Leslie Brandt and I went to Ten Sleep for our first ever “girls only” climbing trip. We chicken-winged and elvis-presleyed our way up 5.11, discovering together an inner strength and confidence neither of us knew we had before. Forced by default into the position of rope gun, we took some of our first lead-climbing whips. (Fall-eeeeeeeing!”)
By the end of the trip, we were rock-paper-scissoring at the bottom of climbs: winner got to hang draws.
Even in these first steps into lead climbing, Leslie moved up the rock with stout determination. That’s one of the many things I admire about my dear friend: she charges forward when climbing, always trying for a move higher, even when her muscles are shaking with fatigue.
She embodies a mental rigor, and her approach to climbing is one of joyful discipline. I love swapping belays with her for this reason; being around her positive energy benefits my own climbing.
With a naturally athletic build and a gymnast’s background, it wasn’t long before Leslie began ticking off harder routes. She has climbed all around the U.S. West, using her vacation time to wrestle pebbles in California, grapple sandstone in Utah, crip up limestone in Wyoming.
Witnessing the way she balances life and work is yet another thing I admire about her. And by balance, I mean a true balance, where moving the body and time outdoors takes equal precedence to helping people heal in her job as a physical therapist. Leslie and her husband, Chris have built a life of vitality together, swapping belays of their own as they encourage each other to pursue what they love.
It was always up in the air for them, the whole kid thing. When climbing and other outdoor sports are the centerpiece in one’s existence, having a baby doesn’t often seem congruent with the preexisting priorities of staying fit and spending entire days in the elements. When they decided to go for the “ultimate adventure” of bringing a human into the world, Leslie knew her life as a climber would drastically change.
Over the past couple of years Leslie has grown a child within her womb, given birth, and reclaimed her new body as a mother—all with the mental fortitude she demonstrates on the wall. Since bringing their daughter, Meryl, into the world, she has reconnected to climbing and, a year later, is stronger than ever.
I asked Leslie to take part in this series first and foremost because she is badass. Plain and simple. But I also knew her experience as a new mom, and the incredible journey her body has endured, would bring inspiration to everyone, with or without children.
Some of the most profound things I have read so far in this series are her thoughts about body image, and how pregnancy has given her a new appreciation for what a woman's body is capable of achieving.
We all know mothers are amazing. Here, in Leslie’s words, we’ll find many of the reasons why.
Meet Leslie Brandt
Outdoor athlete & mom
Kelsey: What sports do you enjoy?
Leslie: Climbing, skiing, hiking, and trail running. I ran track and cross country in college but climbing has definitely been my favorite sport for many years. I love skiing on powder days too.
K: How often do you workout?
L: Some weeks I can workout 3-4 days, other times it might only be once or twice. There are also days where my workout is just my bike commute to work, which I do year round.
K: What do those workouts usually involve?
L: I don't have a formal training plan I'm following for climbing at the moment. When I can get into the gym I just try to crank out as many boulder problems or routes as I can in the time I have available. If I can't get in to the climbing gym, I'll do HIIT or strength workouts at home using a hang board, kettlebells, dumbbells, jump rope, or body weight.
I also sometimes do yoga at home. My home workouts are usually only about 15-20 minutes, it's all about efficiency. I also like to do mental training, and I use the Headspace app for meditation practice.
K: How often would you say you get “out” to enjoy your sports?
L: This past year was quite hectic: life happened and lots of climbing did not. However, I'm grateful for every moment I got to be outside and it's always fun to spend a day out with friends. I climbed outside around Bozeman maybe five times, I did two trips to Wyoming totaling about five days of climbing, one weekend trip to the Fins, ID, and last winter I skied twice.
We also take our one-year old daughter, Meryl for walks on the trails around our neighborhood a few times a week, or load her up in the backpack and walk up Drinking Horse or the foothills trail at the "M."
K: What are some of your favorite places to go?
L: I love Ten Sleep and Lander, WY for sport climbing, Red Rocks, NV for long moderate trad routes, and Bishop, CA for bouldering. I like backcountry skiing at Hebgen Lake. I've backpacked a couple of times in the Wind River range in Wyoming, and climbed a few pitches there. I'd definitely love to climb there more.
K: Tell us a bit about your pregnancy and post-partum experiences as an athlete. What were some of the challenges you faced while pregnant and following birth?
L: The majority of my pregnancy went well. I stopped lead climbing around 14 weeks but managed to send some hard routes in the early weeks of pregnancy. I gave up on my regular harness and switched to the full body harness around 22 weeks or so.
I had many supportive partners who roped gunned for me, which was fantastic since climbing was an activity that felt good despite being heavier with a belly that was always in the way.
I noticed it was more difficult to engage my abs as I got further along so vertical routes and slabs were more comfortable. My husband, Chris and I did a trip to Cody, WY when I was 30 weeks pregnant and I climbed a couple of multi-pitch routes.
I did pregnancy specific workouts that were tailored towards climbing via Skype and online sessions with a fantastic trainer from Colorado, Brooke Cates, who runs the Bloom Method. I was still top-roping pretty close to my pre-pregnancy level until about 33 weeks, at which point I was put on bedrest for pre-eclapmsia.
My blood pressure was too high to even do simple things like folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, or sitting up on the couch to have a conversation. I was not able to climb or continue working, (I'm a physical therapist), and my focus shifted from being as active as possible, to being as low key as possible and laying on the couch for four weeks. It was frustrating at first but I had to change my mindset or I would have gone nuts.
