Climbing During the Pandemic: Access Fund Provides Expert Guidelines for Outdoor Climbing

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States across the nation are beginning to lift stay-at-home orders and loosen restrictions on non-essential travel, and climbers are eager to get back to their crags. Last week, the Access Fund held a webinar with a panel of experts to discuss how climbing has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began and the precautions that our community needs to continue to take.

“In late April, our shelter in place orders began being announced that they were going to start lifting at the end of the month and that really made us question, OK how do we respond, what are we going to share with people?” said Andrea Hassler, executive director of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition. “You can teach abstinence or you could teach safe practices. We transitioned to: What does it look like to protect ourselves, protect others, and protect our communities?

The panel provided the following guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19 while rock climbing:

  • If you have symptoms stay home
  • Avoid crowded spaces—this means crags, trails, and parking lots. Be prepared to turn around if you arrive at a crowded area
  • Maintain a safe physical distance (six feet or more) from those who are not in your group
  • Only climb with partners within your isolation bubble who you have already been in contact with
  • Wear a face mask while you’re gearing up to climb, though you are more than likely OK to remove it once on the rock
  • Sanitize your hands after touching your gear and between climbs
  • Only climb at local areas to prevent bringing the virus from a densely populated area with a large number of cases to a more remote area
  • Climb within your limit to avoid injury that would put a search and rescue team at risk and add to the burden of the local medical facilities

The experts shared first-hand accounts from their professional experiences. Dr. Paul Pottinger specializes in infectious diseases at the University of Washington hospital in Seattle and is also a mountaineer. “COVID-19 is a huge clinical spectrum," he said. "It runs the gamut from people who literally do not know they are infected—they have no symptoms at all—to the obvious other end of the spectrum, which is a fatal infection, and everything in between.”

Pottinger confirmed that most fatal cases of COVID-19 are in older populations, but he dispelled the myth that younger people are somehow safe from the virus. “We have many people who are much younger than [65] who get a severe case, and they may not make it,” he said. “People we’ve lost here in my hospital seem to be totally healthy, normal, 20-something year old kids and they didn’t survive. This is why prevention is such a huge issue.”

The virus is spread through respiratory droplets that are expelled when we breathe, cough, sneeze, etc., explained Pottinger. The larger the droplet, the more viral material it contains, and therefore the higher likelihood that it will transmit the virus. The medical professionals recommend maintaining a distance of six feet between people because the larger, more contagious droplets will likely fall to the ground within that distance. Face masks are recommended to help prevent these droplets from floating through the air after an infected person exhales or being inhaled by a non-infected person.

Pottinger also said that it is necessary to sanitize your hands between climbs and after touching your gear. “The way you get sick is by touching something then touching your nose and mouth, so if you can prevent that then you’re not going to get sick.”

Chuck Reid, the director of stewardship at the Mohonk Preserve in New York, where the Gunks are located, explains that it is imperative to climb safely during these times. “Most of the trauma cases that come out into our regional areas of Kingston, Newburgh, and over to Vassar and Poughkeepsie come from accidents that occurred here on the [preserve],” he said. To avoid exposing search and rescue teams to the virus, and to avoid unnecessary strain on the medical system, it is important that we climb safely to avoid injury.

Pottinger did share a kernal of positive new. He explained that COVID-19 is a rather fragile virus when outside of the body—it does not react well to changes in temperature or to UV light. “The risk of catching this infection when you’re outdoors is dramatically less than when you’re indoors,” he said. “Can you catch COVID-19 outside? Yes, you can, but it is less likely than if you are indoors.”

As there is currently no end to the pandemic in sight, the guidelines laid out by the panel should be considered best practices for the foreseeable future.

“Thank you to all the climbers who have been staying at home to help protect your communities, flatten the curve, and prevent the spread of the virus,” says Chris Winter, executive director of the Access Fund. “We’ve all been on quite a long journey at this point with the pandemic and I think it’s far from over, so we still have a ways to go.”