In Times of Crisis, Climbers Lead, Right?

The climbing community has an incredible track record of courage and responsibility. We’ve all seen or heard stories of climbers coming to each other’s rescue when things go sideways. We keep a sharp eye out for others in the backcountry, coming to their aid without a second thought. We don’t trundle boulders off El Cap, because someone thousands of feet below might take the chop. We respect closures to preserve access for all of us. This ethic of responsibility makes me proud to call myself a climber. We look out for each other, because it’s the right thing to do and because it benefits all of us in the long run.

© Andrew Bur

This damn pandemic is an uncharted and unwanted adventure for all of us. And it’s far from over. For the most part, I’ve seen the climbing community respond with the same courage and responsibility we’re known for. The majority of us hung up our climbing shoes, put away our ropes and boulder pads, and stuck close to home to help flatten the curve and protect the most vulnerable. Professional athletes spoke out, encouraging responsible behavior. And recreation organizations both large and small asked their supporters to stay home.

At the same time, a few people in our community made poor choices. The mainstream media and online forums picked up stories of overcrowded crags during stay-at-home orders, people climbing directly behind closure signs, and climbing rescues that taxed first-responder resources already stretched to the breaking point. These examples attract media attention, but they do not tell the full story of who we are as a community.

To Climb or Not to Climb?

Although we still believe we are safer at home, some crags around the country are reopening. If you’re considering climbing, please follow these guidelines.
Climbing During COVID

This crisis is a long way from over, and we have to do better in the future. We are living under a microscope, and our mistakes will be magnified. It’s easy to ignore the risk of COVID-19 when you are out pursuing your passion. We won’t know if someone we encounter gets sick, or if someone they know gets sick. Chances are, we won’t directly experience the negative consequences of our actions. As responsible climbers, however, we must take into account safety risks and consequences that impact other people.

We also face other potential consequences. This moment in time carries not only extreme health risks, but also extreme risk for the future of climbing access. Many land managers across the country have shut down access to protect public health. Other land managers are beginning to carefully lift restrictions. They are all watching how climbers respond. We all know that the actions of a few can undermine access for us all. If we want our crags to be open when this is all over, we have to do better. If we want organizations like Access Fund and hundreds of local climbing organizations across the country to have the credibility to partner with land managers when this is all over, we have to do better.

Climbers need to lead. We need to hold on to our strong ethic of personal responsibility. The risk of a second or third wave is real, and we need to continue to do our part to protect public health and prevent the spread of the virus.

Even as restrictions in some states are being lifted, most health experts are still telling us that social distancing is the most important thing we can do to help get through this crisis as quickly as possible. If we all do our part, we will save lives and we will save the reputation of the climbing community. It is that simple. The crags will be there when this is all over.

When we get to the other side of this pandemic, our lives will be forever changed. But the one thing the climbing community can be proud of is that we did the right thing. We took care of each other, as generations of climbers before us have done. And we made decisions today that will benefit climbers for years to come. Right now, we hold that legacy in our hands.

If you do choose to climb outside, please follow these guidelines.

Chris Winter is Executive Director of Access Fund. He provides strategic leadership and manages organizational health, working with the board of directors, staff, and partners to fulfill on Access Fund's mission to keep climbing areas open and conserve the climbing environment.

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