Nov 20 2014

Climbing With Kids: Jim Herson Interview

For any bay area climber or climbing parent, I’m sure you are familiar with Jim Herson, Anne Smith and their awesome kiddos Kara and Connor. However, for anyone who isn’t familiar with them, here’s a great interview as an introduction. They can often be found in the Sierras climbing up things with multiple kids and parents in tow. They also have one of my favorite climbing blogs out there that always leaves me laughing and inspired.

I first met Jim and Anne when I was a teenager doing the local competition circuit. I competed against Anne when I entered the elite category and was constantly blown away by her level of climbing. After a few years I moved to Colorado and lost touch with each of them. It wasn’t until I started to bumble my way into free climbing on El Cap that I heard about them again. Jim free climbed the Salathe Wall via the original Todd Skinner/Paul Piana way. For any of you familiar with the route, this means that he did not avoid a few of the hardest pitches – pretty darn proud. Along with his Salathe ascent, he was always scampering up big Valley climbs like they were warm up boulder problems, and more often than not in gym stringers no less! Impressive.

Now, with two kids in the mix, it seems from the outside that he just effortlessly added them onto his roster of partners – regardless of the length or difficulty of climb. Kara has done climbs with Jim that I’m pretty sure I would wimp out on, so I was super curious on his transition into parenthood climbing. He was kind enough to answer my questions, I hope you enjoy Jim’s honest and great interview!

Thanks so much for agreeing to do these questions… just thought it’d be awesome to hear how you all have done it?

I suspect I should take the fifth here. While I’ve always feared that I’d end up in a mommy blog, I never imagined that it’d be in a good way. So I’m excited to chat as your blog is a great inspiration for climbing parents who want to continue to climb. I’m conflicted though. Do I give the “Sure you can climb with kids” spiel or tell the truth?

How old were Kara and Connor when you started taking them to the crags?

Like Theo, they were dangling at the crags well before they could crawl. They also spent a *lot* [too much?] time at the climbing gym. The Mission Cliffs’ staff was, and still is, awesome about indulging our family gym cragging.

However, it was by no means smooth sailing. When Kara was a year old we went on a climbing trip to Spain. Not catching that Kara had an ear infection the entire trip was not our proudest parenting moment. You’d think the one year old crying nonstop for two weeks might have tipped us off. After that painful adventure, my wife Anne wouldn’t cross the San Mateo bridge for a year. The point is, be prepared for setbacks.

On the other end of the spectrum are our friends the Scotts who take their kids climbing or skiing every weekend. That got rather irritating during our San Mateo Bridge embargo days.

How did you start exposing them to actual climbing? Was it something they expressed interest in by themselves?

Sorry Beth, I’m afraid you’re way too decent and kind for blogging. Here, from my friend Peter Coward’s email, is what you meant to ask:

“I’m curious on why your kids are so enthusiastic about climbing whereas others appear less so — is it due to how you approached teaching them, luck, the fact that even at this early age they have some sort of deep seeded emotional issues to work though?”

Peter nailed it. It’s luck. Seriously, you can’t make your kids like climbing. After all, most kids prefer the great indoors in front on the TV rather than the great outdoors on the face of a boulder. Whilst we need to keep children safe watching TV, we certainly need to keep children safe when they are rock climbing! What I’ve found with the latter is you can only make them not like climbing. It has to be fun for them. Type II fun (ie. suffering) is an adult taste and an acquired one at that. Kids aren’t into suffering or being scared. However, their ability to step up to the plate and throw down huge days is astonishing. If you’re lucky and find climbs that are within their ability but pushes them, they’ll shock you. And themselves. There’s nothing like the bounce in their step after they punch though a tough day in the mountains.

How have you balanced your own climbing with taking the kids on adventures?

I haven’t. My climbing is over. I haven’t climbed a project in 10 years. Fortunately, 5.10 and 5.13 are equally fun. Climbing is unique in that not improving, or my case rapidly declining, is as fun as when first learning. If you’re a lousy ping pong player, you spend all your time picking the ball up off the floor. Not so much fun. But in climbing, if your belly is too large for the overhanging finger pockets that the gym kids are campusing in sneakers, you can just go thrash up a grimy off-width and have just as much fun as the mutant kids.

As a professional climber, that’s probably not what you wanted to hear. Take heart. There are plenty of parents out there climbing as hard as ever. Just not me. But that’s because I’m old. Very old.

Have there been times when they haven’t wanted to climb? Have you always let them lead the way with their interest in climbing? Or have you pushed them at all?

