The Perks of Pandemic-Era Climbing

I’m sure we can all agree that the past year and a half has been a steaming hot pile of guano-covered choss for a number of reasons. But I’m not here to bring back painful memories. I’m here for the silver linings.

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I’m sure we can all agree that the past year and a half has been a steaming hot pile of guano-covered choss for a number of reasons. You may not have been able to see through all the forest-fire-induced smoke blanketing your neighborhood, but there was a serious shortage of smiles and hugs and awkward first dates and pool parties for what has felt like an eternity. But I’m not here to bring back painful memories. I’m here to suggest that the nearly infinite months spent drinking too much wine alone after hang-boarding off the door frames in your apartment while re-watching every Dosage volume sixteen times may not have been quite as chossy as you remember. I’m here to reflect upon those rare rays of hope breaking through the smoky haze outside your bedroom. I’m here for the silver linings.

The first big perk of early-pandemic-era rock climbing was that I got some mad FAs that nobody could question without admitting that they, too, were recklessly venturing into the out-of-doors. April 2020 was brilliant for my 8a scorecard. A strong buddy of mine discovered an undeveloped boulder field in New England back in 2019 and let me – being his weakest friend and therefore extremely unlikely to snake his proj – come clean new climbs and bag FAs with him all of quarantine spring. Well, I mostly watched him clean climbs while I drank beer and wandered aimlessly in the wilderness until the rocks were clear of moss and choss. We (he) went to town, putting up sick, hard rigs left and right. Trust me, they’re all 5-star classics. No, you cannot have the GPS coordinates.

Second, once the gyms opened up, climbing in a gym full of masked humans was actually kinda dope. I literally couldn’t hear the random spectators spray beta at me while I climbed. Tall bro who always “cooled down” by campusing up the jugs in the bouldering cave barefoot had given me loads of super-secret insider tips on how to rock climb back in the yesteryears. But all masked up in several layers of floral-print fabric, I couldn’t make out a single word he sprayed. Hovering behind me while I set up for the last few moves on my warmup, he was probably trying to tell me to just skip the last hold and go big for the lip – “It’s a jug!!” I mentally filled in blanks left by his muffled enthusiasm. “Excuse me – what’s that? – I should use my stellar technique, extraordinary flexibility, and witty confidence to summit this route? Genius!” Thank you, kind sir for the humble and silent pep talk I needed to send my warmup.

Third, I made a lot of new friends at the gym. Given that I couldn’t hear anyone through their facemasks, and I certainly couldn’t see what they looked like, I did a lot of imagination-based socializing during the pandemic. I had to make judgement calls on people at the gym based on the only real piece of personal information I had on them: how hard they rock climbed. Now, I’m not out there befriending pros in hopes of bolstering my Instagram following. No one wants their friends to be too strong. I want my friends to be just ever-so-slightly weaker than me – those folks working the same problem as me, but flailing just a little bit more and complimenting how effortless I made the crux look. Well, I couldn’t really hear them compliment me, but I’m sure they were. Whether or not they knew it, I made a whole new crew of besties at the gym during the pandemic, whose friendship was directly correlated with how close-yet-far they were to sending my project. Boy who may or may not have had any teeth just became another comrade punting off the blue V5 in silent solidarity.

Finally, this whole experience has given me a brand new lineup of excuses for sucking. My home gym only let me reserve a 2-hour time slot each day. That’s not nearly enough time to get strong when I need at least a half-hour to foam roll my quads at the beginning and end of my gym session because my legs are still sore from that one leg day I did back in February. I also had to sacrifice any chance I had of gaining some fitness this season when I learned that I simply could not sport climb indoors while wearing a facemask. I can only breathe heavily through an N-95 for 15 seconds tops, and biting the rope to clip through all that fabric is kinda gross.

For one extremely hot and smoky second back in early summer 2021, the pandemic appeared to be making a graceful exit. I went back to spending half of my paycheck on overpriced IPAs. I danced awkwardly while some living, breathing humans played musical instruments on a stage in public. I took a shower. I wore jeans. I was reborn into a world in which humans smiled at one another and got a little too close to my personal bubble. The gym lifted its mask mandate, and I learned that my new friend actually does have a full set of teeth. I remembered how willing others are to share their beta with me, even if I don’t ask. Despite the spray, I was suddenly overcome with optimism, believing that perhaps we could go back to a world in which addressing climate change and income inequality and gumbies at the crag and oversized tick marks were top priorities.

The pandemic, it turns out, was just taking a summertime power nap. In early September, the City reimposed a mask mandate over concerns regarding the spreading Delta variant. Don’t get me wrong: I’m as stoked for the post-Covid world as anyone. But at least now I’ve had some practice biting the rope through my facemask when I’m lead climbing, and there are still plenty of soft FAs for me to log to my 8a account. I dug my floral-print masks out from my glove compartment, faced the faceless gym comrades, and returned to flailing in sweet, sprayless silence.

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