Last winter, in the depths of a run of cold, gray, snowy months (two feet of snow before Thanksgiving!) that had made outdoor rock climbing all but impossible, I decided to take a “rock-gym road trip.” We’re lucky in Colorado’s Front Range to have gyms numbering in the double digits, and if you’re willing to drive an hour or so you can always find fresh plastic. I also get burned out on only going to the gyms in my hometown of Boulder; I’ve been here too long and know too many people to get away with not talking to anybody, even if I’m in head-down-and-train mode or just feeling unsociable (which is, like, 98 percent of the time).
That day, I drove up to Fort Collins to a recently opened gym on the south side of town, Whetstone. I’d been trolling the web for photos of gyms I hadn’t been to, and Whetstone, with its two freestanding, trailer-truck-length, brightly colored Walltopia boulders looked the most intriguing. I was glad I made the drive—the boulders were even bigger, steeper, and radder than they looked in the photos, the setting was consistent and thoughtful, the staff were super-friendly, and there were so many new problems to try that by the time I was done, after a six-hour session, I could barely lift my arms. Since then, I’ve been returning to Whetstone once a month, after the problems turn over, for a bouldering binge. The gym was built in a former ice-skating rink, so the space is huge and the ceiling is high; you never feel hemmed in or claustrophobic, and the large space does a great job of dispersing climbers.
It was all going well until March, of course, when the spread of the coronavirus in the United States shut down public life, including climbing gyms. Fortunately for me, I have a garage wall, including a Grasshopper Master 8 x 12 adjustable wall with a MoonBoard setup, and an adjoining igloo with a 10-degree wall and 20-degree wall linked by a small panel of roof. Furloughed from work one day a week and with nowhere to go—and with two wild, out-of-control little boys in the house from whom I periodically needed to hide—I threw myself into a home-training frenzy. By the time travel restrictions lifted and the weather improved for outdoor climbing, I’d tweaked both middle fingers and given myself tendonitis in both elbows, failing to realize that six-hour sessions on a condensed-difficulty home wall that included linking 40-move traverses into MoonBoard finishes and/or doing furious, sweaty MoonBoard 4-by-4s were maybe, just maybe, overkill. Whoops!
Like all of us stuck at home, whether we were hangboarding, training on a home wall (or flash-building one in our living room or backyard—check out the Home Climbing Wall Forum on Facebook), or just festering, waiting for lockdowns to lift, I missed the gym—the variety of movement, the chance to train in a venue outside the home, and the opportunity to test myself against other climbers’ creations. So when the news that Whetstone was reopening its doors June 1 popped up on my social-media feed, it caught my eye, even though the weather for outdoor climbing has been good. I needed my gym fix—as well as to test a new pair of bouldering shoes.
- For another opinion on this topic, see Why I Won't Be First in Line to Return to Climbing Gyms
I read through Whetstone’s rules upon their reopening: Visitors needed to make reservations in two-hour blocks (and couldn’t come in if they had symptoms consistent with the coronavirus), the gym was limiting numbers to 20 percent occupancy or below, climbers had to wear masks except while on the wall, and climbers had to maintain six feet of distance from any other climbers not in their group or who hadn’t come to the gym with them. What this would all be like in practice, I was curious to find out. Would it be scary, weird, a COVID nightmare? Or would it be mellow and not much different than the good, old days? I booked my slot for Tuesday, June 2, from 2 to 4 in the afternoon.
I’m relieved to report that the experience was 100 percent fine. Like all of us, I’ve more or less gotten used to wearing a mask in public—or at least pulling it up over my mouth and nose when people are nearby—and so it was no big deal to have one on in the gym. And none of the 10 or so other climbers out on the floor looked too bothered either. You kept it on when you were on the mats or moving about the gym, and pulled it down so you could breathe better once you started climbing. The gym had placed placards every six feet along the walls to demarcate separation zones, with problems and routes set within these. This enforced distancing wasn’t an issue either. Even before the virus, I can’t recall climbing within six feet of another boulderer or party anyway, unless they had shitty etiquette and forced their way into my space—in which case I’d just give them the stink-eye and move away.
It was a hot day, and so fairly sweaty in the gym—or, at least, I was sweating! I recall thinking that, were I shedding the virus, wiping sweat off my brow and then touching the holds could be one possible vector, though later research revealed this not to be a worry. But in any case, I made a concerted effort not to touch my face for my and others’ sakes. I had some sanitizer, and applied it to my hands a couple times during rest breaks to eat some snacks, and there were sanitizer stations throughout the gym if you needed them.
I took a half-hour break when my session ended during which the Whetstone staff were wiping down and sanitizing shared surfaces—railings, waiver touchscreens, etc.—then stayed for another hour during a second session that saw a greater number of visitors come through the doors. The numbers were about what you’d expect for climbers getting in a post-work session on a hot summer afternoon: maybe 30 or 40 climbers. It was a little harder to avoid people during this second session, but still not too bad. You could easily move around the two long boulders to find a spot of open wall. When I was done climbing, I washed my hands thoroughly in the bathroom, sanitized them again once back in my car, and drove home.
Throughout, I did not feel nearly as at-risk of catching the virus as I have at the grocery store or even on our covidiot-choked local hiking trails. It was easy to maintain social distancing—everyone I saw in the gym was consciously doing so—and the added restrictions and considerations had little or no impact on my ability to climb. Other than my being rusty on volumes, gym slopers, and the new-school dynamic style, it was business as usual. I do understand that this virus is deadly serious, and that you don’t want to catch nor spread it. But I also understand that the coronavirus will be with us for a while, perhaps even after we get a vaccine, and that life needs to go on. As more and more gyms reopen with the aforementioned and similar restrictions in place, I’ll continue to visit them to train and climb. For me, going at off-hours and being conscious of good hand hygiene and social distancing feel like enough. Sure, there’s some small chance of transmission, I imagine, via handholds that an infected person has spread droplets onto, but the same could be said for just about any common public surface. And public life has resumed now, whether we like it or not.
Climbers will climb. It’s what we’ve always done and it’s what we’ll always do, no matter what’s going on in the world. No, rock gyms won’t look the same for a while—no just dropping in, no max capacity on Tuesday and Thursday evenings after work, no grouping up for social hour chit-chat, no clusterf—king at the bouldering wall—but for those of us who, like me, simply want to get in and out and train, conditions are ideal. If you’re comfortable going back to the gym and want to support your local gym owner, I would urge you to consider a visit in our new pandemic/post-pandemic reality. It will likely not be as bad as you’ve feared, and may be even better.