Annie top rope climbing with a full body harness, helmet and tight belay

top rope rock climbing while pregnant in Joshua Tree National Park

Rock Climbing While Pregnant

Better Understanding Pregnant Climbers

It’s common for women to feel other people’s opinions all over their body during pregnancy.  From diet, to exercise to the daily choices she makes, pregnant women often find themselves under the fire of advice or judgement throughout their pregnancy.  Exercise is no exception to this.  While we can find loads of information about running during pregnancy, there is very little information to be found about rock climbing during pregnancy.  Fortunately, for climbing women, we can still benefit from what our jogging sisters have proven for us: running is beneficial, not dangerous for both mama and baby.  And if the much higher impact of running is safe, so too would be top roping with a hard belay.

Experienced rock climbers know that climbing can be one of the most low-impact, safe activities next to swimming.  Contrarily, the common non-climber impressions about rock climbing often involves danger, thrill seeking and adrenaline.  While it is true that climbing can be all of those elements and is often sensationalized as being so, it is simply not the case for most climbers most of the time.  In fact, your typical climber spends a great deal of energy reducing risks and focuses more on methods of being safe than thrill seeking.  In the case of pregnant climbers or (incidentally) most people who hire rock climbing guides, the climber is on a top rope system with a tight belay: an almost failsafe way to engage in the sport.
 

What is a Top Rope?

There are many different forms of rock climbing.  Some involve ropes, some do not. Of roped climbing, there are different ways to engage even still.  Lead climbing, following, and top roping are all examples. Of all these variations, top roping with other experienced climbers is the safest form of climbing.  In fact, it can be accomplished with 0% chance of falling if set up correctly with an attentive belayer.  So, what is a top rope?  Imagine there is a rock climbing route.  At the top of the route, there is an anchor with a climbing rope running through it.  On one end of the rope, a climber is tied in.  At the other end, a belayer is holding the rope with a belay device, preventing the climber from falling at any point of the climb.  As the climber moves up, slack is put into the system and the belayer pulls that slack out of the system to keep the rope taught. As long as the belayer is attentive, the rope should stay taught and the climber is always safe.
 

What is a ‘tight belay’?

Rock climbers usually use dynamic climbing ropes.  This means that there is some stretch to the rope which minimizes impact to the climber in the event of a fall (the way a trampoline minimizes the impact of a falling body).  A tight belay is a style of belaying that pulls part of that stretch out of the rope.  For the belayer, this means they are pulling all the slack they can (to the point that they are stretching the rope between themselves and the climber).  For the climber it will feel as though the belayer is holding them close to the wall, as there will be so much tension in the rope.  The rope itself will be tight like a wire in the top rope system.  A tight belay has already pulled out some (or all) of the stretch of the rope.  So, in the event that a top rope climber ‘falls’ on a tight belay, she should not fall far at all.  This distance is about the difference from standing upright with the hips close to the climbing wall, to a reclined sitting position in the harness. This is really not like falling at all. It could better be described as leaning back or sitting down into the harness to take a rest. However, unlike the impact of just plopping down in a seat, the rope will be a bit slow to complete its stretch given the friction against the rock and the bend in the rope at the anchor.  The impact is similar to a rock in a rocking chair or sway in a hammock.


What does it all mean?

In other words, if rock climbing is too dangerous for pregnant women, based on the risk of falling and impact, then pregnant women should definitely avoid riding in a car, walking heavy footed over hard surfaces, or even sitting down too quickly.  There is a greater risk of falling during yoga or an evening stroll. Advising an experienced climber that even top rope climbing is too dangerous sounds uninformed at best, and judgmental at worst. Unless a pregnant woman has been put on bed rest, or advised to avoid all exercise entirely, there is no reason to tell a woman not to rock climb. 


What about the harness?

The standard climbing harness fits like a waist belt with leg loops.  They are designed for trim climbers and most pregnant women cannot fit into these harnesses by the second trimester.  Pregnant climbers can and often use full body harnesses. These harnesses loop around the shoulders and legs, cross in the back, and have a tie in point at chest level.  These harnesses do not impede on the stomach and the high point of gravity at chest level helps keep the climber upright. Full body harnesses are great for children, pregnant climbers, or any other climber that needs a little extra support to stay well-positioned on the wall. 


What about belaying?

While pregnant women should avoid lead climbing because of the fall potential, there is no reason that they cannot belay for the lead climber.  As seen in the picture above, the key to staying safe while belaying pregnant is to utilize a solid ground anchor.  Be sure to create an ERNEST ground anchor solid enough to hold a big lead climbing fall.  Attach the belay device directly to the ground anchor, and if the lead climber falls, the pregnant belayer will not be jerked whatsoever.  For an extra sense of safety to the lead climber, the pregnant belayer can clip in to the ground anchor in such a way that her harness is a backup, while not being the primary load-bearing point (i.e. a loose backup).  Even for top rope belaying, many women will find this setup to be much more comfortable, as it does not require a load to ever be applied to her harness while belaying!


How long can a pregnant woman climb?

This is really just up to the climber and perhaps how supportive her partners are. Full body harnesses are adjustable to 9 months pregnant and in many reviews climbers report adjusting it for the full length of their pregnancy.  Unless a woman gets put on bedrest, or chooses otherwise there should be no reason she should stop climbing if she is on top rope with responsible partners.

Stone Adventures rock climbing guide, Annie Semmelroth, explains her opinions, experiences and understanding of what it takes to rock climb while pregnant.

belaying for rock climbing while pregnant in Joshua Tree National Park

Belaying from a ground anchor with harness as backup

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