Utah Mountains

When Worlds Collide—Climbing Through Parenthood

Balance—As a father, James wants to spend as much time with his daughter as he can. As a climber, he also wants to spend as much time as he can on the wall.


James Simmons following his passion. Photos courtesy of James Simmons

One of the few things I feel I can say with a secure declarative is this: Climbers of all abilities are the most dedicated, spiritual, and philosophical athletes in their “sport.” I quotate that word because to any climber, the word “sport” undermines the legitimacy of their life because, well, climbing is their life. Climbing transcends such a trivial attribution—it is an all-encompassing lifestyle.

In the vein of declaration, there is another, all-encompassing lifestyle as synonymously paramount to climbing: Having a baby. It changes everything (I just recently became a first-time father, and I do mean everything, in every sense of the word). And it’s not like it’s this gradual thing, oh no, it’s instant. From the first day you bring that wrinkly, curiously soft and fragile thing home, instead of spending your free time at the gym training for your latest climbing project or planning your next trip,, you are suddenly spending it with your significant other discussing whether or not the baby has pooped yet. You inquire about its color and consistency, was there a lot or a little? It’s a universal obsession; and literally overnight and without warning, your whole life morphs into little more than baby’s bowel movements.

But what happens when these two worlds collide?

James Simmons, now 27, moved to Utah and started climbing when he was 15-years-old. New to the city, the only friends he had were objectionable, and he found himself “the unwitting possessor of unsavory new habits and mild addiction.” His self-esteem started to drop, and his life, his thoughts, seemed to be filled with a mental white noise. “My mind was constantly fuzzy,” James said. “All my thoughts were slightly tainted by the warbling crackle of my own self-imposed internal noise—I felt like a semi-conscious puppet.”

All that changed, however, when his older sister, because of her perception of his situation, asked her then-boyfriend to take James climbing.

“When I finally pulled off the ground I had what I can only describe as a spiritual experience,” he said. All the noise in his head stopped instantly and completely. “It was overwhelming. And for the first time perhaps in my entire life, I experienced real clarity.” Climbing came natural for James, like walking; and as he came back down from his first climb, the second his feet touched the ground, he knew he was a climber and would be one for the rest of his life. He didn’t really have a choice. He’s been climbing ever since.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

So many of our suppositions about what to expect in life are derived from impossible-to-reach ideals, spoon-fed us by the sparkling romantic and surface-optimistic messages and wisdom of Hollywood, television, “experts,” literature, and the media. We have come to rely on these platforms, and prepare according to their advice. Despite this discombobulating array of misleading programming, when it comes parenthood, all bets are off.

Titles such as What to Expect when Expecting are misnomers, and do more harm than good. They allow the possibility for a false reality that will never come to fruition. No matter how much you plan or prepare, the reality will be far from whatever it is you’re told to expect.

Before James and his wife Nancy gave birth to their first baby, Dalia, they logically knew that their lifestyle was going to change. “We were conscious of these things,” he said. “But the full depth and reality of them as they actually happened still hit us like a sack of bricks.” Not only did it mean less travel—all travel stopped immediately. They weren’t just sleeping less—they were perpetually tired. “And of course, less climbing,” James said. A lot less, to be sure. Not only because of the attention a newborn requires but also because the motivation to climb diminished as exhaustion increased.

Not wanting the situation to dictate their reality, James and Nancy decided they would instead themselves dictate the situation, allowing them to shape life according to their ideals and desires.
To combat the mounting enervation, they decided to try something different. Rather than taking turns attending to Dalia when she woke multiple times throughout the night, they split days. This allowed James to have three consecutive, guilt-free nights of sleep. (My son is now four-months-old, and the thought of three nights of sleep in a row makes me salivate with yearning envy.)

As a father, James wants to spend as much time with his daughter as he can. But as a climber, he also wants to spend as much time on the wall as he can; and no longer being able to fit into his schedule quality training sessions, he started assessing his time more consciously.. “Free time for myself became sacred. I didn’t want to waste it … ” he said. “I reserved my allocated free-time for actual climbing.”—as opposed to training in the gym.

He also reassessed any idle time, and how to maximize that time for training. “I have a one-hour lunch at work. I use 40 minutes to warm-up and go for a four-mile run. During my two 15-minute breaks, I use one to do a calisthenics workout, and the other to do a quick hang-board session … my coworkers think I’m crazy, but I’m not too concerned about that.” He’d rather use that time progressing toward something tangible than spend it in a break room on Facebook or Twitter.

Something else James changed in order to exercise any stray time for climbing while still helping with all the dirty work, was sacrifice. He said, “I started going for very early morning and late night [climbing] sessions,” using a small generator and a strong light in order to cut through the canyon dark. “Some days it’s a choice between sleeping and climbing,” he added.

Who knows where James would have ended up had he not been introduced to climbing. I have heard many a climber confess that climbing has changed the very core of themselves, transformed long-held perspectives, and reshaped their life philosophies, which are addicting and can be a stubborn change if you’re not willing to do one thing: stop expecting.

“If you are thinking about having kids, take a long, hard look at your climbing goals. Think about the things you still want to do and all the things you haven’t done yet,” James advises. He adds that you should realistically ask yourself how hard accomplishing those goals would be even if they had your full attention. “If they are not well within your reach, a responsible parent is going to mean that those goals are going to be pushed even farther out of your realm of possibility.” And be ok with it.

What’s great about James’ advice and underlying message of losing expectation is that it can be applied across the entire plane of life, whether you are a climber, hiker, skier, or not.
After all, wouldn’t you rather be relieved with a manageable surprise than suffer a paralyzing shock?

Join our newsletter.
Stay informed.

Related Articles