Surprisingly, some, if not most, kids do not like to climb. Although those that do, really do. Kids just have different interests and, like I said, you can’t make them like climbing. All you can do is hope they are passionate about something other than first person shoot-em-up video games.

Plus it changes with age. Kara was lukewarm about climbing until age 7. Connor was not at all interested until age 8. Slowly they got more and more interested. We never pushed them. It was more a war of attrition. They were stuck at the crag anyway so why not climb! Just kidding. Kind of. And of course, if they like climbing today make the most of it as their interests can and will change.

There’s a fine line between pushing your kids and exposing them to the sport. A six year old has no idea what climbing a mountain means. She’ll never ask to be scared silly dangling off a cliff while really hungry and thirsty. But if you slowly take them up bigger and bigger mountains so they learn what it’s all about, they might just like it.

Your blog posts and FB updates are honestly some of my favorite things to read, it always sounds like the kids are resilient beyond belief, have you purposefully taught them to not need very much food or water? 😉

That’s a bit of a persona I play up in the trip reports. In reality, I like to feed and hydrate my kids. I just don’t always do it well. It’s a surprisingly difficult trade off (for me). You need to pack enough edible calories to keep them motoring and having fun while not packing too much to slow you down. I’ve blown it, uh, let’s just say more than once. Fortunately, the kids were forgiving. Because if they don’t have fun or there’s too much suffering you’ve lost them. (Lost in that they won’t jump at the next chance for a mountain adventure.) But even though they were forgiving, there were a few climbs that, due to a bit of extreme dehydration, weren’t the sublime, life altering experiences that I had hoped. The West Face of El Cap, for example, in 600 degrees w/ a liter of water was not the childhood highlight it might have been.

What have been some of the most memorable climbs you’ve done with them?

There are many. Normalizing for age and ability, it’s wonderful when they take it to the next level. Connor wasn’t into hiking when he decided to climb Snake Dike on Half Dome at age 8. He smoked it! Snake Dike is a moderate, though exposed, climb. But as a car-to-car in daylight climb, it’s an absolutely huge day of hiking for tiny legs. Also at a very young age, he sprinted up the slabs on Crest Jewel on North Dome which I found pretty heads up.

Kara and I climbed the Regular North West Face of Half Dome three times and each of those times will keep me smiling well into old age. Our winter ascent of Half Dome when she was 12 was kind of out there. But it was our failed attempt the previous month when we got snowed off the face that blew me away. She showed a mental toughness well beyond anything I had imagined. Last year, for her first El Cap route, she climbed the Nose in a day without jumars. I know my children’s abilities and yet that one still boggles my mind. Few hard bitten El Cap vets, no less underage first timers, have pulled off that one.

But perhaps the most magical was Primrose Dihedral in the Canyonlands with Kara at a young age. Sharing the gorgeous, wide open Canyonlands on a splitter desert tower with your kid is the absolute definition of parental bliss.

What are some of your tricks or advice for parents out there climbing and traveling with kids?

Make it fun. Kara started climbing in the mountains at a young age with her little climbing buddies Ian and Elizabeth. The key was keeping them engaged on the hikes. The kids were so lost in their gruesome storytelling that they would never notice the, sometimes hearty, approaches. The only difficulty was getting them to stop yapping and joking long enough to focus on the climb. Connor and his little climbing buddy Alex have made an awesome and hilarious climbing team. It’s so much fun listening to how much fun they have.

Also carry the pack. Recommended for getting any new climber into multi-pitch routes. It’s not uncommon to see couples with the experienced climber leading and the inexperienced climber following with the pack. Climbing with a pack is so not fun. You’re playing the long game here. Take the pack and invest in the new climber’s fun and the return will be huge. The downside is that since you’re carrying the weight you tend to pack light. This has been know to lead in some rather dry and hungry days…

The rest is parenting 101. Keep their tummies filled and bladders empty. Kara climbed Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne at age 6. She cruised it and then on the last pitch suddenly, out of no where, burst into tears. Turns out she had to pee. Badly. Doh! On the other end, getting enough calories in them can be a challenge as they lose their appetite at altitude. Stock up on M&Ms.

Finally, have them lead (age appropriate climbs). I regret not having them lead more. Leading gives them ownership of the climb and makes it more fun. They’re much more proud of a climb they’ve led.

Did you always climb well below your comfort zone with respect to multi-pitch climbs until they were competent?

