Jordan Leads wants everybody to know she is alive and well. When she was six months old, she had her picture taken with her family at Joshua Tree’s Turtle Rock: a baby in midair, swaddled in a puffy purple jumpsuit, thrown over a disturbingly large gap between boulders. (Her parents, Jeff and Sherry, were the ones doing the throwing.) That photograph appeared in the Spring 1995 catalog. It also hung in the hallway of the house where Leads, now twenty-five, grew up. Sometimes people would comment on it when they came over, but it never really fazed her. When your house also features a massive four-car-garage-turned-climbing-gym that your dad built himself, and when you are raised on rock by that same dad and his friends, it all seems pretty normal, really. Besides, she adored climbing.
Several years ago, Leads watched with surprise as her baby picture got a mysterious second life, courtesy of the internet. The flying-baby image went viral, pinballing around outdoor climbing forums and other social media. She became a meme, the “Born Free Baby,” photoshopped into all kinds of ridiculous situations: soaring over a great white shark, shooting out of a cannon, launched as a projectile in Angry Birds, rocketing through space.
People questioned the sanity of her parents, the authenticity of the photo itself. Was the baby photoshopped in place of a backpack? If they were really climbing, where was all their gear? Was that a baby carrier on his back? Was she wearing Reebok high-tops? Were they terrible parents? Leads found it all kind of hilarious. But she did want the world to know that the photo wasn’t a hoax: “It’s real, and it’s me. That was my childhood.”
These days, Leads lives in Huntington Beach, California. She’s in school full-time, studying to be a court reporter. It turns out that climbing and court reporting rely on a similar skill set. “I mean, I do have a lot of control and speed and dexterity in my fingers,” she says cheerfully, revealing that she’s building her typing speed up to a lightning-fast two hundred words per minute. In a house overlooking the harbor, she recently converted a spare office with sixteen-foot-high ceilings into a three-wall climbing gym of her own—with the help of her now sixty-year-old father, using holds they salvaged from the home rock gym of her youth.
Leads spends hours a day climbing. You could say it holds the apex position in her outdoor life, though she and her boyfriend are no slouches on the wakeboard, either. They also take upwards of thirty snowboard trips a year; Lake Tahoe is their happy place. Leads remembers going there on family trips in summer: wakeboarding early in the day, rock climbing in the afternoon.
“I still go climbing with my dad,” Leads says, adding that the two had just returned from a trip to Big Bear. “Climbing keeps our relationship going. I remember always wanting to be like him, wanting to take my shirt off like him and his friends, to be climbing like them. If he can do this at sixty—he’s ridiculous. Having him come over and help build a climbing gym for me as an adult, just like the one he built for us when I was a child?” She laughs. “Let’s just say that one day I want that for my kids, too.”