Lessons from a Mountaineer, Medical Student, & Marine Vet on Pushing Limits While Pregnant

Who doesn’t want to combine alpine climbing, backcountry skiing, and a little ice climbing into one trip?  Knowing our lives are on count down to dramatic change, our stoke was high for this week of mountain adventure!  Knight (my husband), Bert (a friend and mountaineering instructor at NOLS), and I started up the Snow Creek trail with packs laden with various climbing gear and pounds of food for seven grueling days.  Not even half a mile up the switchbacks, and my back began pitching a full protest.  Knight took my ski boots.  About another mile later, Knight had my ski boots and my skis.  I felt like an absolute jerk and was furious at my body for betraying me.

A taste of the gear we planned to take into the Enchantments!

A taste of the gear we planned to take into the Enchantments!

As a medical student, I already have limited opportunities to pursue my long list of mountaineering and skiing objectives.  Usually, it’s all I can do to set aside a day every week to enjoy time with my husband; we typically spend that day climbing.  After a year of nose-to-the-grindstone studying, I finally received eight days off for a spring break!  Oh... and I was 20 weeks pregnant.  Naturally, we planned a six plus day trip into the fabled Enchantments, near Leavenworth, WA.  This six days was to include an approach up the Snow Creek drainage, skiing and climbing Prussik Peak, Little Annapurna, and an ambitious route on Dragontail Peak.  Then we would drop into Mountaineers Creek basin to do an ice route up Ice Cliff Glacier to summit Mt Stuart.  We wisely scheduled a rest day in the mix in case of bad weather and to mitigate any effects from the pregnancy.  Anyone familiar with the Enchantments area knows this trip sounds amazing- and crazy tough. 

Here we go...struggle bus

Here we go...struggle bus

We all struggled approximately four miles from the trailhead and called it a day.  Bert and I determined that the packs we were carrying, even if we did just a couple miles a day, were questionable.  Knight went and checked out Nada Lake finding eight inches of slush on unknown ice thickness that was not likely to support his weight plus his pack.  Somehow, I felt like I just should have known better.  I felt extremely guilty for dragging two additional people into this misadventure while derailing this trip.  Sure, I didn’t look 20 weeks pregnant, but apparently my body knew otherwise.  How did I so severely underestimate reality? 

1) I’m very hard headed- If you are reading this you might relate.

2) I naturally rebelled against my midwife, who has traditional views of pregnant women and exercise -only walking and light stretching.  In reality, the current research supports maintaining the same level of activity during pregnancy as before while acknowledging that your changing body will force adaption.

3) There is limited information out there from pregnant women who mountaineer.  As a Marine, I assumed I could tough it out.

And let’s be fair – women continuing to pursue their passions during pregnancy and talking about it is a new thing.  Even now, women with babies at the crag get as many glares as pats on the back for raising an adventure baby.  It is hard to avoid the old advice to “nest.”  There are some inspirational examples of professional athletes out there– runners, triathletes, cross country skiers, and climbers – but when it comes to multi-day sustained wilderness efforts… silence. 

Lighter packs made a day trip on Mt Baker fun and safe!

Lighter packs made a day trip on Mt Baker fun and safe!

Prior to the trip, I spent plenty of time looking for any information about realistic pack weights while pregnant.  I found one woman who had section hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail, plenty of climbers, but no backcountry skiers or mountaineers.  The AT hiker said she carried 20 pound loads.  Several other women endorsed loads around 20 lbs while hiking pregnant.  Climbers switch from a regular harness to a pregnancy harness sometime in the second trimester and do not lead climb to avoid violent falls.  I looked at the crossfitters who were still throwing around plenty of weight and thought I could surely still carry a reasonably heavy pack.  Like other climbing women, I was still able to do a seven-pitch route climbing with my husband with no residual effects. 

Going in I found myself cautiously optimistic that I could actually manage this epic trip.  Well, I was wrong, but I still had an amazing time in Washington.  For other women out there who won’t settle for “nesting,” here is what I learned.  These insights helped me find balance between enjoying a challenging trip and keeping my baby safe and healthy.  I hope to help other women out there searching for balance between ‘the send’ and the new responsibility of nurturing a life!

Firm bridges made for quick travel.

Firm bridges made for quick travel.

1) Keep the load light and ease into heavier loads

From the bailout on the Enchantments, we talked about options and expectations.  As a group, we decided on a backcountry ski tour to test reality.  We headed up to Mt Baker for a familiar jaunt around Artist Point.  I carried about 10 lbs in a day pack which consisted of my avalanche safety gear, food, extra layers, and water to feel things out.  I decided that one day objectives were realistic, even if they were long days and my pack was heavier – 20 lbs maybe.  Think hard about how much weight your group needs (food, water etc.) and ensure you can distribute the load well enough to keep your load light and your teammate’s loads within reason.  Ease into your trips testing out slightly heavier loads. 

