COVID-19 Hits the Climbing Community

Author:
Publish date:
The sport-climbing crucible of Smith Rock State Park, Oregon, which shuttered on March 23 due to the coronavirus and reopened to the public on May 14 with restrictions, including closed trails and parking areas.

The sport-climbing crucible of Smith Rock State Park, Oregon, which shuttered on March 23 due to the coronavirus and reopened to the public on May 14 with restrictions, including closed trails and parking areas.

In the United States, which has the highest number of both COVID-19 cases and deaths to date, everyone has been affected by the novel coronavirus, including climbers. Beginning in March, gyms closed, access to climbing areas was restricted, and millions of jobs—including jobs in the outdoor industry—were lost. Now, two months into this still-unspooling disaster, we checked in with our community.

The Climbing Economy 

Almost every one of the 530 climbing gyms in America has had to close, a huge hit to a once-booming economy. Jason Haas opened the doors of G1 Climbing and Fitness in Broomfield, Colorado, only three weeks before a state-mandated closure of all gyms. Still, even in that short span, Haas had quickly built a community that has supported the gym through retained memberships. Coupled with small donations for nightly yoga and fitness classes, Haas has been able to keep full-time staff on payroll.

Other gyms have also taken their offerings online. El Cap, which owns gyms in five states, has developed both free classes and online personal training, while Philadelphia Rock Gyms (PRG) has started an online platform called PRG Remote, featuring online yoga and fitness classes, skills videos, blog posts, and even a space to connect through a virtual happy hour, trivia events, and conversation forums.

Gyms are also preparing for reopening. Many gym owners are looking to what’s happening in places like Georgia where gyms were allowed to reopen on April 24. As of this writing, Georgia’s Treadstone Climbing Gym and Escalade Rock Climbing are both operating with a limited capacity, increased sanitation, and social-distancing practices; Escalade is also requiring guests to wear masks and to come by appointment only, and is sanitizing holds between sessions. As this all unfolds, El Cap’s senior director of route setting and programs, Justen Sjong, has been considering how best to create space between climbers. “Our setters will be designing climbing-wall areas to reduce the level of stress of maintaining social distancing,” he says.

Another area hit hard is guiding. Lizzy VanPatten, owner and guide at She Moves Mountains, has cancelled all events through July. She and her team are based out of the Pacific Northwest where many parks—including Smith Rock State Park and Olympic National Park—were closed. “We’re hopeful but also skeptical of whether or not things will open up in a way that allows us to go back to work this year,” she says. To continue supporting her business and staff, VanPatten has been selling apparel, hosting virtual screenings of movies like Pretty Strong and the No Man’s Land Film Festival, and selling bolt boards—at-home tools to practice building anchors. The staff at Colorado Mountain School (CMS) has also had to get creative, offering virtual courses on topics like avalanche safety and preparing for and climbing the Diamond on Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Meanwhile, freelance writers and photographers are struggling. Some are taking on jobs outside their typical expertise, including the writer and photographer Julie Ellison, who recently started working as a part-time landscaper. Others, like the photographer Truc Allen, are doubling down on other aspects of their lives. For Allen, this means strengthening his photography skills, and putting more effort into part-time work for the American Alpine Club and as a rep for f-stop packs. “I do a lot of diversifying—it not only keeps me busy but makes me malleable and able to bring in a few dollars,” he says.

“It’s time to be open-minded,” says Sasha Turrentine, a Brooklyn-based photographer and writer who survived a bout of the virus. She has been thinking outside her photography wheelhouse, adding, “I’d like to do work related to COVID-19.” Yet for Jon Glassberg, the owner and director of the Louder Than Eleven production company, times haven’t been so tough. “I have been lucky enough to have a bunch of post-production work that just happened to align with the shutdown,” he explains—it’s all work he can do at home. The biggest shift has been staying home, since Glassberg usually travels about 200 days a year.

