Crusty Corner: The Shutdown

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The pasta aisle at a grocery story near Climbing's office in Boulder, Colorado, picked nearly bare.

The pasta aisle at a grocery story near Climbing's office in Boulder, Colorado, picked nearly bare.

Almost two weeks ago, I left work early to go to the grocery store, more or less upon my wife’s orders. She’s been dabbling in prepping in the past year, and while we have a pretty good stockpile of freeze-dried emergency food in case of social disruption, the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 had her—and slowly me—concerned that we should also slowly start to put away two weeks’ worth of dry goods, toilet paper, soap, and so on. You know, in case one of us got sick or there was a quarantine or cordon sanitaire in our area due to the spread of the virus, which was slowly beginning to appear in isolated pockets in the United States.

My mother and stepfather, now in their early 70s and in theory more vulnerable to the effects of the virus than either my wife and I or our children, had done the same. My mother even sent along a little money (thanks, Mom) to help us buy groceries. So I went to the store.

When I pulled my overstuffed basket, teeming with canned beans, peanut butter and jelly, boxes of pasta, some toilet paper, and one economy-sized vat of Red Vines, up to the checkout aisle, the checker asked, “How many people are you shopping for?” and gave me a look.

“Just four,” I said. “We’re a family of four. But we’re stocking up in case of the virus.” I didn't have much more in the cart than you might buy for a weeklong camping trip, but the sight of one person with this much food must have seemed an anomaly.

“Hmmm,” she said, and shrugged. I must have been ahead of my time, because when I went to the store midafternoon today (3/12) to pick up a few things, it was slammed, the toilet paper and hand sanitizer had been picked clean with purchasing limits on both, and the restockers were rolling out palette after palette of bottled water to replenish the threadbare shelves in the beverage aisle.

In climbing, we have a phrase we like to use when things aren’t going our way: shut down. As in, “That route shut me down,” or, “The weather shut us down,” or, “It was a total shut-down.” Non-climbers, of course, also use the term. Well, right now, as we’re seeing happen rapidly in the past 24 hours, big parts of America and the world are, if not outright shutting down, at least slowing down or pressing pause so that we can collectively try to slow the spread of the virus. There is a moral imperative at work here: Even if you’re “young enough” or “healthy enough” to not suffer too adversely should you get sick (which increasingly seems to be a crap-shoot, with stories of people of all ages getting very ill), the idea is that by practicing social distancing—in essence, staying away from each other by avoiding or canceling large gatherings and events, working from home, etc.—we can slow the spread of the virus such that hospitals and health-care providers aren’t overwhelmed by a surge in cases. And also so that we can protect those most at risk: the elderly and people with underlying health issues.

I don’t necessarily see myself as a community leader, but in this case I’d like to use the platform of Climbing to ask you, fellow-climber, to consider your own shutdown. Not one out at the rocks. (I can’t help you with that—I get shut down all the time, too. Maybe train a little harder—it sometimes works for me. Sometimes…) No, this is a shutdown in the real world, where right now it appears to very much matter. For our staff’s part, and with much regret, we just canceled an editorial trip we’d been looking forward to for months and for which I’d been working hard the past few weeks to clear my plate and prepare. But it seemed irresponsible to travel, even by car, if we didn’t need to. Because, let’s face it, none of us need to climb; we just want to. This was going to be a working trip, but we can take it later when there’s less risk to us or other people, less dread and uncertainty floating in the air. Travel is a vector by which viruses propagate, and many of America's crags are in rural areas or near small towns that aren't going to be as equipped as big-city hospitals to handle an outbreak.

The paper goods aisle at the local grocery store as of March 13, 2020.

The paper goods aisle at the local grocery store as of March 13, 2020.

I’d urge you also to consider your actions at this moment as a climber and citizen of the world. We’re all in this together—this is no “foreign virus,” despite the predictably misbegotten, xenophobic, and evil words of our bloviating junk-show of a president—and the actions we take or fail to take now could have rapid repercussions, as seen in countries like China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy where this virus has spread like wildfire. My father, Jon Samet, is an epidemiologist and the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. As the virus spreads in our own state and across the nation, he’s been working double-time to make sure the right information gets out there. As he wrote in a recent blog post, “In today’s world, all infectious agents need to be regarded as potentially global; they don’t acknowledge national borders. Perhaps abetted by the Administration, misinformation has spread as rapidly as COVID-19; the phrase ‘viral spread’ via the Internet could not be more apt. The false information adds to the challenge of helping the public to understand what to do and to take the right steps.”

Right now, with such a lacuna of leadership on the national level, figuring out what those right steps are has been challenging, but fortunately state and local leaders, business owners, heads of educational institutions, and so on are stepping up to provide actual guidance. Climbing’s parent company, Active Interest Media, will have us all working from home for the next two weeks—a challenge, sure, as my kids are now on a two-week extended spring break, but hey, we’ll make it happen. There’s always a way; this is a crisis. And even if it turns out we’re being overly cautious, I’d warrant there’s no harm in playing it safe. As climbers, we know about the importance of safety protocols and back-ups in life-or-death situations, and that there’s no reason not to place that fourth cam in a belay anchor which already has three, because you never know…

As this situation unfolds, there are steps we climbers can take. Maybe this means postponing spring trips to climb locally, in small groups, and taking precautions at the climbing gym—for example, extra hand-washing, staying away if you suspect you’re ill or have been exposed to the virus, going at off-hours to avoid crowds, and so on. When first the Climbing Business Journal and then our digital editor Kevin Corrigan wrote about this topic just one week ago, it seemed premature to some of our readers given the snarky comments on social media. But just one week later, it’s emerged that four cases of coronavirus have been linked to the gyms Boulder+Climbing and Climb Central in Singapore. Gyms are tight, enclosed spaces where we’re sharing the air and of course the holds, locker rooms, etc.—it pays to be cautious. The same could be said of a busy crag.

I hope I’m wrong, and that as with the anthrax-in-the-mail post-9/11 and the swine-flu epidemic of 2009, worst-case scenarios don’t unfold. But really, right now, nobody knows. So place that fourth cam, wash your hands, and consider a shutdown of your own, whatever that may look like. Happy climbing, and stay safe out there.

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