is all over the news, apparently starting in the UK, now in the US and worldwide.  A British climbing mom, Menna Pritchard, posted a picture in her blog of her climbing with her 2 year old toddler in a baby carrier on her back. How this picture made it from her blog to international news outlets and why it’s so popular is a mystery to me. It certainly is something worthy of commentary in the climbing community especially those of us who go climbing with kids, but I guess it’s provoking outrage in the general population.  Here are some of the news articles if you weren’t aware of the story:

ABC News: Rick-Loving Mom Straps On Toddler for Cliff Climb

MSNBC Today: Crib notes: Mom goes rock-climbing while carrying toddler — confident or careless?

The West Australian: Mum defends rock climbing toddler

The SUN: Is she off her rocker? Anger at mum rock-climbing with toddler strapped to her back

CBS 5 AZ: Mom defends decision to take 2-year-old rock climbing

BBC News: Rock climbing with baby on board for Menna Pritchard and Ffion, two

Is Rock Climbing With a Baby in a Backpack a Good Idea?

I would think that most rock climbers see nothing wrong with taking your children climbing, experiencing the outdoors, sharing your passion for climbing, etc… but should we be outraged at the idea of wearing your baby on a climb?  Here’s my take on this issue:

Helmets – For Rock Climbers and Their Babies

The most obvious safety issue is that the child has no helmet. Both adults in the picture are wearing helmets, but nothing to protect the baby. If the adults think it’s important enough to wear a helmet, wouldn’t you think the same would apply to your precious child? One article says about Menna: “She also said that a helmet was not needed on the route and she wore hers only “out of habit,” a decision she now “regretted” because of how it looks.”  I’m not sure if that quote means that she doesn’t want to wear a helmet because she doesn’t like the way it looks, or because in this particular photo, the contrast of her wearing a helmet and the baby not having a helmet looked bad.  But either way, we don’t wear helmets because we’re concerned about how it looks, we wear them to protect our heads! Yeah, it’s a top roped climb, she’s not likely to fall far, and if there aren’t climbers above them, it’s unlikely they’ll experience rock fall – but why take  chance? (Update: and someone in the comments noted that someone was above them to take the picture and could easily drop gear or dislodge rocks). Other climbers interviewed said there is frequent rock fall at this particular cliff.  But a higher risk than rock fall is if the mother swings when she falls…

Taking a Swing on a Fall

So let’s say rock fall isn’t a risk in this scenario. Then why does the baby need a helmet? Well, what if the mother slips? Depending on the angle of the rock and how the anchor is positioned, there is a chance that she could swing if she falls. The rope could make her spin around, and her side or back could hit the rock. While a fall such as this on a low-angle straight route is not likely to have enough force to strike a blow to the child, note that the baby is NOT wearing a helmet. So even a casual spin that slams mom sideways into the rock could allow the child’s head to hit the rock. This is the main reason why I really want to see a helmet on that child. Even on an easy climb, there is still a risk of the mother slipping and falling, especially with a baby as big as 2 years old whose weight could shift your balance.

Are Baby Carriers Meant for Rock Climbing?

Menna Pritchard’s blog says her favorite baby carrier, which she uses when she takes her child up climbs with her is the ErgoBaby Carrier. While this looks like a nice quality made carrier, it’s not clear how secure the baby is when worn on the back. It looks like she has a lot of wiggle room in the climbing photo. Toddlers are famous for squirming. I remember carrying my baby on hikes and she would love to lean out sideways in the backpack. It doesn’t appear that the baby is wearing a climbing harness or has any way to be secured to the backpack, the mother, or the rope.  Baby carriers aren’t manufactured and tested as safety equipment for rock climbing. If a strap or buckle malfunctions, a child could fall to the ground, which is bad but probably not fatal if you’re walking on the ground. However, 40 feet up a climb, a fall would be fatal. It’s unlikely, but anyone who owns an old backpack can attest that buckles occasionally fail. I just don’t think this carrier is something I would have enough confidence in to take my child up a climb.

Cliffmama helping her kid climbing at the Gunks in 2001.

