Caroline Ciavaldini | How The Climber Balances Outdoor Risk With Motherhood
The North Face's Caroline Ciavaldini on how she combines being a mother with being a climber
The North Face recently released New Life, a film about Caroline Ciavaldini’s adventure into motherhood. It explores what it means to be a professional female climber adjusting to the changes in her body, climbing ability, and lifestyle during pregnancy and as a new mum.
Caroline has been climbing for 24 years and is currently sponsored by The North Face, La Sportiva, Wild country, Altissimo and more. Her climbing partner, James Pearson, is also her life partner – together they have a son, Arthur (now two and a half years old), and they’re expecting their second child in October.
We caught up with Caro to chat about her transition from athlete to athlete and mum, rediscovering her identity as a climber, and how she manages to climb with a newborn.
Daisy: Hey Caro, thanks for your time. The conversation around sport and pregnancy is still quite taboo. I’m sure there are lots of women out there having similar experiences, so let’s dive right in…
Did you do anything different at the crag when you were pregnant?
Caroline: “Until the fourth month, I kept on leading, but I was making sure to only chose routes where I couldn’t hurt myself in a fall, so overhanging routes where you would fall in the air only. Then at four and a half months, I stopped leading because it didn’t feel good anymore with my growing belly.
“I adapted my harness with extra slings to rearrange the weight onto the legs, and brought down the intensity little by little. Finally, I stopped climbing at eight months, as it started to feel uncomfortable.”
Daisy: What was the reaction from other people who saw you climbing pregnant? And what do you think is the general perception of women climbing during pregnancy?
Caroline: “I haven’t had any negative comments, actually – just questions on how I was doing this and that. In general, people are sometimes surprised, but they are mostly open-minded. It is proven that sport at medium intensity is beneficial for mum and baby, and climbing below your max level is quite a smooth activity. I never felt better than when I was climbing, walking was very uncomfortable actually! I guess it’s because my body is so used to climbing!”
Daisy: Did you have a cut off date in your pregnancy to stop climbing and how did your partner James feel about you climbing whilst pregnant?
Caroline: “No, I didn’t. James and I talked about it, and after taking advice from a friend who is a climber and a midwife, we decided that I would stop when it didn’t feel right in my body anymore. I am an athlete, so I am pretty used to listening to the little signs my body gives me, so I thought I would be able to figure it out.”
“It is proven that sport at medium intensity is beneficial for mum and baby”
Daisy: How has your body changed after giving birth? How long did it take to heal?
Caroline: “I had lost a lot of my strength; I was floppy and had no upper body muscles. After my birth, I was diligent with my perineal re-education. I think that was crucial for my recovery – oh and also I had a very good midwife! She gave me the green light little by little for different exercises until she allowed me to begin training properly again at three months, focusing on my form.”
Daisy: When did you start climbing again after giving birth, and how did it feel? Did you find the mental aspect of climbing hard?
Caroline: “After one and a half months, I was given the all-clear to climb again from my midwife. But I began very slowly, with five minutes on the wall, using any holds. It was so hard. I felt like I’d become really bad. It was pretty disheartening to see how low my level had gone, and I had the temptation to let myself disappear behind my baby, to just be a mum.
“I didn’t, though, because I had people who believed in me, and in the long run, it was a great decision. I think I need to be a climber as well to be myself. In the first months, I could train my body, but my brain was always half focused on the baby’s needs. Then I began projecting more challenging routes, 8a, 8a+, the 8b, then 8b+, and I sort of cut my brain in two to be able to be a mum AND a climber. My memory was not great, I had little time to visualise, but I made do with whatever I had… and little by little, it came back.”
Daisy: What’s important to know as a new mum getting back into climbing?
Caroline: “As a young mum trying to ‘come back to her sport’, you are demanding a lot of your body to train and get back to full fitness while you lack sleep, your hormones make your tendons weaker, and you’re generally exhausted and not mentally prepared. A trainer would tell you that these are perfect conditions to create an injury. So, the biggest difficulty is to train without going too far too fast.”
Daisy: How did you get your body working “normally” again after giving birth?
