Climbing

A climber scales a boulder in the Indian Creek climbing area. [Photo credit Bob Wick / BLM]

How do I recreate responsibly during the COVID-19 pandemic? The question weighs heavily for many residents who came to Moab to enjoy its abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities.

Public health guidance has shifted over the last couple of months, and during that time it has often been confusing or seemed contradictory. For rock climbers in particular, practicing social distancing while engaging in their sport seems difficult at best.

On May 16, Moab local Lisa Hathaway, who is an avid climber and a board member of local climbing advocacy nonprofit Friends of Indian Creek, interviewed her friend Noah Kaufman on her KZMU radio show, Great Wide Open. Kaufman is also an avid climber, as well as an emergency room physician.

“We owe it to the elders in our society, and the people who are sick and pre-dispositioned in our society to get COVID disease, to be extremely careful and not transmit the disease to anybody at the crags,” Kaufman said in the interview. At the same time, he thinks people should resume doing the activities they love.

“You’re going to go crazy if you don’t get out and climb, and your health is going to suffer. And we do need to get back to normal life at some point. The question is, how do you decrease the risks as much as possible?”

For weeks climbing organizations advised their community to stay home and take a break from the rocks. Now, as public health restrictions and recommendations loosen, climbing organizations are trying to provide guidelines to their communities on how to stay safe while getting back to the crag.

A time-out from climbing

“First, we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for not climbing! (We never thought we would say this either),” read a May 4 message from the Friends of Indian Creek, which advocates for climbing access and liaises with land managers for the popular Indian Creek climbing area south of Moab.

In a March 20 Facebook post, FoIC had asked traveling climbers to return home and all climbers to “empty the crags.” This local advice was in line with guidance from the Access Fund, a national climbing advocacy nonprofit.

“We need to do our part to slow the spread of the virus and flatten the curve,” said Chris Winter, executive director of the Access Fund in a March 22 video posted on Facebook. “We should be thinking about what we can do to avoid stressing our medical systems.” He also noted that small gateway communities like Moab had reported an “influx” of climbers early on in the shut-downs as people were laid off or furloughed from work, or shifted to working remotely.

“That risks spreading the virus in these remote, isolated communities and over-stressing the health care systems in those places,” Winter said. “So we strongly encourage all climbers to go home, stay home, and to avoid travel to these places until we get the situation under control.”

While Winter did not outright ask climbers to stop climbing at their local crags, he highlighted the difficulty of social distancing while climbing.

“It might be better right now to go for a jog, go for a hike, go for a run, and think hard about whether climbing is the right decision,” Winter said in the March video.

In their May 4 notice, Friend of Indian Creek expressed gratitude to the local climbing community for largely respecting this advice.

“The cliffs and campgrounds in and around Moab and Indian Creek were empty these past several weeks thanks to you,” the message said. “The hospitals and businesses in our gateway communities were safer thanks to you. You were safer thanks to you!”

“Regular Park Ranger patrols of the Indian Creek corridor have shown that overall visitation to Indian Creek has been down considerably compared to what we would typically see this time of year,” confirmed Rachel Wootton, spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, which has jurisdiction over the popular climbing area.

The risk is real

The Salt Lake Climbers Alliance is another Utah climbing advocacy nonprofit that often partners with Friends of Indian Creek and has contributed to projects and advocacy for the Indian Creek climbing area.

Julia Geisler is the executive director of the SLCA, and she has firsthand experience with COVID-19: she and her boyfriend were both infected with, and have recovered from, the disease. Geisler wrote in an April 1 blog post on the SCLA website that both had experienced mild symptoms.

“We wanted to share our story with our community because we have unknowingly been carriers and we want others to know what that may look like,” she wrote.

Geisler said her boyfriend was likely infected through his work at a restaurant, where in mid-March he served a large party of guests from Australia. Some of those guests reported feeling unwell; later, after Geisler and her boyfriend were diagnosed, many from the Australian party were confirmed to have been COVID-19 positive.

Early on, when the two were experiencing only very mild symptoms, they didn’t think they were sick. When they found out they had COVID, Geisler said it was a relief to know that they had been doing their best to physically distance and follow sanitation and hygiene protocols before they ever displayed symptoms. Even people who never show any symptoms, researchers have learned, could be infected and could potentially spread the disease to others.

“We’re hoping that by sharing this experience, it will encourage us all to continue to do our absolute best to keep each other safe by staying home, staying local, and tamping our high-risk outdoor adventure indulgences,” Geisler wrote.

What’s next

New guidance from organizations like Friends of Indian Creek, the Access Fund, and the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance has been released in the past couple of weeks. Each of these groups makes similar recommendations: stay home if you are showing any symptoms of illness; if and when you do choose to climb, continue staying close to home; avoid busy areas, and maintain social distance from other climbing groups; use careful risk assessment, and consider the possible strain on local resources if you are injured or need a rescue; respect regulations implemented by land managers.

For example, crags in Indian Creek may be subject to seasonal raptor closures.

“Eagles, falcons, and other migratory birds use shallow depressions on ledges, cliffs and rock walls,” for their nests, said Wootton. “Avoiding climbing and hiking in the vicinity of the nest sites in addition to respecting wildlife by maintaining a safe viewing distance will help ensure survival of young birds.”

Friends of Indian Creek admonishes climbers to “make a poo-plan” for areas that may be open for visitation, but where bathrooms are still locked. That plan, the group says, should “not involve a cat-hole”—human waste should be carried out.