2) Choose objectives with manageable risk- manage risk for the baby too

On the best of days, it is easy for a mountaineer to overestimate our capabilities when we see a summit that calls to us.  Don’t take the bait.  Scale it back and simply appreciate your time outside!  Bert and Knight are NOLS instructors.  We have the skills and experience to manage much higher risks, and we even considered ice climbing the North Ridge route on Baker on the next day.  Then we thought, why take a riskier route?  I thought skiing Baker in a day seemed within my new realm of reality and Bert had yet to climb a WA volcano.  Knight and I had previously skied Baker via the Emmons, giving us a good sense of the mountain.  We opted for the Coleman-Deming- a new route, still exciting with lower objective risks and less commitment if we didn’t feel right.  We had a blast!   

3) Stick with things you know you can do and test the limits slowly

I skied over Christmas before I knew I was pregnant to include touring.  Late first trimester I flew to CO to ski for a long weekend.  As we headed up Mt Baker, I felt awesome, the snow was perfect, and Mt Baker delivered some great turns.  Even carrying my skis over a particularly icy section in the early morning hours and later, on the Roman Wall, I felt just fine.  Easing into the trip made it fun and lowered the pressure for me to push past my limits. 

Honoring my limits still allows me to do some amazing things outside.

Honoring my limits still allows me to do some amazing things outside.

4) Hydrate, eat, hydrate, eat…

Prior to pregnancy, I had a bad track record of not eating or drinking enough in the mountains.  Hypoglycemia has visited me a few times, and candy has saved the day.  My sister-in-law is a climber and day toured during her pregnancy.  When I told her about the trip, her one piece of advice was to make sure I brought way more water and food than normal.  I brought more, I ate all of it, ate some of my husband’s, and I had a great climb.  Have fun in the mountains and remember you are eating and drinking for two!  Keep a careful hydration and nutrition margin to avoid hurting the baby!

5) Schedule more off days than usual

Normally I bounce from one adventure to another, but this time rest days were key to keeping energy high.  We opted to take the day off after Baker.  Bert had recently moved from Idaho to Washington, so we thought introducing her to Bellingham was in order.  Plus, everyone wanted some real food.  We enjoyed the day in Bellingham, added to our food stores, and headed back up to the Heather Meadows Parking lot considering an attempt on Shuksan.   

6) Listen to your body and don’t feel guilty about your new limits!

Knight and I were eyeballing routes on Shuksan.  The White Salmon Glacier route looked like a good option.  We started at 3am with expected icy conditions and headed down the slope toward White Salmon Creek.  As we climbed over trees and bush-whacked with our skis on our back, I felt off.  I felt  sore and crampy.  My pelvis started to hurt.  I was angry.  Knight was frustrated.  Then I was on the verge of a breakdown.  I wanted this ski more for him then anything else.  Guilt ate at me.  He encouraged gently.  I pushed on.  Was this serious pain or just discomfort?  After another 20-30 minutes, I called to Knight to stop.  This was pain.  As we stood there watching the predawn starting to bring a warm glow to the sky, Knight reminded me that the mountains will still be here next spring, but Snowball needs me to be smart now.  Sure, we were both frustrated.  We turned around, climbed back up to Chair 8 in silence, and watched the sunrise behind Shuksan.  After a long hug, we headed to Index and spent the rest of the day climbing, smiling, and enjoying time together.

7) Pick your partners carefully

I looked at my husband with admiration several times during the week of how far he was willing to go to facilitate me doing the things I love.  He supported my massive career shift in our early 30s from the Marine Corps to medicine.  Now he figures out how to get me outside with a crazy work/school schedule while growing our child.  We will hit our 10 year anniversary before Snowball is expected to make her entrance, and I’m extremely excited to see him as a dad.  Knight and Bert concocted this trip before we knew about the pregnancy.  He gave her a heads up that things might not go as planned about 6-8 weeks before the trip as we started putting together final plans.  Bert figured I was crazy, and she is right, I am crazy.  Still Bert was amazing, supportive and ultimately there to enjoy time outdoors with friends.  If she had been a type-A dynamo, the trip would have been miserable for all of us.  The three of us were not fixated on a single plan.  Ultimately, we all simply love being in the mountains and sharing the experience. 

A summit for Snowball!

A summit for Snowball!

In the end, we skied and climbed on this trip.  No ice climbing but that’s probably smart.  I realized during the course of the week that I could still do the things I love while keeping Snowball safe.  It is probably for the best that pregnancy takes nine long months, so we can fully wrap our heads around the amount of change to our lives.

Like many women and couples today, we have put off children into our 30’s to pursue careers and passions.  Talking to women climbing with their kids at the crag or skiing with a kid in their pack, I know that once our Snowball arrives, we’re going to have to work hard to get out there.  Family and friends who are patient, understanding, and willing to lend a hand are essential.  But, if you are like us, the mountains fuel your soul.  Thank you to the women who have gone before, and good luck to all those considering this journey.