Is it OK to Climb Outside During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

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UPDATE: Information regarding COVID-19 has evolved in the past several months, and this article is now outdated. For current information about climbing outside during the pandemic, see Climbing During the Pandemic: Access Fund Provides Expert Guidelines for Outdoor Climbing.

As schools and businesses close across the country due COVID-19, many climbers now find themselves with a lot of free time. It may seem like an opportunity to hit the road and visit your favorite climbing destination—or at least your local crag or boulders. You may have heard now that social distancing is necessary, as the New York Times explains, to "keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients, so that those who are sick can be treated competently and compassionately." Surely, the mountains are an easy place to create some social distance. But is going climbing really a responsible thing to do?

Michael Pang, a climber and hospitalist/internist based out of Phoenix, Arizona, says that if your climbing plans involve travel, call it off.

"It sucks to cancel, but climbing is a privilege, and the risk to small climbing towns that have small hospitals, limited resources, and large elderly populations (think Bishop and Orangeville) is huge," says Pang. "Just one visiting climber who's an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 can easily transmit the virus to a local at the grocery store or a restaurant, and from there the number of cases can quickly multiply. This can have a ripple effect and overwhelm not just the local healthcare system (e.g., Bishop) but also the next-level facility to which those critically sick patients would transfer (Reno, for example)."

An article in the Salt Lake Tribune illustrates just how limited those hospital resources can be in climbing towns.

At Moab General Hospital, resources are already stretched thin, said CEO Jen Sadoff. There is no intensive care unit in Moab. The hospital has just three ventilators, which are used only to transport patients who require a hospital that provides intensive care, she said. The nearest such hospital is in Grand Junction, Colorado.

“They have about 25 ventilators," Sadoff said. "They may or may not be in use at the time [a Moab patient could require one].”

Just today, Moab ordered all hotels and lodgings to close to non-local visitors. All other public facilities in the area will be closed as well, with the exception that restaurants may operate for drive-through, pickup, and delivery. The closures are in effect for the next month.

Yet, so far it seems that some climbing areas are as crowded as ever. Dave McAllister wrote about the current abundance of climbers gathering in and around the small town of Bishop, California, on Thundercling.com. A Bishop local told him:

“The current scene feels like people are on winter or spring break,” said Tammy Wilson, a local climber, skier, restaurant worker, and Volunteer Coordinator for the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival. “Lots of cars in the parking lots, more people at the boulders than Thanksgiving week. Massive crowds of people camping and in coffee shops and grocery stores.”

Pang recommends that traveling climbers end their trips. "Those that are already on a climbing road trip should really consider cutting their trip short and heading home," he says. "If that's not feasible, then at least practice social distancing by avoiding crowds and limiting interactions with others. Same thing for those who live in their van/truck/Saturn/whatever."

After finishing a long shift, Pang himself had planned to use a month of time off to visit Reno, Bishop, Moe's Valley, and Joe's Valley. Instead, he called it off in order to practice social distancing. "The fewer social interactions we have with others, the greater the chance of slowing the spread of the virus," he said.

Climber and traveller Nicholas Martino created the handy flowchart below as a reference.

The parks, where many of our nation's climbing areas are located, have varied in their precautions to date. According to a story in Backpacker, the National Parks have lagged to respond.

"State parks have been closing visitor centers and rolling out other measures to limit close contact among visitors and with their staff. National parks, however, are mostly doing business as usual.

Yet even though many of our climbing areas remain open, that doesn't mean you should go. For climbing travel, the issue is clear: Don't do it. But what about climbing locally, especially now that so many rock gyms have temporarily closed? The issue is more ambiguous. Pang thinks that it should be OK, with a few caveats:

  1. If you feel sick (fever, cough, achy, shortness of breath) then stay home and call your doctor for recommendations
  2. Don't gather in large groups. If you roll up to your favorite warm-up or old project and there are already a bunch of people on it, keep walking and find a less-traveled problem or route. The CDC recommends avoiding gatherings of 50 or more people, and the White House recommended avoiding groups of just 10 or more people
  3. When you're outside, keep your distance from others, ideally staying at least six feet away
  4. Don't take public transportation to the local crag—avoid buses and subways. If this isn't possible for you, then consider staying home.
  5. Skip the post-climbing beer or food at a restaurant (if any are even open in your area). Go home and cook or get takeout.

Pang stressed, "The main point is social distancing and avoiding contact with others." Given those guidelines, local rope soloing and solo bouldering sessions sound like a responsible way to continue climbing during the pandemic, but there are still other factors to consider.

All current evidence suggest that our nation's hospitals will soon be stressed, if not overwhelmed, by the sheer volume of patients. Should you injure yourself climbing—even something relatively minor, but requiring care, like a broken ankle—you will be placing an additional burden on the healthcare system when those resources will be desperately needed elsewhere, or you will not be able to receive care. And perhaps, with all the distractions and stress caused by current world events, you will be more likely to make an error that causes an injury out at the cliff. 

And even if you do climb without incident, you are still creating more situations in which you'll be interacting with others: on the trails, at gas stations, and at the rocks—as was said above, the crags aren't exactly empty right now. Remember: People can spread the disease before they show symptoms. An article in the MIT Technology Review stressed that the goal of social distancing is to reduce total social contacts by minimizing all unnecessary social contact: "That doesn’t mean you get to go out with your friends once a week instead of four times. It means everyone does everything they can to minimize social contact, and overall, the number of contacts falls by 75%."

Just because you can go climbing right now, it doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.