Climbing During Pregnancy

Ashlee, Chris and baby Ella

Ashlee, Chris and baby Ella

Ashlee Hendy is a sport and trad climber, who is recognised for climbing some of Australia's best routes. In this blog post, Ashlee speaks about her experience of continuing to climb during her pregnancy and the challenges she faced throughout.

I am not sure what it’s like for other female climbers and athletes, but well before I even considered having a child of my own, I was pretty fascinated by the idea of pregnancy and sport. I loved hearing stories and seeing pictures of pregnant women doing amazing things, and was curious as to know how my own body might cope if I chose to grow a human and still be a ‘climber’ at the same time.

Before I begin the story, for those pregnant or soon to be pregnant readers, I want to give you the punchline first, so as not to risk you missing it. Very early on in the pregnancy, while soaking up as much info as I could from other pregnant climbers, I made the very conscious decision to not compare myself to anyone else. Learning what I could from other people’s experiences was beneficial, but I knew that I could not start expecting anything from my body based on the journey of others. Your own pregnancy story is not a measure of how tough or elite you are, or a desire to be some kind of super-mum. It’s your own journey, and it will be difficult to predict – just enjoy the ride. Read on and you will see just how true this was for me, across almost all stages of the pregnancy.

Conception and First Trimester

After COVID destroyed our wedding plans in late 2021, Chris and I decided we would go ahead and start trying for a baby. Being fairly lean and training hard for many years, I had irregular periods and was expecting conception to be a challenge. At 33 years of age I didn’t feel 100% ready, but I didn’t want to risk waiting, only to miss out on parenthood. We were shocked when we found out we were pregnant right away. I was ecstatic, but truthfully also a little annoyed as I had been in great shape and making progress on some projects that would now have to wait.

For the first couple of weeks, the pregnancy didn’t slow me down too much. I felt a little more hormonal than usual and perhaps not at my physical best, but otherwise fine. We told our families the good news and continued on with life as normal. At this point I am still sending routes in the 26-29 range, but I decide not to get back on my grade 31 dream project. I make a deal with myself to wait at least 18 months (9 months in + 9 months out) before I touch it again, and completely accept the fact that I might not ever climb it. I had made the conscious choice that having a baby was the most important priority. Now it was happening, I became even surer of my choice.

At 6 weeks, we were shaken by a traumatic family tragedy, and everything becomes a bit of a blur. Climbing took a back seat for a while and at the same time, severe morning sickness begins. My goal of being a powerful pregnant mumma, with a long tick list of hard climbs, was no longer relevant. I lost a bit of weight (morning sickness, grief or both?) and decide that any climbing will be done on top-rope only, due to my mental state rather than any change in physical capacity. Living in Natimuk, I refer to lead climbing as meaning ‘trad climbing at Arapiles’, which can be spicy at the best of times! I was comfortable leading sport routes or climbing indoors (which I did, but only a few times as there are limited options nearby). I stop training (hangboard and weights) for the first time in years. Despite everything else that was going on, I continued to get out when I could. I found any time spent at Arapiles to be healing and comforting, but I had no desire or capacity to push myself.

By the time we get to 12 weeks, I have told a few more people about the pregnancy (close friends and family) but we don’t go ahead with a typical public announcement. From the outside, there are not really any noticeable physical changes. On the walk-ins to the crag, I have severe shortness of breath. I’m still vomiting regularly. But I am still able to climb fairly well, and when I occasionally feel the desire to push myself physically, to my surprise, I am able to climb at close to pre-pregnancy levels.

Ashlee on top rope

Ashlee on top rope

Second Trimester

My morning sickness (read: all-day sickness) continued for the first few weeks of my second trimester, disappearing at about 15 weeks. This frees up a little more energy to push myself physically, not with a desire to achieve anything in particular, but simply for the enjoyment of what I love about climbing; the challenge. I feel that my fingers and shoulders are still quite strong. My core started to feel different in a way that is difficult to describe, and I start wearing a pregnancy harness at about 16 weeks. This is not because of the size of my belly, but more as a precaution and to allow me some time to get used to the harness. I start to feel my abdomen is changing rapidly, and I want to feel comfortable in the harness before I feel wildly uncomfortable in my own body. Be warned, you will never feel comfortable in a pregnancy harness. I can already sense that change happens fast, and it will only get faster in the weeks ahead.

