Bolts, Boulders and Babies!

Find out how real-life Wonder Woman Jessie Waldman balances bolting, bouldering and a bouncing baby girl…

With the arrival of March 2020, the notion of “according to plan” went swiftly out the window. Its replacement – the realisation that life makes its own way, and we’re just being taken along for the ride. For Jessie Waldman and Alex Bester, lockdown proved to be a wilder ride than they ever could have expected, and the best adventure thus far (cheesy, but true). 

We had a chat with Jessie to find out all about her journey. Long story short – we think we’ve found a real-life Wonder Woman…

Jessie A.K.A Wonder Woman, and Leah

You and your family have had quite the ride over the past year… could you tell us a bit about your lockdown adventure? 

It’s probably been the craziest year of my life. When lockdown was announced in March 2020, Alex and I were climbing in Boven. Alex had recently bought land in Rocklands; the sale went through in November 2019. We had installed a JoJo tank and a tap, but that was pretty much it. 

When Ramaphosa gave the 48-hour warning in March, we decided to hotfoot it to Rocklands. We arranged to meet some friends on the farm, and wild camped throughout lockdown, bolting as many routes as we could on the crags which form part of Alex’s land. When the shops reopened, we bought building materials and started to build ourselves a house. We were lucky enough to have a lot of strapping women and men climbers around to help us shift bags of cement and cinder blocks, as well as give their expert opinion on building techniques. I was also writing my Master’s thesis at the time! I wrote it mostly sitting on a boulder pad and charging my laptop off the car battery…

Freeda (ignoring the camera), Jessie and Leah

One day, we saw a picture of a little Border Collie puppy that needed a home… and along came Freeda! And then, just as the spring flowers were blooming in the Rocklands valley, we found out I was pregnant. We were still living in a canvas tent at the time; the news accelerated our building plans! We finished building our bedroom and somehow Alex managed to build us a kitchen and bathroom with the help of Danver, a local guy from the valley, and his dad Sampi. By that point, heavy lifting was out for me!

Fast forward to Rocklands season 2021 and our daughter Leah Romy Bester has joined the family and is now 4 months old. The tale of her entry into the world is another story!

We went back to Cape Town and stayed there until she was two months old. We were lucky enough to have my mum fly out from the UK to help us for the first six weeks. Since then, we’ve been back in Rocklands. It has been magical spending Leah’s early months in the Cederberg. We have missed having the grandparents around (Alex’s parents are in Pretoria – they spent some time with us just after Leah was born, but haven’t been able to visit again yet because of COVID), but we’ve been very lucky to have the Rocklands climbing family around us.

Talk about a power couple! What’s next for the two of you?

We are starting a camping/glamping site on the land called Rocklands Base Camp. The idea is to offer secluded camp spots suitable for groups of friends or families who want to climb in Rocklands. We hope to be fully open for business by the 2022 bouldering season. Alex has been busy getting the farm ready – he is super handy! He has just finished building a wooden deck around our house. I’ve been working remotely on my laptop (I do freelance legal research along with my studies).

We have both been taking turns looking after Leah. I must be a glutton for punishment because I am now starting a PhD.

That sounds just magical! Could you tell us about the crag you’ve created and the climbing you’ve found there?

We’ve bolted over 45 routes in nine sectors at Rocklands Basecamp, from grade 14/5a to unopened climbs which could be up to 34/8c (at the Bester Crag). Alex, Ebert Nel, Peter van de Merwe, Theo Greveling and myself have been the ones bolting, with Alex and Ebert doing the most. The hardest route I’ve bolted is The Handmaiden, which has been opened by Alex as 26/7b. I named it after Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which is all about women’s resistance in the face of a dystopian struggle against misogyny. I haven’t managed to send it yet! I was projecting it last year when I got pregnant and I’m hoping to get back to it later this year. The nice thing about the Bester Crag is that you can climb there during the summer. The routes are mostly quite overhanging, with lots of heel hooks and bouldery moves.

You and Alex are currently bolting an infant-friendly sector – tell us a little bit about that?