Helping my 4 year old try climbing at the Gunks

What’s the Point? Do You Need to Rock Climb With Your Toddler in a Backpack?

A child can experience the outdoors and the rock climbing scene without being put at higher risk. I’m all for bringing kids to the crag. Make sure the approach and base of the cliff is safe for a small child, make sure they wear a helmet in case of falling rock, always have an adult around who isn’t climbing or belaying to keep an eye on them, and teach them about climbing safety at an early age. I always said to my girls that they had to listen carefully to the safety rules. I would repeat them every time we went climbing when they were little, and told them if they can’t follow the safety rules, they can’t come climbing with me. When I tell them to do something because of safety, there is no argument.  As soon as my daughters could fit in a child’s body harness, I let them try to climb, even if it was just a few feet up or to dangle and swing around near the base. But they were wearing helmets and harnesses with plenty of adult supervision.

I feel it’s really not necessary to carry a 2 year old up a cliff to expose them to the experience. They won’t remember it at that age anyway! The baby can watch the climbing, can touch the rock and scramble on it with parents spotting, and even dangle on a rope if they have a harness and helmet. But really, what’s the point of carrying the baby up the climb with you? It’s just introducing more risk than necessary!

Should She Be Punished for Climbing With A Baby?

Despite Menna Pritchard’s claims of being very safety conscious, studying a degree in outdoor education, or how many years of climbing experience she has (just over a year), she still has a lot to learn. Despite my 30 years of climbing, I am always learning new things, and I’m open to hear opinions on the safest methods and equipment to enjoy our sport. I believe she really thinks what she’s doing is fine and safe enough. But when it’s the safety of your own child at stake, wouldn’t you think that a mother would want to be as safe as possible? We take risks with ourselves, but is it fair to take risks with your child? A 2 year old cannot express fear, cannot understand danger, and depends on us adults to do what’s in their best interests.

But I can’t help but feel sorry for Menna. She’s getting so much negative publicity from this one photo, and I’m sure she’s not a terrible mother, or a terrible climber. I noticed her blog has taken down the ability to comment. She must be getting a lifetime’s worth of hate mail over this. I don’t agree with some commentators who think she should have her child taken away from her or other radical measures. She’s a climber who had a baby. She wants to climb and share the experience with her child. I felt the same way – geez my blog is dedicated to the idea of climbing with kids. But I was far more cautious about it. I hope this experience will be a learning experience for her. There are many risks involved in rock climbing with a toddler on her back, and there are many ways to include your child in the experience without actually taking them up the climb with you, especially when the circumstances aren’t as safe as they could be. As with any potentially dangerous sport, we need to take the time to think about everything we do, especially when we include our children, considering every risk and hazard, and doing all we can to back things up and make them redundant and minimizing the potential for disaster.  Menna is quoted as saying “I knew 100% it was safe”. An over confident climber who has convinced themselves that climbing is perfectly safe is asking for trouble.

Please comment – I would love to hear your opinions on whether or not you would condone this scenario.

UPDATE: Read Menna Pritchard’s blog to see her response to all this press about the photo of her and her toddler climbing.

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Permanent link to this article: http://cliffmama.com/blog/mother-climbing-with-toddler-controversy/

10 comments

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  1. Eileen

    Nicely summarized.

    When I first read about this I immediately thought of going on a short day hike with one of my nieces on my back in a carrier. I was surprised how much my niece moved and how easily she was throwing off my balance even though she wasn’t even 1 year’s old yet… and this was on a very tame hiking trail that was really more of a walking path / fire road. While I never so much as stumbled during that hike, climbing (even easy routes) is much more of a balancing act and I could just imagine a squirming 2 year old wanting to look all around her.

  2. FlutenJonny

    Parenting is all about deciding what is “good” for your kids, and what isn’t; it’s risk management. Life is full of risks, unavoidable ones, like driving in a car, and avoidable ones like leaving all your household cleaning supplies in a cabinet under the sink without a child safety latch on it…. Key to this is “Risk Spotting” identifying risks in a situation or activity and then managing those risks.