Soloing the kids without another adult is pushing it. You have to be rock solid on every move. You just can not blow it. They can’t self rescue. They can barely belay.

Which is to say that climbing with kids destroys your free climbing! If you’re at an easy move with a bomber piece of gear, a move that you normally wouldn’t think twice about, you pull on the bomber piece of gear. Forget the grade. It has to be bomber. Cracks with solid locks are good. Friction climbing, even easy friction climbing, is not. Neither of the kids have caught me on a gear fall yet. I’m not looking forward to that day.

Being belayed by a 50-lb grade schooler is not for the faint of heart. When they were very young, after anchoring them in well, I’d knot 2-4 long loops in the rope. As I climbed they’d “belay” by untying each loop as it ran out of rope. At least that was the theory. In practice, it didn’t always play out that way. It’s a pretty dicey thing being belayed by a tot. You have to know your kid, your abilities, and the route really well. Not recommended for everyone. It requires a lifetime of climbing with inattentive climbing partners. Having a 2nd adult along mitigates the risks by an order of magnitude.

I know that Kara does cross country, and I’ve seen pics of Connor doing track as well, is it hard for you when you have to give up a weekend in the Valley to go to a meet?

Cross Country is a great sport. The kids are great, the coaches are great, the parents are great, the meets are fun, and everything is over in a few hours. There is no conflict between track and climbing.

But what conflicts with climbing is climbing! Climbing team and kiddie competitions devour Valley season! That’s just not right. But the kids love it.

But, again, I’m playing the long game here. I’m thankful they have other interests. It keeps climbing with mom and dad fresh and special. My hope is that long after they flee the nest and get caught up in their busy young adult lives, they’ll still want to recharge on life by dragging old mom and dad up a gorgeous Sierra peak. Or El Cap.

Anything else all of us newbies should know about parenting and maybe having a climbing/outdoor kiddo? I have to admit the driving at night advice even a decade later was a bit crushing 😉

Yeah, sorry about that but you do have to drive at night. It’s so much better for everyone involved. Having a well rested kid is the difference between having a climbing weekend and not. And a van is key. Preferably a working one. They can sleep in the back lying down on the long drives. Then when you stumble off a climb late Sunday night and are racing to get them home before the Monday morning school bell rings, you have the feeble excuse that the kids slept on the way home for the astonished spouse when you roll in at sunrise…

You probably have to divide and conquer for the first few years depending on the number of kids, abilities, and type of climbing. Best to take up trail running during these lean years. Much more efficient and less time consuming than climbing. Sure, it’s less fun than climbing but trail running is mentally and physically very satisfying. You can break out the climbing shoes again when they’re (almost) belay weight. Except if you’re a boulderer. Infants and bouldering sort of work. But then you’re exposing your child to boulderers and pediatricians frown upon that.

Also, projecting a climb is no longer part of the game. It’s now all about pitch count! Time away from the kids should only be spent moving upwards. Luxuries like working a crux or belaying are no longer acceptable. Learn to simul-climb.

Do the kids ever cry on climbs? If so what do you do about it? (this could also be a self help marriage question 🙂

Only when I blow it. I had the kids on the Lost Arrow Tip Tyrolean traverse at sunset in winter. We were rushing and Connor got his coat jammed and cried. That was my fault. I should have made sure we had plenty of time as they had never done a Tyrolean. Like I said, the other tears were the usual food, sleep, or bathroom thing. Deafening thunder and lightning on exposed ridge lines also seems to elicit tears. No biggie.

And lastly, I was curious how you balance if each of them want to climb with you on a given weekend, but different climbs, how do you choose what to climb?

That’s like the problem of having too much money. I could learn to deal with that sort of problem. In reality, their schedules almost never overlap. But when they do, there is nothing more motivating for the little guy than to keep up with his big sister. He always rises to the occasion!

Connor all smiles on the East Butt of El Cap.

Connor all smiles on the East Butt of El Cap.

Kara on Half Dome in the winter

Kara on Half Dome in the winter

Jim and Kara on the summit of Half Dome

Jim and Kara on the summit of Half Dome

Kara on the Great Roof pitch of The Nose on El Cap – without jumars!!!

Kara on the Great Roof pitch of The Nose on El Cap – without jumars!!!

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  • Love it! The kids are my next project after the TP :).

    November 21, 2014 at 9:11 pm
  • Thanks Dmitriy! 🙂

    November 28, 2014 at 6:21 pm
  • I am glad to be one of the visitants on this great site (:, regards for posting .

    November 9, 2015 at 6:18 pm