Responsible Climbing in the Era of COVID-19

As the promise of warm weather and dry rock combines with the pent up energy from hunkering down for the last 10 weeks, a lot of us are beginning to venture back out to the crag.  Dipping our toes in the climbing waters feels strange… but really good and grounding… but also a little strange…

Is this the right thing to be doing?  Are we being responsible to our community?  Are the risks worth it?  

The questions weigh heavily and everyone is likely to answer them a little bit differently.  Ultimately, for me, I have decided that it is worth it.  The level of personal risk is acceptable and the risk of exposure to the community is low.  It definitely feels a little weird and it is hard to add so many rules and caveats to something that I was first attracted to because of the freedom I found in it.  However, I’ve been adapting, trying my best to figure it out, and adjusting as the times change and the understanding of the situation improves.  Flexibility seems to be key here, and just like everybody else, I’ve been rolling with the punches.  This is as true in climbing as it is in day-to-day life right now.For what it’s worth, here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about as I make my decisions surrounding going climbing:

  • Who am I climbing with?  Up until yesterday, I had only gone climbing with people living in my household (I am lucky to live with two different climbing partners).  Yesterday, I climbed with a friend outside of my personal quarantine bubble for the first time.  Before doing so, I considered his approach to life in the age of the coronavirus.  Was it in sync with mine?  What was his day-to-day exposure like?  Most importantly, did he have any signs or symptoms of COVID-19?
  • Where am I climbing?  Crags that are open, local, and where I can easily avoid other parties.  It feels really good to see other climbers and say hey, but I want to steer clear of close quarters and shared belay ledges.  I realize I’m really lucky right now because in the North Conway area there are no shortage of options – climbing at the popular venues like Cathedral or Whitehorse at the off-peak times, checking out the backcountry crags on the weekend, rapping in to check out those obscure routes that have always been on the list…
  • What am I climbing? Usually at this point in the season, I am fit and finding my groove – my mental game is as strong as my fingers and I’m starting to send some harder routes and aim for the season’s big projects.  Obviously, that’s not exactly where I am right now.  I’m taking it easy.  I’m still warming up the head and the body and climbing rather conservatively.  I do intend to start pushing the difficulty envelope more and more, but only on the routes that I know are well-protected.  It’s probably not the season for those spicy Cathedral Ledge routes that are still on the list.
  • What else has changed?  For one, hand sanitizer used to be just be buried in my first aid kit.  Now it is in the brain of my pack and I reach for it regularly throughout the day.  I haven’t donned a mask at the cliff yet, but as climbers venture out more and more, I expect this to become a part of climbing this season.  I’ve been wearing my helmet even when I maybe would otherwise choose not to, I try to place more gear, and I take the opportunity to use a stick clip more than I usually do.  In general, I’m trying to be more thoughtful, more flexible, and extra cognizant of the potential impacts of me going climbing.  I’m keeping an eye on what’s happening at the local hospitals and asking myself whether or not it is ok for me to hobble into the ER with a broken ankle.  I’m thinking of what a full-blown rescue would look like – the large group, the close quarters, the reality of rescuers in the field not having hospital-grade PPE – and am reminded that this is unacceptable.

If you, too, begin to grab the rack and head for the crag, please do so thoughtfully and responsibly.  Check in regularly with the current regulations regarding travel in your area, as well as wherever you plan to climb.  Be conservative.  Be flexible.  Stay local.  Wash your hands.  And remember that sometimes, making the right choice means staying home.

And while you’re thinking about it – check out these resources from the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club.