    There is always a grey area when it comes to kids and risk. Kids who grow up on a farm learn to drive tractors, operate various machinery, and are exposed to many risks that city folk would never dream of involving their children in. We teach kids to bike, ice skate, downhill ski, rock climb, swim, race BMX bikes, etc, and each one of these activities calls for the parent to make a judgement, is the activity safe, is the equipment used in good condition and adequate to the task, is my child ‘ready’ to engage in this activity.

    In all decisions about ‘risk’, a parent is also in charge of balancing that against ‘benefit’. To count as a real ‘benefit,’ this benefit has to inure to the child, not to the parent. So ‘benefit’ can not be, it’s convenient or easier or cheaper or any other parental benefit, it must be a benefit to the child. How can we apply this analysis in this case of the climber carrying a baby up a cliff?

    As Cliffmama has pointed out the lack of a helmet is a problem. For me, it falls into the easy to identify risk, and its an avoidable risk and is simple to remedy. A baby carrier ‘adequate to the task’ of carrying a baby up a cliff, that is another matter. While I can imagine what one would look like, all heavy webbing, triple bar stitched, with buckles that double back and lock, side impact protection, and a structure that would protect baby from the many forces that can act on a climber when things go wrong, I can’t imagine why you would build one!

    The simplest part of this whole scenario, and the place where I believe the climber/mother went astray, is ‘what is the benefit’ to the child? When compared with the risks associated with the activity, does the benefit warrant engaging in the risks? I hasten to add, nothing, including lying in your crib is 100% safe, so perhaps part of the problem here, is that due to her inexperience with the sport of climbing, Menna did not accurately assess the potential risks. But the obvious risks of equipment failure, mis-step, loose rock, baby shifting it’s weight, ‘at just the wrong moment’, belayer inattention, simply out weigh the benefit to the baby.

    Even if baby ‘loves’ being up high, loves riding in the baby carrier, loves to hear its mother pant with exertion, or curse with frustration, depending on the circumstances, loves looking at the scenery, the smell of chalk in the morning…whatever, these passions can all be nourished without encurring the potential risks that being a passenger, along for the ride, is subject to.

  3. Tabo

    Great article. As climbing parents, we’ve all had to weather the barrage of criticism.

    One note, there is definitely a climber above them… the one that took the picture. So add a dropped camera to the list of things that could have hit the baby, as well as any debris he might knock off while moving around to get the perfect shot.

    I don’t want to judge them, as we all have a right to decide the level of risk we’re willing to accept. But I certainly would have advised against it, as you said, there’s very little gain for the amount of risk.

  4. Chuck Stephens

    Is rock climbing with a baby in a backpack a good idea? For most people, no. Make that “hell no”. For others, sure, why not? I never climbed with my daughter in a backpack, but I certainly rappelled a few times. Was she wearing a helmet? No, but neither was I. Does that make it better? I made an informed decision, based on my experience and my assessment of the situation and my familiarity with the conditions, that it wasn’t necessary. The risk, while not zero, was very, very low. And in my judgment, on that day and in those conditions, it was acceptable.

    Truth is, back in the 60s and 70s when I was climbing, very few people wore helmets, not the elite climbers or the duffers like me and the rest of SUOC. And I don’t ever remember myself or anyone I was climbing with getting hit by a rock. Could it happen? Sure it could. People have been hit by meteorites while sitting in their living rooms and chunks of frozen excrement falling off of airplanes. I guess the point I’m trying to make, is that on that day, in those conditions, Menna made the decision that the level of risk was acceptable. And I’m not sure we should second-guess her. That being said, wearing helmets is a good idea. I doubt it would have interfered with little Ffion’s enjoyment at all.

    Are baby carriers meant for rock climbing? No, of course not, they’re meant for carrying babies. Ellie (and Ben) used to ride in a Snugli clone my ex sewed up until she got big enough for a Kelty Serac I modified with a seat. I know a little about the Ergo, I got her one for my grandson. It’s a lot like the Snugli, but with a better waist band. It’s a strong, comfortable, stable carrier that no baby is going to fall or even wiggle out of. Of course, it doesn’t have a UIAA fall rating, but it doesn’t need one, they’re top-roping.

