The Sharp End of Parenthood
How two top climbers integrated their newborn son into their careers.
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It was a calm day in October 2020 in Foppiano, a subalpine bouldering area in Northern Italy a 30-minute drive from the world-famous granite of Cadarese. At the blocs, the pro climbers Caroline Ciavaldini and James Pearson bouldered and played with their 22-month-old son, Arthur. Bundled in a blue ski suit, Arthur had finished snack time and was playing with his toy tractor. As the toddler busied himself, Pearson offered Ciavaldini a spot. The day was slow paced, and as the couple moved from one problem to the next, the joint focus remained on Arthur. Their climbing could be interrupted at any moment to make sure he had not toddled off into the woods or wasn’t testing his mettle by climbing on a rock solo. Still, both managed to climb their fill, a reality they would not have believed possible only a few months prior.
Both 35 and married since 2013, the two became parents in December 2018, a radical shift away from the pro-climbing life they’d known, one in which they were in control. And though they could look around the professional community to other athlete-parents like Beth Rodden, Sonnie Trotter, and Tommy Caldwell, none had gotten through without disruption.
“The hardest part of juggling climbing with parenting is sleep,” says Trotter, who spent nearly a year living on the road with his wife, Lydia, and two young children in a 16-foot trailer. “You just never know when you’re going to get a good night, or even better, a few good nights of sleep, and that plays a huge part on stoke and performance.”
For Rodden—who shares her experiences with postpartum life and parenting on her blog and social media—climbing has never returned in the same capacity, even now as her son, Theo, is six. “I still climb—and better than I have in a decade,” says Rodden. “But my connection with climbing [before having a son] was so attached to achievements; now it has changed, and for me, this feels really good.” While Ciavaldini had pored through all of Rodden’s writings, she believed that as two full-time climbers, her and Pearson’s entry into parenthood would be dreamily different. “I pictured days at the crag playing outside as a family, and then James and I climbing routes while our child snoozed peacefully or played on his own,” she says. In reality, the first four months after Arthur was born were such a black hole of chaos and sleeplessness (nighttime waking, feeding, and diaper changes) that, in shock, the couple wondered if their lives as climbers were over.
Ciavaldini struggled to adjust. Like any new parent, she had racing thoughts: Is Arthur OK? Why does he cry so much? Is he normal? Meanwhile, her physical strength had so diminished from her time away from climbing—and from the normal loss of strength in the ab muscles during pregnancy—that she almost felt like she was climbing in a foreign body. Although Ciavaldini had had a healthy pregnancy and uncomplicated birth, she compares the process to a major injury, not to mention the 30 pounds of weight gain. One day as she resumed the sport, slipping off a foothold for the umpteenth time at her home wall, she realized she was not engaging her muscles in unison from the core outwards, an action that had become instinctual over 21 years of climbing. So Ciavaldini took a more systematic approach to her comeback. First, she tried to stay on the vert wall for five consecutive minutes. Then she ventured onto the overhanging sections. Eventually, Ciavaldini worked back into pull-ups. She also incorporated strength exercises into her daily activities, using a half-kilogram weight during Arthur’s naps to strengthen her biceps and shoulders, and rocking Arthur to sleep in a slow up-and-down squat motion to hit her quads.
Meanwhile Pearson, striving to be an equal partner in parenting, was fighting his own battles: a lack of sleep from nighttime feedings, endlessly rocking Arthur, and changing diapers, and then an injured elbow, exacerbated by holding the baby for hours. “James and I can talk about it now because we see and know differently, but in our darkest, most sleep-deprived moments, we were both super careful not to ask each other if [having a child] was a good idea,” says Ciavaldini. “Because I think, realistically, the answer would have been no.” As Pearson puts it, “We were in a dark hole and worried we were never going to get out of it.”
Up to this point, the couple had spent a majority of their lives climbing. Ciavaldini was born on the French island of La Réunion, and began climbing and competing at age 12, earning multiple French Championship titles and World Cup podium finishes, including first place in Lead at Chamonix in 2011. Pearson, who was born in the Derbyshire countryside outside the UK’s Peak District, started climbing at age 15 and came into the limelight for leading stout trad climbs in the UK, including Rhapsody (E11; 5.14 R/X) in Scotland in 2014.
After Ciavaldini stopped competing in 2012, the two traveled. With her insights into training and his cool head on bold leads, the couple complemented each other well. Since 2012, Ciavaldini has made numerous first-female ascents of bold routes, including The Quarryman (E8 7a) in North Wales and Voie Petit, a 450-meter 8b/5.13d on Grand Capucin, Mont Blanc, France. Pearson has established cutting-edge gear-protected FAs, including Power Ranger (5.14 R) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Le Voyage (5.14a) at Annot, France. Climbing is such an integral part of their lives that, in 2013, when they purchased their house, they first marked a map with the best climbing spots in the south of France, found a central location, and then chose the house with the tallest ceilings to accommodate an indoor wall.
Today, as the two share stories of their growth as a family, it becomes apparent they’ve devised a system—and are continually evolving with it—to balance the changing realities of parenting with climbing. It’s something all climbers who become parents must eventually do.
Says Pearson, “We hope sharing our experiences can help other climbing families along the way because having a child is an amazing experience, and Arthur is the best little man in the world.” Yet, he adds, “During those first months when things felt so bleak, it would have been helpful to hear from another climber what it’s like, and that it will be all right. I’m not sure I would have believed them, but it would have helped.”