Caroline: “I started with little generic exercises, like doing a lot of different arm movements with 1 kilogram weights in each hand, pull-ups with elastics and push-ups on my knees. I had no chance to have 2 hours of freedom in a row, so I kept my little weights handy in my living room and would do little bits with the baby in a baby carrier in between feeds.”
Daisy: Did you find becoming a new mum threw your identity into question?
Caroline: “Having a kid means that suddenly you have zero free time. Even having a 5-minute shower was complicated. In general, I found the first three months extremely hard. I was quite surprised that people do manage to go through it without exploding.
“James and I were very cautious not to ask each other if we had made a bad decision… but I am pregnant again, so in the long run, we are extremely happy to be parents! Our mini one makes our life better, and he hasn’t changed who we are. Rather, he’s entered our lives and made us make changes that we believe are better. Now we appreciate little joys more. We travel slower (first it was only to handle the baby, now it’s because we have realised how much more you get to see and discover when you travel slowly), which is also important for protecting the environment too.”
“You have to know yourself. Know your body and how you feel in yourself”
Daisy: James is your climbing partner as well as life partner, how has having a child changed your relationship?
Caroline: “Nothing has really changed for climbing. We have to give each other the time to train and focus on projects, but it’s not so different from before! People think belaying is dangerous for pregnant women, but it’s not if it’s a long route with a long slow fall and you don’t make a mistake. The most important thing I think is, you have to know yourself. Know your body and how you feel in yourself. And when James would climb hard routes with dangerous belays, then we’d take friends with us.
“We started back bouldering first so that there was less risk. One of us would hold the baby while the other would boulder, which honestly made me better at bouldering. There’s no one spotting you, so you have to be strong, learn to fall better and be more aware. Then when I started climbing again, we would belay from trees using a dynamic reverso device. It’s not a textbook system, but it worked for us. When we’re a group, James and I take it in turns to climb while the other holds the baby.
“We have less time for each other, but we marvel at our child every day; we are both in this adventure hand in hand. In general, I think it’s made our life, which was already great, even better!”
Daisy: What advice would you give any new mums who are trying to get back into climbing?
Caroline: “I would simply tell them that they can do it! They just need a good support around them. Involve the dad so that he takes half of the weight, involve grandparents… You are a mum, but you are also a person, and you deserve to have your own passion!
“And get a baby tent – it’s amazing. We put Arthur in it all the time when we’re at the crag, and even at home. He loves it! It’s super light and just pops up, there’s a mattress in it so he can be comfortable to sleep, and we zip him in so he can’t go anywhere while we climb. So if there’s an emergency during bouldering you know he’s safe. He’s so comfortable now that he goes in it at home to nap.”
“You are a mum, but you are also a person, and you deserve to have your own passion”
Daisy: How do you manage risk as a new mum? Is James involved in your decision-making process?
Caroline: “James and I always discuss risk a lot together, as it is better to be two brains in thinking things through, so you have fewer chances of forgetting an element or underestimating something. Actually, when you become a mum you realise that you will never be able to suppress all risk from your child’s life: the very first time you let him go down the stairs without going down ahead to catch him in case he fell, you let him take a risk… but you also let him grow.
“Having Arthur has made me realise that life is only good if you accept that it’s risky and that things could go wrong. So I have integrated that in my climbing, accepted that I need to keep on allowing myself to take some risks in my life or remove all enjoyment from it! And this is knowledge that James and I try to teach Arthur. Life comes with risk, and he needs to learn to manage his risk-taking in his life, every step that he takes, every time he jumps off a rock, every time he climbs in a tree!”
“Having Arthur has made me realise that life is only good if you accept that it’s risky and that things could go wrong”
Daisy: Why do you choose to climb high-risk routes as mum?
Caroline: “I will never know if I am definitely right, but I think that the risks I take are calculated. Of course, a rock could fall on me if I am unlucky when I am new routing in Ethiopia, or I could hurt myself if I make a mistake and fall off a trad route… But I practice, think, check and double-check. I try to control the risk. Just like a new mum keeps on driving, but maybe she makes sure her airbags work, doesn’t drive if she is very tired… We all take risks in our lives, but sometimes we think it’s ok because everyone does it, but that doesn’t make it less risky!”
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