    My point is this, we all do the best we can. We make our best decisions and everybody draws the line in a different place. What I’m comfortable with might not be right for you, and neither of us might match Menna’s choices. This is really being blown out of proportion because somebody saw a picture on Facebook. Look at it this way, a lot of people seeing the picture of you and . . . Jasmin(?) would be saying the same things. Sure, she’s wearing a helmet, but, umm, you’re not. And you’re certainly in the same fall zone. I don’t think you’re a bad parent. I don’t think Menna’s a bad parent. But there are sure a helluva lot of people who think all three of us are. Screw them. I made the decision almost thirty years ago that I would not raise my kids in a rubber room. Do Ellie and Ben remember rappelling when they were two (on my chest)? I really doubt it but they love the outdoors to this day. They are strong, confident, capable adults and I have to believe at least part of it is due to being with us wherever we went, climbing, caving, canoeing, or just camping. We let them stretch and reach and experience life and learn to make good decisions of their own. We have a saying in my scout troop. “We’re not here to keep them comfortable, we’re here to keep them safe. And safety means making sure it’s not terminal. For everything else there’s band-aids.”

  5. Ebeth

    Same should apply to cats. I heard a story about a girl who climbed with her cat in a backpack. I mean I know the life of a child and a cat are no comparison but a life is a life. Nice article J!

  6. Jaimie

    I can understand what the mom was feeling. When my daughter was small I was often tempted to strap her to my back and go for a bike ride or do an easy climbing route. But while I thought she would be safe in the carrier and I knew I wouldn’t fall, I can’t account for when or how much she would wiggle and throw off my balance. The reason I never did that is because of all the unexpected things that can happen when enjoying these sports. For every scenario I can think of where something goes wrong, I imagine there must be ten others I didn’t think of. I sympathize with this mom’s longing to do what she loves, and to include her young child. I don’t think it warrants her child being taken away: that seems a little extreme. She is lucky the child didn’t get hurt, and I don’t think she will do it again. Lesson learned, let’s move on.

  7. joe climber

    ya sorry but this woman is putting her kid in dangerous situation. baby carriers are not climbing approved equipment. Nice that she protects her head with a helmet. I guess baby skulls are more resilient to rock fall??? if the carrier tips to one side or the other the baby could slide out and crater… why do stupid people have kids?

  8. Erica Lineberry (Cragmama)

    Very good analysis. I appreciate the way that you stated your opinion without butchering the mom in question. While I wholeheartedly agree with your opinion on how foolish, dangerous, and altogether unnecessary it is to drag your unhelmeted and unharnessed child up a cliff face, I also agree that Menna is probably not the horrible mom a lot of people are making her out to be. Thanks for posting!

  9. Thomas Perkins

    On the whole, a bad call I’d say… I concur with Mama on the helmet conflict (I confess to having not read the entire post, much less the train of commentary).

    On falls, I’d worry about the impact even the most innocuous of falls would have on such a little frame. And what of the potential of the baby getting caught between the parent’s bulk in the event of a fall?

    Hmmm…the carrier… If you dumped it upside down, would the baby remain securely aloft?

    On the other hand, I’ve tethered my son Sage’s harness to mine on scrambles that made me nervous, so I might be convinced certain climbs and certain climbers could go about this safely. Nothing to be trifled with though.

  10. Don

    It’s her child. Why is that people can smoke, drink and God knows what else to death and that’s OK, but this causes such an uproar. I do think it wasn’t was so clever the mother wearing a helmet and the child not. At the same time I allowed my kids to do lots of risky things from an early age. One problem of course is the picture. We don’t really know how steep the rock face, how high up she was or, for that matter, how difficult the climb would normally be. Where the mother wasn’t so clever was posting the picture on the net, because of her degree course. if you’re going to do such things, no problem, but don’t advertise to the whole world. That strikes me as being naive and thoughtless.

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