“Why are all these people freaking out over one little virus? I mean, the flu kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.”
“I’m not going to live my life in fear. I’m going climbing anyway. It’s all a bunch of media hype.”
“I'm young and healthy, so even if I get the virus it shouldn’t be that bad.”
“Stop with the drama, already. Just go climbing and this will all blow over soon.”
You’ve probably seen comments like these on social media or overhead them at the cliff in response to those voices urging extreme caution right now—for instance, Tommy Caldwell, who is using his Instagram podium (698,000 followers) to urge climbers not to hit the rocks amidst the pandemic. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve probably seen the #cragshaming going on, in which climbers are calling out other climbers for having the gall to, well, go climbing and potentially risk further spread by not taking social distancing seriously—or for being seemingly cavalier in the face of the pandemic. With rock gyms closed or closing, spring weather coming, and tens of thousands of idle climbers with an unexpected chunk of time off, it’s no surprise that the rocks are busy. It’s also no surprise that the discussion has so quickly become polarized. So many of us climbers are iconoclasts and anti-authoritarians. We don’t like to be told what to do—especially by other climbers—and we like to bicker on the Internet.
We also tend to think we’re a special, insulated class of people. Because our activity takes us high off the ground, above the fray, and because climbing requires that we be active, courageous, and physically fit, we often erroneously conclude that we’re somehow better than non-climbers (“civilians”), less susceptible to the bad things that befall them. (I certainly have been guilty of such elitist/magical thinking in the past, especially as a younger climber when my level of arrogance was tied directly to how strong I felt on any given day.) However, it is true that we take our health seriously, we are good at risk assessment, and we understand that actions have consequences—one error in protocol at the cliff and you can die. And so, in these ways, we are both more armored against and aware of how to avoid catastrophe than those who don’t pursue high-risk sports. But this just makes us different, not better. And it only pertains in normal times.
These aren’t normal times. Right now, the connotations of the word “climber” are meaningless in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This virus can and will infect, harm, and kill climbers. We are not “above” it. We are just people who climb. People who live and die like everyone else.
As I write this, human beings all over the world are getting very sick and dying because of this nefarious virus. According to the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team study that came out Monday, “In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour, we would expect a peak in mortality (daily deaths) to occur after approximately 3 months. In such scenarios, given an estimated R0 [rate of transmission] of 2.4, we predict 81% of the GB and US populations would be infected over the course of the epidemic.” That’s four-fifths of our population infected if we continue on with life as normal—which clearly we aren’t, at least on a societal level, given the many closures to try to slow the spread of the disease. Continuing with that same modeling, in a worst-case scenario (“unmitigated epidemic”), we would see 2.2 million deaths in the US and 510,000 thousand deaths in the UK. However, if we can suppress the spread via proven measures like, write the authors, “a combination of case isolation, social distancing of the entire population, and either household quarantine or school and university closure,” then the numbers improve.
Right now, I see us as a community making a lot of errors, errors that may hasten the spread of the virus and put our own and others’ lives at risk. With the gyms closed in Colorado and nobody working—or barely working—or going to school, the rocks have become incredibly busy. It’s now a “permanent weekend”—and for how long, nobody really knows. Weeks? Months? A year? Two years? And climbers are still traveling to spring destination areas or had been up until a few days ago, for example Bishop, as reported at Thundercling.com.
Hoping for some anxiety relief and social distancing on Wednesday, a friend and I headed high into the Flatirons above Boulder, Colorado, to a previously obscure crag where, instead of solitude, 12 or 16 people showed up over the course of the day. It was the last nice day before a snowstorm, and clearly we had all had the same idea—to get up and away in the hills. (I’d been to the same crag on Monday and saw only two other people, so felt like it would be fine to go back. And no, don’t #cragshame me: Both days, we sanitized our hands, drove straight to the cliff, and kept our distance on the trails where, alarmingly, large packs of people were out hiking.) My buddy and I tried to keep our distance from our fellow-climbers, but at a certain point that became less and less possible, and so we left. Lesson learned. It felt a lot like the afternoon of 9/11, when my friend Chris and I kept our plans to go to Boulder Canyon after the terrorist attacks that morning, and ended up being very, very unpsyched to climb and came home after two or three halfhearted pitches.
In both cases, it just didn’t seem like such a great idea to be at the rock.
