Kilian Fischhuber is among the most decorated competition climbers in the world. Hailing from Austria and participating in bouldering and lead climbing events, he has the rare distinction of winning more than 20 World Cup events. Having retired from competitions in 2014, Kilian has enhanced his repertoire of climbs. He travels the world in search of routes to climb; in the process he has visited India. Kilian worked for a while as a teacher in Innsbruck. Since end-2019, he has been a national team coach for Austria Climbing. Thanks to this, has been able to train since April 20, 2020 with elite athletes at the gym “ Ki” in Innsbruck, which is also the national training center. They were given special permission. “ We have to maintain strict protocol including distance, number of athletes, disinfection and the like,’’ Kilian said. He spared time to respond to questions mailed by this blog on the new normal in climbing forced by COVID-19.
Reports have now begun coming from Europe of lockdown relaxation and the resumption of climbing. To your mind, how do we reconcile the need to observe disease related protocols with the sport of climbing? Is this a sport that can coexist comfortably with COVID-19 protocols or do you see climbers being pushed to situations where it is a choice between enjoyable sport and protocol?
We had a serious outbreak of COVID-19 here in Austria. Due to strict regulations, a lockdown and maybe a pinch of luck we avoided a larger mess. Now we see protocols relaxed and some kind of normality return. However, we kind of live under the shadow of a future outbreak and possible repeated lockdowns. Austria Climbing and the Austrian alpine federations worked on regulations for climbers and I hope we can enjoy our sport almost as before, soon. We’ll need more space per person and will have to follow hygiene protocols and use common sense to maintain our reclaimed freedom. As we have no other choice I guess we’ll have to coexist with the new rules. I’ve been climbing since more than two weeks now and the new normal doesn’t feel so bad to me.
If we broadly divide climbing into bouldering, lead climbing and mountaineering, do you see the impact of COVID-19 protocols as being fairly uniform for all these segments or do you suspect that a branch like bouldering, which is generally more social, requiring spotting and capable of climbs over shorter distances may be hit harder?
I’m afraid some will be hit harder than others. The virus definitely does not treat us fairly in any sense. It’s the same with sports. Contact sports or sports where you have to touch others (as in spotting) will see a larger impact. But again, I think with common sense we can live with the new normal.
Can you give us an idea of how a typical climbing session looks like for you these days? There has also been this debate around chalk powder versus alcohol based-liquid chalk for the present times. Which type of chalk do you use?
When I go rock climbing, I climb with my partner Anna. We live in the same household. When we meet other climbers we try to maintain the distance which is usually no big deal. I use normal chalk but I bring hand sanitizer to the crag.
Indoor climbing gyms are now a major part of the sport. How do you think COVID-19 protocols will affect climbing at these venues? While physical distancing may be possible, frequent sanitizing of surfaces will be a challenge depending on the size of gym. Are there any practical approaches with protocols included, beginning to emerge at climbing gyms in Austria and elsewhere in Europe?
I don’t think it is possible to disinfect climbing surfaces in climbing gyms after each climber. I feel that sanitizing your hands frequently, avoiding contact with others, more space and using face masks is all we can do. If there’s another major outbreak the gyms will be closed again anyways. Our gyms have gradually begun opening last week. First the outdoor walls opened and soon, with new protocols, indoor walls too. What I don’t know is whether it will still be lucrative for gym owners to run large gyms with only few people inside.
What is the general attitude you sense with regard to climbing in the months immediately following relaxation of lockdown? Are people coming out to climb or is there reluctance? Are they waiting to see what protocols to follow at crags and gyms?
The vast majority runs with the protocols. I’ve been rock climbing again since about two weeks (when relaxation began in Austria) and most people I met behaved responsibly and showed understanding.
Who do you think should take the lead in setting health related protocols so that sports like climbing can resume in a safe fashion when lockdown relaxes?
The Austrian Climbing Federation, the alpine federations and the gyms proposed a protocol to the Austrian Health ministry which has been adopted so far. All the decisions are aligned with what health experts from the government propose.
How was the situation like in Austria when the pandemic was at its peak? Were all the major climbing crags and gyms shut?
All gyms shut, nobody went climbing.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please note: the above interview should be seen in the right perspective. It reflects circumstances in Austria, which is very different from the predicament in India, a nation of 1.3 billion people with crowded cities. The interview is presented here to foster awareness and hopefully, contribute to templates for the new normal.)