Climbing leaders also implore their community not to gloat online if they have access to a crag while others across the country may be under tighter restrictions or farther away from outdoor climbing opportunities.

“Consider how you make people feel when posting to social media and if your posts add to psychological health and well-being,” read a message from the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance.

Advice from doctors

On May 14, the Access Fund hosted a webinar to help spread the latest information and guidance on climbing and to answer questions from climbers. The webinar featured Dr. Paul Pottinger, director of the Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center and an avid mountaineer; Andrea Hassler, executive director of the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, a group that works to secure climbing access in that region; and Chuck Reid, director of stewardship for the Mohonk Preserve.

The Mohonk Preserve contains a popular climbing area known as “The Gunks,” short for the Shawangunks, the mountain range in New York state where the preserve is located. Winters moderated the conversation.

Pottinger gave a synopsis of what is currently known about the novel coronavirus, and focused his presentation on information relevant to rock climbing and recreating outdoors.

“This virus is not particularly hardy—it’s actually a very fragile virus,” Pottinger said. He described droplets or “snotlets” of mucus and spit that come out of our mouths and noses when we cough, sneeze, sing, laugh or speak.

“The droplets that we worry about the most are the larger droplets,” he explained. “They come in a variety of sizes, but the bigger and juicier they are, the bigger the hunk of snot that’s coming out, the more virus will be in there,” he said, explaining that a larger amount of fluid helps to protect the viral particles inside. The recommended six feet of social distance, he said, was chosen because those larger droplets tend to fall to the ground within that distance.

Pottinger offered advice specific to climbers.

“Ideally, we’d have you go out within your household, people you’ve been swapping spit, snot, and viruses with already,” he said. He acknowledged, however, that a cherished aspect of climbing is sharing it with friends. Pottinger said if friends from different households choose to climb together, they should first attest to complete lack of symptoms. They would ideally then drive to their destination separately.

“I hate to say it... We’re all about carpooling, that’s our religion, but for this, being in a car with somebody who might be sick—actually that is a higher risk situation,” Pottinger said.

He addressed the touching of shared surfaces, noting that while lab studies can’t give a completely precise picture of how long the virus persists on surfaces, they do indicate that smooth, slippery surfaces allow the virus to remain viable for longer.

"I’m thinking in particular about the woven kernmantle on that dynamic climbing rope,” Pottinger said, referring to the woven fibers of standard modern climbing ropes. Each woven strand of the kernmantle, he said, is a plastic surface, hospitable to virus particles; on the other hand, the woven pattern makes a rope less likely to harbor viable virus particles. He advises climbers to wash their hands, or use hand sanitizer, before and after handling the rope, and to cover their mouths with a mask or cloth while belaying.

In his interview with Hathaway on KZMU, Kaufman gave advice similar to Pottinger’s, answering the question he posed on how climbers can reduce their risk of spreading COVID-19.

“One of the main answers,” Kaufman said, “is spread out—really spread out. You should be no closer than 30 feet from your next party.” He recommended that climbers start out with several alternative places in mind if they arrive at their destination and find it already at a maximum safe capacity.

He also said that he and his climbing partners disinfect their hands with isopropyl alcohol after each climb.

“The last thing I want is to silently pass it on to ten different people and then guess what, six grandparents die,” Kaufman said. “There’s a butterfly effect with all of this.”

Other considerations

The webinar panelists addressed a question raised by the Moab Sun News: to comply with current climbing recommendations, how close or how far should count as “local?” Hassler offered some questions climbers might ask themselves to help answer that question:

“If you get there and it’s crowded, are you going to be willing to turn around? How many stops do you have to make on the way there?” she asked. “‘Local’ is a hard thing to define, so I think there are other parameters that we can put into that decision-making matrix as to what is an appropriate distance to travel.”

Reid agreed, pointing out that while the preserve he helps manage is an hour-and-a-half drive from New York City, climbers who live in that city still consider “The Gunks” to be their “home crag.”

Pottinger addressed another question from a webinar attendee: is it ethical for climbing guides to resume their business? Pottinger said that if the guide and the client adhere to the same practices he advises for any climbing partners, it should be possible for guides to accept work. He said the onus is on guides to clearly communicate protocols and expectations.

For indoor climbing gyms, the risk of spreading infection is higher than it is for outdoor crags, Pottinger said. He suggests that for gyms to open, all employees and users should attest to wellness before entering the facility and there should be hand hygiene stations throughout the gym.

“The only time you’re going to get burned is if you’re lazy with your hand hygiene,” Pottinger said, “and you don’t cover your face, or if you’re around someone who’s behaving in those two ways.”

The nearest gym to Moab, Grand Valley Climbing in Grand Junction, remains closed but recently announced that they will be reopening to members only on June 8, after having thoroughly cleaned all their holds and reset all the routes in the gym. Climbing gyms in the Salt Lake Area have reopened with extensive hygiene and capacity protocols.

Winters wrapped up the webinar with advice for climbers that applies to all circumstances:

“Just be nice to each other, and think about how your actions impact everybody else,” he said. “And if we do that, we’ll get through this, we’ll be proud of how we handled it, and we’ll be back out climbing in no time.”

To watch the Access Fund webinar on climbing during the pandemic, visit

https://www.accessfund.org/pages/webinar-climbing-during-the-pandemic. To listen to Lisa Hathaway’s interview with Noah Kaufman, visit https://www.kzmu.org/climber-physician-noah-kaufman-on-great-wide-open/