Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In early 2019, Steve Swenson, former president of the American Alpine Club had visited Mumbai to receive the annual Kekoo Naoroji Book Award from The Himalayan Club. In May 2020, amid lockdown in India due to COVID-19, this blog contacted Steve for pointers on how relevant agencies in the US were advising the climbing community. The following is drawn from links he suggested for reference.

Here’s what Access Fund posted on its website:

We strongly encourage all climbers to help flatten the curve and err on the side of caution. Here’s how you can help:

Follow the lead of your Local Climbing Organization.

DO NOT travel to climb.

Strictly comply with all shelter-in-place and similar orders.

Strictly comply with all closures and restrictions, and follow federal, state, county and city guidelines on social distancing.

DO NOT take unnecessary risks. Don’t be the person that creates more stress and burden for our medical and SAR professionals.

Please understand that climbing areas will still be there once this crisis passes. The best way to return to normal in the shortest period of time is for all of us to do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus as quickly as possible. In many cases, that will mean that we simply shouldn’t go climbing.

There was this observation too on the Access Fund website: Over sixty years of scientific research has proven that being outside in nature, or even just viewing natural landscapes, helps reduce stress hormones, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. Being in nature also lifts our spirits and helps us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

At the time of writing, Access Fund had announced a webinar for mid-May 2020 on the topic, “ Climbing during the pandemic.’’ It was to feature representatives from the outdoor community and the medical fraternity.

On its part, the American Alpine Club posted the following:

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented and impacts us all. Our community must act thoughtfully to “ flatten the curve” to reduce transmissions of the virus over time.

We are concerned about transmission of COVID-19 to rural or gateway communities. These remote towns often have limited access to medical facilities and their closely-knit, interconnected social structures are more prone to the spread of infection.

Please keep places like Bishop, Fayetteville, Moab, Springdale, and Slade as safe as possible by limiting recreation-based travel at this time. If you have a trip planned, please reschedule until we are through this health emergency. This is not the time to head to the desert or rally to your favorite national park for “social distancing.” While outdoor time is necessary for each of us during this turbulent period, we need to stay local and limit our interaction with vulnerable communities.

Consider also keeping outdoor objectives conservative to reduce the load on the medical system. Backcountry emergencies contribute to overloading hospitals and potential shortages of ventilators in intensive care units. As always, be safe out there and mindful of unnecessary risks.

Finally, we all should follow the directions outlined in the CDC’s guide on how to keep yourself and others safe from the virus. It’s necessary that we as a climbing community make decisions from the perspective of the most vulnerable people in our community.

The AAC is certain that the climbing community can be a part of the solution to COVID-19 by taking collective action now.

Some parks in the US have opened for limited use during the day. The website of Washington State Parks provides an idea of how such entities approach the current predicament.

To begin with, the parks have said that parking capacity will be reduced at some urban locations as reducing the number of parking stalls leads to less number of people and thereby, less crowds. Authorities want people to respect closures and visit only parks that are open for day use. The detail of limited restroom facilities at some parks has been mentioned. Before they go, people have been asked to check what is open and what isn’t. They have been advised to enjoy the outdoors only when healthy; if they have fever, cough or shortness of breath, they have been told to save their outdoor trip for another day. If you are healthy and going out, then bring your own mask or bandana. Overnight stays are not allowed. So opt for an outing closer to home. Stick to immediate household members to check any potential spread of virus. Bring own soap, water, hand sanitizer and toilet paper. If upon reaching a park, it is found to be crowded, then go elsewhere or return another time. Avoid crowds. Practise physical distancing (six feet). Similarly, leave at least one parking space between your car and the next. Wash your hands well. Pack out what you pack in. Be kind and respectful to the park staff.

One segment where protocols are still being figured out is that of climbing gyms. Gyms have significant presence in the US.  On climbing gyms, Steve Swenson said, “ no one knows yet what the protocols will be.”  State governments in the US are setting the time frames for a phased approach when different parts of the economy can reopen. “ So it varies from state to state.  In most states, things like gyms (which include climbing gyms) are included in the third phase of reopening which is one of the latter phases.  The nature of what these latter phases will look like and when they can happen, will be determined by what happens with the spread of the virus after the phase 1 and 2 parts of the economy reopens,’’ he said.

Please note: In India, all sports, outdoor pursuits and climbing gyms have remained suspended or shut since commencement of lockdown. At the time of writing, the lockdown was still in force. The ground realities of life and the challenges faced in tackling disease are very different in India, compared to the US. The contents of this article are presented for thought and discussion by those related to outdoor pursuits, who recognize the need for evolving best practices in these troubled times.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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