Professional climbers have been affected, too—much of their work depends on travel and competing, then producing content for sponsors and fans. “It’s definitely a bummer,” says Kyra Condie, one of the four Americans to have qualified for the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics, “but I feel lucky to be already qualified, and was already planning on competing in 2021.” Though she’s now limited to just her home wall and hangboard, Condie says, “I feel good about where I’ll be able to be with a year and a half more of training.”

Meanwhile, some outdoor brands have used the quarantine as an opportunity to help others. For example, the apparel company LOV, run by Lindsey and Joel Kinder, has been producing cotton masks. “Clinics, ERs, ICU hospitals, firefighters, grocery-store staff, labs—people were hitting me up from all over the country,” says Lindsey. The pair has made over 1,000 masks, which they continue to donate and now also sell through their website. Numerous other outdoor brands have been making masks as well.

Climbing Access

The coronavirus spread globally in spring, when many climbers were heading out on road trips. However, destination communities soon asked climbers either to leave or not come due to fears that COVID-19 would overtax limited healthcare resources.

One such destination is Bishop, California, where all climbing areas on public land were closed. The local economy—which relies largely on outdoor recreation—has taken a hit. “Last April, Bishop lodging occupancy was 66 percent; this year, [the] April average is 24 percent,” says Tawni Thomson, executive director of the Bishop Area Chamber of Commerce. “At least 10 of our eateries are closed completely, [and] the rest are operating with limitations and bringing in about 30 to 40 percent of normal revenue.” Still, Thomson supports the restrictions: “In small towns, the people that get sick are our friends and neighbors, not anonymous numbers,” she says.

The iconic Monkey Face at Smith Rock.

The iconic Monkey Face at Smith Rock.

Amidst all this, organizations like the Access Fund (AF) have been working to provide guidance. At first, this meant getting climbers to leave vulnerable communities and helping them be informed as stay-at-home orders and closures ensued. “Now, we’re [slowly] transitioning toward a reopening phase,” says Executive Director Chris Winter. (For more, visit accessfund.org; both the AF and the American Alpine Club [AAC] have published guidelines for climbing during the COVID era.)

Direct Experiences with COVID-19

Despite being a particularly fit cohort, climbers have not been spared by the coronavirus. Like Turrentine, Shane Johnson, the marketing and membership director at the American Alpine Club, got sick, along with his wife, Kelsey, and their two children.

“It was a really tough few weeks,” says Johnson, who’s based in Golden, Colorado. “There was a period where [Kelsey] had a hard time breathing and I thought we might send her to the hospital.” Fortunately, the family is doing better now. And, inspired by his experience with climbing partners dropping off groceries and medical supplies during their illness, Johnson started the Give a Belay, Get a Belay program through the AAC, which lets the club’s 25,000 members sign up either to give or receive aid during the COVID-19 crisis.

Climbers who work as healthcare professionals have been on the frontlines of the pandemic. As a member of the University of New Mexico pathology department, Favia Dubyk, a sponsored climber, has been busy setting up testing for COVID-19 and answering questions about the disease from fellow physicians. Meanwhile, Melissa McCarthy is an ICU nurse in Portland, Oregon, who spends her free days climbing in central Oregon. Since the beginning of the pandemic, her hospital has had about 10 to 15 patients with COVID-19 at a time, all housed in a special ICU. McCarthy spends about half of her shifts caring for coronavirus patients. “We have not been overrun with patients like other areas in the country,” she says. “My mom works as a nurse in Philadelphia [where] her hospital literally has refrigerated trucks parked out on the street since the morgue is full. That sounds heinous.”

Ways to Help

While some states are gradually reopening, a return to “normal life” seems far from certain. That said, there are ways we can all continue to help. Ideas include purchasing gift cards to local gyms, buying merchandise from small retailers, and supporting fundraising efforts like Climbing’s Contributors Fund [Climbing donated 25-percent of proceeds from new Summit member signups to climbing freelancers during April and May]. And those with a sewing machine can take after the Kinders and sew masks. Regardless, we all need to keep ourselves educated, respect restrictions, and ease back into climbing with collective safety in mind. Yes, “sending season” is here, but we live in a new reality now.