Future Tense

Climbers, Please Control Yourselves

This might feel like the perfect time to go climbing outdoors. It’s not.

A man climbs a steep cliff.
Patrick Hendry/Unsplash

Last weekend, Monica Cowan and a few friends drove east to Joshua Tree National Park, where they spent the day climbing. Natural Sisters Cafe, a popular café just north of the park entrance, was hopping, and there was a long line to drive into the park. “It was just as crowded as I’d expect on a beautiful weekend day,” she said. “The normalcy felt abnormal.” Nonetheless, Cowan says her crew was glad to be getting out, especially after a wet week in L.A. “[We were] happy to be climbing outside after the rain, and happy to have a day of not thinking about coronavirus,” she says. But after they returned, Cowan started reading posts from folks in small towns talking about the load on resources weekend warriors create. “I’ve since texted with the friends I went with, and we all agree that if we were planning on going this weekend, we’d cancel the trip.”

Many people, like Cowan, look to the outdoors as an escape from daily stressors, a way to unplug and forget about your problems for a few hours or days. Now, more than ever, people are stressed—and with schools and businesses closed, many folks have more free time than usual. Climbers, in particular, find themselves in a bind—in some cities, local climbing gyms have been ordered to close. It seems there could be no better time to get outdoors and unwind. Plus, there’s ample room outside for social distancing, right? It’s easy to stay 6 feet away from someone in the great outdoors.

Yes, but it gets complicated when everyone has the same idea. Over the weekend, visitors swarmed Moab, Utah, prompting local health officials to shut down campgrounds and hotels to visitors. Climbers have been out in full force in Bishop, California, and popular climbing spots in Washington, like Leavenworth and Index, have been crowded as well. Molly Ravits, a science teacher who lives in Leavenworth, says that on Tuesday, she couldn’t believe how many people she saw parked near Icicle Creek Canyon, a popular climbing area. “I know they aren’t locals, because there aren’t that many climbers who live in town.” Ravits is also on the board of the Leavenworth Mountain Association, and she posted a reminder on the organization’s social media pages asking visitors to stay home. Other local climbing organizations, like Bishop’s Climbing Coalition, have done the same.

“Realistically, no one should be climbing,” says Jeremy Park, a member of the Washington Climbers Coalition’s board, who helped draft the WCC’s statement after talking with Ravits. Park didn’t come to that decision lightly—when we spoke, he’d actually just returned from a climbing trip to Index. He says it was packed both days he was there, as if it were a weekend. “Tuesday night, I started reading some articles and comments on local climbing groups about the small communities we impact, and the effect all this traffic has on them, and my opinion evolved,” he says. He ended his trip early and worked with two other local climbers to write Instagram and Facebook posts encouraging climbers to stay home.

Park wants to climb, of course, but “this is just not the time to do it,” he says. There’s inherent risk to any activity, especially climbing, and any climbing-related injuries could deplete precious hospital resources. Accidents can happen even on easy climbs, and “if you get injured, you’re going to take up a bed that could potentially be taken by someone else,” Park says. With hospitals anticipating massive demand, even building a 200-bed emergency hospital tent on a soccer fields north of Seattle, it seems prudent to avoid any activity that could put you in the hospital.

Folks enjoying the outdoors may think of their activities as solitary pursuits out in the wild, but in reality, most stop elsewhere along the way: the gas station to fuel up or use the restroom, a tasty burger spot after a solid day out, or the local grocery to pick up some snacks. Hundreds or thousands of tourists coming into town to make purchases could also be unwittingly spreading COVID-19 to the people living and working in these communities. “I worry about people coming here from King County, which is the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.,” says Ravits. She says she believes the virus is likely already in town but that more climbers coming in from Seattle will only make it worse. “There are a few elderly homes in town—there are definitely people who are vulnerable that live here.”

Medical supplies and devices are especially limited in rural hospitals that service the mountain towns where folks love to climb and hike, and hospitals are not equipped to handle an outbreak. The local hospital has just two ventilators available, and one of them lives in an ambulance.

No one’s going to be standing at the crag telling you to go home. (In fact, some areas might have less staffing than before. Several national parks, like Yosemite and Zion, have closed their visitors’ centers or shuttles, and reduced staffing.) So enforcing these norms will fall to outdoors communities. National climbing organizations like the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club have not advised full climbing abstinence but encourage climbers to stay close to home, keep distance from other climbers, and avoid taking unnecessary risks. For many city climbers, that functionally means staying at home and finding new activities to take on. Ravits says she plans to get strong on her hangboard; Park says he’s running more. Other climbers are getting creative with finding urban climbs, or even climbs in their own houses.

Climbers aren’t the only ones finding their activity affected; long-distance hikers are canceling their Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail trips, and ski season has abruptly ended. While it will be hard for many to adjust to life without their favorite activities, there’s always next year.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.