Climbing in the Age of COVID

Tuesday, January 26th, 2021

Before COVID, I engaged in all sorts of everyday behavior that would probably terrify me today: rescuing snacks that fell in the dirt and stealing bites of food, not fully washing my hands for days while camping, rubbing my eyes or nose without a second thought, sharing long bear hugs with my loved ones, driving across the country and stopping in random gas stations along the way, giving sweaty high fives to all my youth climbers, shaking hands with strangers, spending hours out on the trails or at the crag depleting my immune system… ok, fine, I still do that last one pretty frequently, but I definitely think about the risk at least a little more than I used to.

Climbing with a mask

COVID has changed the way that we approach every single thing that we do. The big differences make a pretty obvious impact, but a lot of the wear and tear may come from how all of the small ones seem to continuously and relentlessly add up. For nearly a year now, we’ve been spending each day surrounded by reminders of our “new normal” as we grow our mask collections, wait for vaccination opportunities, and read news briefings split into two distinct sections: the Virus, and the Election (and how each one affects the other). Our hands are permanently dry from hand sanitizer, we can barely remember what the bottom half of our friends’ faces look like, we celebrated the holidays on video, our small businesses are struggling, and our relationships suffer with every missed social interaction or surprise quarantine precaution. It’s exhausting to simply go about daily life with all these little caveats, let alone absorb the scale of the tragedy at hand.

There are several lights at the end of this tunnel. The vaccine is slowly but surely spreading its way through the population, the days are getting longer, and our community is making a concerted effort to take care of each other. All of these things ensure that we’ll be able to make it through this period of life with as few lasting scars as possible. It’s been difficult to consider what we’re fighting for in the long run when the days, hours, and minutes all run together to feel so troublingly chaotic – but we have to remember that our efforts now will determine what will still be waiting for us when we break out into that light. 

Maintaining a climbing practice is one of those things that will definitely help usher us back into a refreshing post-pandemic life. Not only does engaging in climbing’s unique take on joyful, challenging movement keep our bodies strong and active, it goes a long way in preserving our mental health in the midst of these unusual routines and unexpected changes. Just as I talked about in my last post, climbing has a way of making us feel capable when everything else in the world may have the opposite effect. Taking the time to build our climbing strength, especially in an era that has zapped us of more energy than we thought was possible to expend, helps to maintain a strong sense of self no matter what happens outside of our control. 

climbing with a mask

Climbing is also one of the safest physical activities that we can engage in throughout a pandemic. Climbing gyms themselves are typically large indoor spaces, equipped with plenty of windows, fans, and separated areas perfect for maintaining high levels of air circulation and proper social distancing. These settings (combined with plenty of meticulous cleaning and mask requirements) make it possible for climbers to enjoy their time in a social space without putting themselves or their partners at too much risk. Even better still, there have been studies to prove that the highly textured nature of climbing holds and walls is actually quite inhospitable to the virus – meaning that even a high-touch activity like climbing becomes much safer than others in this category simply because of the surfaces at play. Companies like Friction Labs, Metolius, Black Diamond, and 8b+ have also created speciality liquid chalk made up of 80% isopropyl alcohol so that those germs don’t even make it off of our hands and onto the wall in the first place. Rock Gym Pro, the computer program that pretty much all climbing gyms use to manage our large customer databases, then goes the extra mile by tracking every single person that enters and leaves the facility for accurate contact tracing if exposure does occur. 

Climbing gyms and companies across the country banded together almost immediately, putting some of the brightest and most hardworking minds in the industry to work in order to make sure that our sport and lifestyle could survive the COVID pandemic. That passion for climbing – from those within the industry and those on the outside that support it – is the sole reason that climbing gyms like ours have been able to remain open throughout the majority of this crisis period even as other businesses suffered more serious consequences. 

This isn’t to say that we’re out of the woods, by any means. Every day is a new, unpredictable struggle as a small business right now, especially given the high-touch and social nature of our services here. Each of these difficult days, however, ends with the same wave of awe and gratitude. We see the same passion that fuels us in each of our visitors, and it creates a chain of energy that helps keep the faith day in and out. I haven’t seen the lower half of anyone’s face in so many months, but I can still feel the smiles in people’s voices when they come in to climb. It’s a reminder to relish in these simple joys right now – a safe space to gather with friends, the ability to move our bodies, an opportunity to learn new skills – in a time when anything simple is hard to come by. 

Levels of safety during COVID

So I suppose this is more of an extended thank you letter than anything else: a sincere message of appreciation for everyone, from industry professionals and seasoned athletes to eager first-timers and community supporters, that has made it possible for us to keep forging ahead. It takes a certain level of dedication and trust to walk out into any corner of the world away from the safety of our own homes these days, but I can promise that we aim to match the same fierce spirit that you all bring in. 

Moral of the story? Keep climbing, keep standing by your community, and keep your eyes on the prize. Everything that we do now will determine the world that we will step back into once we finally step out of the COVID tunnel. We certainly won’t be returning to the same environment that we once left, but maybe that’s a good thing. We can use the resilience, trust, patience, and gratitude that we have cultivated so well throughout this year to create something better in the long run: a community that can hold even more appreciation for each one of its people and places that come together in unparalleled strength.