This is serious. Members of our community will get sick, and some of us will die. Cliffs can be crowded places, and climbers are social. If we continue to go climbing, we need to take social distancing just as seriously at the crags as we do at the grocery store—you can still spread the disease if your symptoms are minor, or even before you start showing symptoms. Although soon the choice to go climbing could be off the table entirely if more municipalities or even the entire country are told to shelter in place, as happened today (March 19) when the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, did so for the entire state.
Along those lines, a reminder about the big spring-break destinations in the United States:
Grand, Carbon, and Emery counties, Utah, have closed all lodging and camping to non-residents. While Indian Creek is in San Juan County, hanging out there right now introduces the same risks and puts the same stress on the local health-care system as if you were closer to town. Consider how your getting sick or possibly injured out climbing will stress a medical system that may soon be in triage mode, as has happened in Italy. The same could be said of any major destination climbing area near a small town (see Bishop, below).
As revealed in the Thundercling.com article, the sheer number of visiting climbers poses a threat to the local community in terms of bringing in the virus and/or overwhelming local hospitals. Given California’s shelter-in-place order, now is absolutely not the time to travel there.
Red River Gorge, Kentucky
The climber hang of Miguel’s Pizza closed their doors on Monday, March 16, as part of Kentucky’s statewide closure of all sit-down restaurants, and the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition Red River Reunion event scheduled for April 4 has been canceled. On a busy spring-break week, Miguel’s camping and rental facilities are typically home to hundreds of climbers.
Hueco Tanks, Texas
Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
Currently open (with limited services, and winter hours on the loop road), but the governor of Nevada has ordered a shutdown of all non-essential businesses in the state, including casinos.
Yosemite National Park, California
The park remains open, but services are limited (the visitor center, museum, theater, shuttles, restaurants, and lodges are closed). Given California’s shelter-in-place order, now is absolutely not the time to travel there.
Zion National Park, Utah
The park remains open, but with limited services, and shuttle service has ceased.
New River Gorge
As per the NPS website, the gorge is currently open. The New River Alliance of Climbers had this statement on their Facebook page:
"We have been asked if we have any sort of official statement regarding visiting the NRG from out of town to climb during the COVID-19 crisis. We do not, beyond, of course, encouraging everybody to take the CDC guidelines for travel very seriously."
On a personal level, however, some people who live here—and who may have relatives (or are themselves) at high risk—are concerned about tourism coming from areas that have been harder hit by COVID-19 than we have.
The choice is yours. As always, please stay smart, be careful, be respectful and, above all, be safe.
Smith Rock, Oregon
Currently open, though the visitor center is closed.
This is just a short list of the many US climbing areas you might generally visit this time of year. The website Campendium also has a state-by-state list of parks, campgrounds, etc. and any closures for those who are on the road trying to get home or find somewhere to base out of in their vans, RVs, etc.
These days, many of us are from the gym generation and like to climb in large groups, with, one might imagine, overlap into the “what-me-worry” category of younger people who might feel themselves impervious to effects of this virus. (Fact check: You aren’t. According to a Centers for Disease Control study released on Wednesday March 18, 38 percent of the 508 people hospitalized in the US so far for COVID-19 were between the ages of 20 and 54.) Or who remain willfully ignorant of the fact that there can be spread from asymptomatic carriers. If this sounds like you or someone you know, I urge you to watch this interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, someone who’s studied disease and formulated proactive policy responses to epidemics for decades. In it, he stresses just how important of a role young people play in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, saying, “We really do need you. This isn’t something that can be successful without you.”
The time for social distancing is NOW. Take this seriously. Take this as seriously as an onsight lead of a runout R/X trad climb, covered in lichen and protected by tipped-out cams and hopeful RPs. Take this as seriously as Alex Honnold lacing up his TC Pros to free solo El Capitan. Take this as seriously as Nina Williams slowing her breath and closing her eyes to hone her focus before sending a 50-foot V10 highball. Don’t mess this up.
As my father, Jon Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, puts it, “We know that social distancing is critical for slowing and ending the COVID-19 pandemic. All need to do their part to stop the spread, even those who are young and less at risk for serious disease. You are part of the chain that will spread the disease to those who are at risk. Take steps to protect them—your parents and grandparents and everyone else.”
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