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.


In The Early Season


What happens when the ice runs out: scratching around on Cathedral Ledge, December 2014.

I never know quite how to approach the early season. One year I started it off with a mellow romp up an area classic – Shoestring Gully – with good friend Elliot Gaddy. Thinking that got me dialed in, I then flung myself at some hard mixed pitch. Whoooa. That kinda backfired. Since then I have tried to take the same tack that I like for climbing trips – hurl myself at something challenging just to get the shakes out. I don’t like having something hanging over my head, best to just deal with it.

With winter climbing there is the added push of the fickle conditions. For our first pitch of this season, Sam Bendroth and I scrapped our way up Karen’s Variation on Cathedral Ledge to get up to some cool looking ice above the Blueberry Terrace. This was Peter Doucette and Ray Rice’s route, Cryo-Kinesis, which they pioneered a few years ago.  Water was moving pretty heavily up there, so, in an act of unprecedented restraint, we decided to come back the next day after it had a chance to build a bit.

Bayard channelling his inner Jedi on the thin-ice start to Cryo-Kinesis.

Bayard channelling his inner Jedi on the thin-ice start to Cryo-Kinesis.

Overnight was too cold for optimal building conditions, but the ice had sured up some. After a morning of work we took the fast track up, hiking to the top of the cliff and then rappelling in. I clipped a nut I had placed the afternoon before, right off the ledge, and started up some thin little ice bubbles. It was…scary, but I managed to find gear and keep myself on the wall – for a while. Lots of awesome climbing culminated in a less-than-shoulder-width-pillar.

Everything went pretty well until I was about to launch into some pumpy, gently overhanging dry-tooling above the pillar. While placing a Camalot, my tool shifted and I went flying – fall #1. Once back in location at the top of the pillar, I tried a straight up version, which resulted in fall #2. Finally, now fully pumped, I saw the obvious line of holds out left. Ahhh.. that was the way, but i was pooped.

Stellar line Ray and Peter! The top out – swinging into sticky yellow overhanging ice – would have made a true send so sweet.


Fall #2. Cathedral’s flawless granite often provides good rock protection, making falls an acceptable risk on high-end terrain.


Alas, the finishing moves are longer and pumper than one would have hoped.

Words by Bayard Russell, images by Freddie Wilkinson, copyright 2014.

It’s all Coming Back Around, Sort of…

Not quite sure how, but all the ice I’ve seen over the past week up in Crawford Notch has come back around. All the usual stuff is good to go at Frankenstein, including most of the sunny and high water volume routes routes in the amphitheater that got really hammered over the New Year (with the exception of the regular, pillar finish on Pegasus). This past Sunday, I went into the amphitheater for the first time since the melt out with a couple of great clients and did the direct finish to Chia, which I was pleased to find in great condition; including a newly reattached top out. Chia had looked pretty bad since those warm, muddy days around the 1st of the month.

Everything at Texaco, from the amphitheater over to Embargo is growing, something I just can’t quite account for because the dry ground doesn’t look like it should be capable of feeding anything other than squirrels and turkeys. I have heard from north country local, Paul Cormier, a reliable source if there ever was one, that things were looking really good up in Grafton Notch as well. Lake Willoughby looks to be pretty fat from some photos posted on NEIce recently, so it seems that things are looking good, you just have to get into, or north of, the mountains to enjoy it. Cathedral Ledge is pretty bleak, with the exception of the North End, which can somehow hold ice in it’s shadey grip through any mid-winter thaw, and often later than I would like into the spring.

We have up tp 8″ of snow forecasted for the valleys in NH on Wednesday, more in the mountains, followed by good, cold temps; so I see a good outlook for continued ice climbing conditions’ improvements. Great news, I would love to get some climbing in at Cathedral.

This just in: Eric McCallister, of McCallister Photo, reported doing Remission on Cathedral Ledge this past weekend with Jim Ewing and found it “surprisingly good and wet”. He also mentioned that Repentance was not in good shape, calling it, “brittle”, “dry” and making it sound scary, a conclusion I have heard repeated a few times in the last few weeks.