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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.


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

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