Tristan Hobson (@tristan_hobson) lives in the South Tyrol, Italy, working in photography, writing, and marketing with outdoor brands and athletes.
Realistic Expectations: Enjoy the Limited Climbing You Get
Time is not only focused on climbing. The couple, as all new parents do, can divide their lives into pre-baby and post-baby. Pearson remarks, “Before Arthur, we would sleep in, wait for the perfect conditions, and do other work in-between. Now, before climbing, we find somewhere outside to play—it could be at a park, somewhere Arthur can ride his push-bike, or exploring nature.” Their goal here is twofold: to wear Arthur out so he’s ready for naptime, and to make sure he’s enjoying life at the rocks as well. Pearson adds, “Spending time experiencing the world through his curiosity has added
a fulfilling new perspective to life.”
Meanwhile, becoming a functional climbing family and ensuring everyone has fun have taken persistence and practice—and an ever-evolving list of supplies: nappies and wipes, but also food, books, toy cars, and warm clothes. Day-ending mistakes have been made, including forgetting the snacks, Arthur’s pacifier, “Mr. Bunny,” and the nap tent at home.
Learning to Share Their Time
From the start, bouldering has allowed one of the pair to be with Arthur while the other climbs. As Arthur has learned to crawl and then walk, bouldering continues to be a focus, as there are often larger, flatter bases than at the crags and fewer dangers from above, such as rockfall. Today has been a good day: Arthur is happy, and both Pearson and Ciavaldini have bouldered their fill.
It wasn’t easy to reach this equilibrium, especially early on when there was friction over how they would divide their individual time climbing. Says Ciavaldini, “I call it ‘dragging the cover’—you have to find a middle ground where each person has enough blanket or, in our case, enough climbing time.”
As Arthur now plays happily on his own and walks around exploring, finding child-safe climbing areas has become increasingly important. As Pearson puts it, “Crags at home in France are easy, but traveling is still full of surprises. We rely on kid-friendly icons in climbing books and websites, but the definition of kid-friendly varies a lot. So talking with other parents is still our best resource.”
As Pearson and Ciavaldini plan to follow their career paths as pro climbers, the other families they meet also offer insights into what life could look like as Arthur grows up. On a recent trip to Cadarese, they met two climbers who are successfully homeschooling their three children, ages 3 to ten, for a year while traveling.
Pearson Goes Dad-Pointing
Pearson climbs Coniglio Giallo (7c/5.12d) in Croveo, Italy, savoring his climbing time. It’s a contrast to the couple’s pre-kid life, when they’d experienced such an extent of quality climbing that they’d become almost blasé. Says Ciavaldini, “Before Arthur, if I showed up to climb, even if I was on a trip, if conditions weren’t good, the not-mom Caro wouldn’t have even put her shoes on. Now, James and I can go to places where the rock is terrible and have an amazing time.” With this new, more flexible approach, both parents have sent some of their hardest climbs to date—in July 2020, Pearson ticked Condé de Choc (9a/5.14d) in Briançon, France, and that October, Ciavaldini ticked La Théorie des Cordes (8c/5.14b) in Saint Léger du Ventoux.
As Pearson has adjusted to being a father, the weight that routes once carried has nearly vanished. Now, he says, “It doesn’t matter if I complete a climb or not—Arthur will still be waiting for me, excited to play, and that is more important to me than if I can make a move or not.” On Condé de Choc, an overhanging gneiss route comprised of two dynamic boulder problems, Pearson sent in a classic dad-pointing moment. On his second attempt of the day, he was forced by Arthur’s desire for an earlier-than-usual nap to take his final burn of the trip before he had fully recovered. As Pearson rested on a hold midway up, he could hear Arthur waking up in his tent, a reminder that he had limited time.
Ciavaldini Steps Up to Shine
Ciavaldini powers up Le Momo (8a/5.13b) at Croveo, Italy, with such ease it’s difficult to imagine that, only three months earlier, she was still questioning whether she’d become an impostor as a professional athlete.
Ciavaldini’s road back was not easy. She had to learn to cope with Arthur’s constant needs in the first months, when merely having both hands free to eat was a luxury. Then, at six-weeks post-pregnancy, it was finding enjoyment in climbing as she faced herself at the lowest athletic level of her life. After her biceps injury at six months post-pregnancy, she had to remind herself to put ego aside and allow her body time to recover. At 14 months post-pregnancy, as the family prepared for a climbing trip to Ethiopia, she wondered “if I would be able to take risk any more as a mother?” There, however, she and Pearson swapped leads on the sandstone towers of the Gheralta Range, making the FA of Excalibur, a 150-meter E7 6b face climb.
The final piece was the emotional component: learning to quiet the continual thoughts and concerns for Arthur’s safety whenever Ciavaldini wasn’t near him—“abandoning her child for a day,” she jokes, for some time out at the cliffs. In August 2020, Ciavaldini redpointed Une Jolie Fleur dans une Peau de Vache, a seven-pitch 8b/5.13d in the Verdon Gorge, France, after leaving Arthur with a local babysitter. The climb, she says, was a benchmark in finding “space to be both a climber and a good mum.”
From Fall 2021