My new job was to keep both of us healthy and make it to the magical date of 37 weeks. At that point my doctor determined Meryl's lungs had developed enough that it was safe for her to be born, and it was in my best interest to no longer be pregnant, as delivery is the only way to end pre-eclampsia. Meryl got an eviction notice on Saturday, October 22, 2016.
Post-partum recovery was both easier and harder than expected. For the first 6 weeks I was easy on my body, and just went for walks and started working on really basic core activation exercises.
I had to learn how to re-connect with my core. Some parts weren't firing at all, other parts weren't firing correctly.
After 6 weeks I returned to the climbing gym, which was glorious. I was so happy to be lead climbing again. My fitness returned quickly and was back to my pre-pregnancy climbing level at 4.5 months, which was sooner than I expected. I was pleasantly surprised that my headspace for climbing took no time to return. I was so thrilled to be leading again.
I remember how excited I was to finally take a lead fall and to no longer be top roping in a marginally comfortable full body harness with the "baby weight vest."
The exhaustion and time components were more challenging than I expected. Trying to line up partners for gym sessions with baby responsibilities was difficult during the first few months. Sometimes I'd just have to bail, was unable to make solid plans, or I'd be hours late. Those first few months with a newborn were exhausting: the sleep deprivation was no joke.
Chris and I daydreamed, during a climbing session early on, about how well we would climb if we could just sleep more than three hours in a row. We were also trying to figure out feeding and sleeping schedules for her and my body was trying to heal. It was a lot.
The expression "drinking from the fire hose" was how Chris described it. At times I felt like I was drowning, yet still so in love with this tiny human. Fortunately, Meryl started sleeping through the night around four months, and life got much easier.
K: How did you manage to regain your strength and stamina to your pre-pregnancy strength within a year of having your daughter? (You seem even stronger than before!)
L: I tried jumping back into a training plan pretty soon after I started climbing again and ended up with persistent elbow pain for about four months. I really just try to make the most of my time when I actually get into the gym. My motivation for gym climbing has changed, since it's often the only climbing I get to do. I love having gym projects.
Honestly, I think running around chasing Meryl, lifting and carrying her wiggly 20+ pounds, helps the lock off strength. I could be making that up, but I've been surprised with my strength on multiple occasions this past year. I have no idea where it's coming from, definitely not from a consistent workout schedule.
I also attribute my recovery to my dear friend, Morgan York-Singer. She's an incredible pelvic health PT and she helped me get back to where I wanted to be. I would say at one year out now, I feel like my physical recovery is finally complete.
K: What are some of the ongoing challenges of having a baby as a climber? And the benefits?
L: I think the biggest challenges are time and childcare. I am trying to make climbing a priority, so I focus my workouts on activities I feel support my climbing goals. Time also becomes tricky as a parent because if you aren't climbing with your family, it's time away from them and then it makes you question if being away is worth it.
Chris and I really make an effort to support each other; we both feel time as a family is very important as is individual time. He's always been very supportive of me, and even more so now that we're parents.
I think when two people understand each other's goals and love for a sport or activity it's easier to take turns getting out, and to encourage each other that it's ok to get away to recharge and reconnect with friends.
Childcare is a challenge because you're either taking your child with you, in which case you need a village of people to help make the day go smoothly, or someone to stay home with them. I loved having Chris and Meryl with me in Wyoming this summer: my two favorite people hanging out with me in my favorite place, doing my favorite thing. I definitely felt like I was winning the game of life.
As far as the benefits, I feel that my motivation has changed. I try harder now and I'm way more motivated to climb in general. There are a lot of moms who crush out there; I aspire to be like them some day.
I've also changed my expectations when I do actually climb outside. I'm a lot more open to just climbing some fun pitches. I might only get in a pitch or two for the day, and that's fine. I'm not in a phase of my life where I can get outside and climb on a project each week.
I just try to climb routes that look interesting and beautiful. I might send, I might not: it really doesn’t matter much to me right now. I know that the days of projecting routes will come back, but for now, I'm happy to just climb. I'm so happy to get outside with friends as well; that's really what it's all about.
K: What does beautiful mean to you?
L: I think beautiful people are comfortable in their own skin. They embrace their flaws and their strengths. I also find beauty in sincerity: those who are honest with themselves and others. I find self-confidence, people who are comfortable being just as they are, really beautiful. I also find beauty in people who know how to laugh and tell a great story.
K: How has/have your sport(s) shaped your body image and your relationship to your body in general?
L: I think climbing has made me appreciate what my body is able to do, and continue to do, as I age. Honestly, pregnancy and child birth has changed my body image more than sports have. It was both incredible and shocking to watch my body change as Meryl grew each month. Cells were dividing and differentiating all on their own as I ate yet another pint of coconut milk ice cream.
I remember towards the end of my pregnancy packing away some pre-pregnancy clothing and wondering how I ever thought my body wasn't the right size, or wasn't fit enough. Gaining and losing 30+ pounds and delivering a baby most certainly changed my perspective.
I learned to be a little kinder to myself, to appreciate all that my body has done, and to respect that it grew this incredible baby girl. I look at Meryl and I am in awe. It made me appreciate that women's bodies are incredible, truly.
K: What advice would you give women and/or fellow athletes in general to better enjoy their unique bodies?
L: Make time for self-care, go for a walk, climb, run, do what feels right, move, breathe, rest. I've recently tried being more present and appreciating my body as it is right now. Not focusing how it was, or how I hope it will be. This is where I am, and where I am now is just fine.
Thanks, Les, for taking part in the series and for our many years of sharing laughs and leads.