Alex began teaching me to bolt last year during lockdown. It’s hard work, but I love it. We started bolting an infant friendly crag at Rocklands Basecamp – ‘Kindergarten Crag’ – that’s easily accessible by car & stroller. The idea was to make a crag with low grades that you can get to easily if you are heading out to climb with kids. It has been a nice project for me, as it’s only a 5-minute walk from our house, so I can bolt there in small chunks of free time. It only has three routes so far, but more will be coming soon.

Amazing! And how have you found the journey of motherhood?

Having Leah has changed my whole world. She is now the most important thing in my life and I would do anything for her. We have had to make big adjustments, as we were used to spontaneous mountain adventures – going away for the weekend with nothing more packed than climbing gear, some food and a toothbrush! It’s not always easy to escape the FOMO, but truly I feel lucky. Having Leah has made me cherish my free time and, if anything, love my hobbies even more. 

Speaking of hobbies, what are your favourite adventure activities? Have they changed over the past year?

I love sport climbing and trail running, and in the last couple of years I’ve been getting into bouldering. During pregnancy, the bouldering was the first to go… because I was afraid that it could be dangerous to fall. I kept up the running until it got too uncomfortable (around 24 weeks), then I switched to hiking/walking. I stopped leading sport routes around 12 weeks along, but I was lucky enough to be able to keep top-roping throughout my whole pregnancy (thanks to a full-body harness that I borrowed and friends who were willing to belay me and sometimes quite literally haul me up difficult parts of routes!). Now I’m back at it with all three sports. It will take time to get back to the goals I had previously, but I’ve been really enjoying the journey so far.

What challenges did you face when trying to stay healthy while pregnant?

My energy levels fluctuated a lot during pregnancy. Some days I couldn’t sit still, others I felt exhausted. I had quite bad insomnia in my third trimester; afternoon siestas were an essential part of my daily routine and the only way of surviving the Cederberg summer. I’d do my exercise early in the morning or around sunset. By the end, that was mainly plant-watering on the farm, walks, and swimming in local outdoor swimming spots, along with a top-roping session every week or two.

And how has your climbing life changed?

I do miss the long days spent at the crag and carefree weekends away. Now, it’s all about quick, efficient sessions. Either I leave Leah with Alex for a couple of hours, or we head out as a family and take it in turns to climb. We’ve had some great days out all together, but also some where not much climbing has happened. Having less time has made me more efficient though – less chatting and more climbing! Some days we have been lucky and Leah has been sunshine and roses all day, and on other days we’ve decided to cut our losses and leave early when she hasn’t been enjoying herself.  

We also have some boulders behind our house so when there’s no time to head out, we go and play on those.

What was it like starting to climb again post-pregnancy? 

At first it felt really hard. I felt I had no core stability and I was super scared. But it still felt great not having to climb with a huge belly! Now it’s getting easier – I’m getting stronger, I’m gradually getting my head back and starting to feel more like my old self again.

Are you planning to turn Leah into a tiny crusher like her parents?

We are definitely excited to get Leah on rock, but ultimately it is up to her what she is into. We always joke that she will probably get really into tennis.

Have you connected with other adventuring families?

Yes! It has been great to connect with other climbing mums in Rocklands and share beta on how to get out and about with babies.

What has the biggest challenge of this whole experience been?

Learning to rest and take life a little bit slower is the hardest part for me. There is a real danger as a mum of running yourself to the ground if you try to do everything at once. But I still get overexcited and try to do a million activities in one day!

Anything you’d wish you’d known before starting this journey?

The hormonal shifts that you go through during pregnancy and postpartum are huge. Sometimes it can make you feel like a totally different person, and that obviously impacts the people around you. The emotional connection I have with Leah has definitely changed me.

What advice would you give to expectant/new mothers in a similar situation?

Try to keep making time to do the stuff that you care about, and that makes you feel like you! Also, be kind to yourself – you can only do your best.

Well, folks… if that doesn’t get you inspired to conquer your own mountains, we don’t know what will! Life may take you on a winding road, but isn’t that the real adventure, after all? 

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”
― Douglas Adams