At 18 weeks, I am still barely showing any sign of a ‘bump’ and I get the feeling the sensation that my abdominals are holding on tight and resisting change. This creates a lot of pressure in my lower pelvis, especially if I climb anything steep. I decide to stay well away from rooflets or anything more than about 15 degrees overhanging. At this stage, I have still only dropped about 2-3 grades off my pre-pregnancy climbing ability, as long as I select routes that don’t require heavy engagement of the core. This was probably the most pleasant stage of the pregnancy, as the nausea had eased and I still had some version of core strength. I frequently feel bubs kicking away as I climb, which is a real treat. I even get some motivation to do some moderate training (hang board and pull ups) while keeping a close eye on my belly for signs of abdominal separation.

I make an effort to climb as regularly as possible. Change happens fast and I want to stay well in touch with my body to not over-estimate my capacity and do any damage. In the pregnancy harness and on top rope, I feel like there is very little risk for bubs, but I do start to get concerned about over-working my ever-changing core. At about 23 weeks I start to notice ‘coning’ during pull ups, so decide to stay well clear of training. This is when I really start to adapt my techniques and movements on the rock in order to keep climbing. High steps become difficult, and I find myself shuffling my feet a lot more than usual. I seek out vertical crimpy routes so I am still able to challenge myself. At 25 weeks I am starting to look more obviously pregnant, but I’m still able to climb grade 25 (5.12b/7b), which is a pleasant surprise.

26 weeks arrive and we head off to Flinders Island on a climber's version of a ‘babymoon’. Selecting the appropriate route becomes increasingly more important, and I start to have some reservations when belaying lead falls. Despite the limitations, I continue to be surprised by what I am capable of, and I am able to enjoy the trip immensely. I make each route choice conservatively and take a mental note of some of the routes to come back for, every time reminding myself that every climb is a bonus from here on in.

Third Trimester

Climbing regularly is a priority, although there is no longer room for the physical challenge. I climb purely for the enjoyment of the movement. I start wearing comfy shoes and getting others to carry the majority of the gear. Sometimes putting my shoes on feels like the crux of the day! My abdominals have well and truly lost the battle by now, and my bump draws some attention at the crag, but thankfully no criticism. My technique has changed such that I am essentially climbing without my core, and it feels a bit like my arms and my legs are barely connected to each other. Despite the differences, I still love climbing. Days out with Chris are starting to feel like family outings as bubs kicks away in my belly.

At 30 weeks I contract COVID-19 and it knocks me (and bubs) around a fair bit. I am hospitalised twice for reduced foetal movements, and scans reveal that my baby isn’t growing as well as expected. Recovery from COVID is slow and I don’t tie in for about 2 weeks. Once I start feeling better, I am keen to get out and move my body again. I choose my climbs very conservatively (now 10-12 grades below pre-pregnancy ability), and climbing feels great. More scans continue to show issue with bubs growth, and this is when I start to get criticism for my active lifestyle from some friends and family. Thankfully, medical professionals continue to encourage physical activity, and I know my own body well enough to see that the climbing is still doing me good, so I don’t stop.

At 34 weeks things start to get pretty uncomfortable. Ironically, I have more trouble sitting still (at my desk job) than moving. In fact, sitting for longer than 30 mins became painful. I also notice swelling in my fingers and hands (I can no longer wear my rings or bangle) and find that I need to rest with my feet up most of the day. I decide to do my last climb, just shy of 35 weeks and we get a beautiful family photo to capture the moment. I do it in my approach shoes, and the only uncomfortable part is lowering in the harness.

Ashlee, Chris and baby Ella

Family photo, credit: Riley Edwards

I did not climb for the final 2 weeks of my pregnancy. I do some light walks, and lots of resting with my feet up. I notice my swelling continues to increase, and I sometimes become lightheaded and dizzy. Growth scans continue, and results are inconsistent. My blood pressure starts to surge, and protein is detected in my urine, indicating pre-eclampsia. The final few days of my pregnancy are pretty tough, and my condition deteriorates suddenly. I’ll save the birth story for another forum – but let’s just say it was more exciting than anyone would have liked. Ella Rose Glastonbury arrived just shy of 37 weeks, 2.6kg and 47cm long, and with an Arapiles tick-list that many would envy. Sorry for ruining all those onsights baby girl!

For all the women and families who are currently pregnant or planning, I hope that you can gain something useful from hearing about my experiences. With that in mind, experiences during pregnancy are very difficult to predict. The best thing you can do is to go in with an open mind and minimal expectations (which is a good approach for climbing performance in general!). This is exactly what I am doing as I start to navigate the post-partum journey, which I’ll aim to share with you all once we have some more stories to tell.

Ashlee, Chris and baby Ella

"Everything the light touches, is our kingdom" - Mufasa (and Chris probably)

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