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Can You Go Rock Climbing Outdoors During the COVID 19 Pandemic?

Can You Go Rock Climbing Outdoors During the COVID 19 Pandemic?

With climbing gyms closing down nationwide and social media exploding with videos of people using their kitchen counter and door frames to climb around, you may be asking yourself if it is safe to climb outdoors. Rock Climbing outdoors meets the social distancing requirements and you can clean your gear after each climb, but is it safe?

In this article, I break down each aspect listed above how it relates to the Corona Virus so you can make your own educated decision. However, if you don’t like reading, here is a quick summary.

Is it safe to rock climb outdoors during the COVID 19 pandemic? Though there haven’t been any published studies about how long the virus can stay on different rock faces and we haven’t found substantial evidence that suggests the virus spreads through surfaces, the general consensus is that everyone should avoid any public places, including your favorite crag or at least use your best judgment.

Climbing outdoors may seem safe because you haven’t noticed getting sick from being at the crag in the past, but there are a few key things that you should consider before going out climbing, including the lack of information about COVID 19 staying on different types of rock surfaces, sharing gear and recent recommendations to avoid hiking altogether during this pandemic.

Social Distancing

Social distancing is one of the most common recommendations for avoiding the Corona Virus (second to washing your hands frequently), and thus, it has been enforced in many countries by police as well as local businesses with signs reminding you to stay at least 1 meter away in most European countries and 6 feet in the USA.

When it comes to rock climbing, social distancing doesn’t seem to be that big of a concern since you can easily hike to your location while staying 6 feet away. In addition, the climber and belayer can do their jobs without breaking the social distancing recommendations.

With that being said, at the beginning of a climb, when the climber is at the bottom of the crag, the belayer is usually directly under them with less than a leg’s length away from the wall. This allows the belayer to brace against the wall if the climber were to fall and the rope was to tighten. 

Some may suggest that being that close the wall before the climber reaches the first bolt is unnecessary because the belayer would only be an additional cushion for the climber if they fell. It’s true that the belayer can move into place after the climber reaches the first bolt and thus maintain social distancing, however, moving the rope and belayer to a new location after the climber is off the ground takes attention away from the climber and may be unsafe.

Also, social distancing is based on the idea that a cough settles to the ground and dissipates but while climbing, anything that comes out of the climber will likely make it’s way to the belayer before the ground and before it dissipates, thus social distancing may not be as applicable “downwind.”

What If Your Climbing Partner Lives With You

I’m including this section because it was pointed out to me that social distancing is only applicable to strangers or people/friends living outside of your home.

If your climbing partner lives in the same house as you such as a spouse or flatmate then you are likely already exposed to everything that they have touched or coughed or contracted.

Research About COVID 19 On Different Surfaces

Though the main way the Corona Virus is understood to spread is through droplets directly from one person to another, it may also spread through surfaces.

“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

Center for Disease Control

So how long can COVID 19 remain a threat on different surfaces, including gear and different rock types? The overall consensus is that we don’t know. According to a revised analysis published March 17 in The New England Journal of Medicine, the virus can remain viable in the air for up to 3 hours, on copper for up to 4 hours, on cardboard up to 24 hours and on plastic and stainless steel up to 72 hours.

Overall, the virus stays the longest on hard and non-porous surfaces, which should make you feel better about the rock face since porous is a common description for most rock types in the “wild.” In addition, with every minute the virus is on the surface, it becomes less dangerous and futile.

However, the virus RNA was found on “a variety of surfaces” in cabins of people who were infected with COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess cruise ship up to 17 days after the passengers left. And even though this evidence was found before the disinfection procedures took place, this is worth noting because rock faces don’t usually get disinfected. Unless you consider rainfall and sunlight adequate disinfecting, which some people do. 

Sharing Gear

Unless only one of you are going to climb and clean up the crag while the other only belays and thus only one of you will be touching all of the quickdraws, only one will be touching the belay device and have gloves on while handling the rope, then it is likely that you will be sharing gear.

Normally, sharing gear is a great way to minimize what you bring to the crag, it is also a bunch of gear that can get infected. Even if neither of you is sick, you can still grab a rock climbing hold that is infected and transfer it to your gear, which would likely transfer it to the hands your climbing partner as well.

Carabiners, including the ones on your quickdraws, belay devices and helmets have a hard and shiny surface, which as mentioned in the section above, is a surface that is easiest for the Corona Virus to stay on. 

As for the rope, the dog bone on the quick draw, belay gloves and the clothes on your back are all made with similar material, research hasn’t been able to quantify how long or easy it is for COVID 19 to stay on it. This doesn’t mean that it should be safe or not, it is an unknown that is risky when considering climbing outdoors.

Washing Hands and Gear

Washing hands is pretty straight forward and easy. For example, while you are out at the crag, you can use hand sanitizer as often as you think of it. When you get home you can wash your hands with soap and water vigorously for at least 20 seconds.

However, when it comes to cleaning the rest of your gear, it takes a little more work.

Clothing, likely the most unsanitary thing you need to wash is probably the next easiest thing to clean. If you have a washing machine… Put the dirty clothing in a washing machine with good soap on hot and hope it doesn’t shrink.

As long as you don’t overload the washer and the soap is able to get to every part of your clothing’s surface then it should be fine. However, you can’t put your rope or carabiners in the wash so you will need to do a little more work for that.

The most common way to clean a rope is by using warm water in a bathtub with rope cleaner. Rope cleaner is like soap so it should remove any risk of “infection.”

The best thing I can recommend when it comes to cleaning your rope is to be smart. Don’t sun-bake or sun-dry it, as the sun ruins the integrity of your rope. Most of all, don’t use bleach, a guarantee it is clean, however, you’ never be able to use that rope again. Bleach would completely ruin the integrity of your rope and you may as well put it in a tub of fire.

As for your carabiners, the best way to clean them is by dunking them in hot soapy water while continuously opening and closing the gate. If you can, try and scrub the soap around just like you would scrub soap on your hands.

Be sure not to use anything brisk or that could scratch the metal. You need the metal to be as intact as possible, including the coating on the outside. Again, don’t use harsh chemicals as that can ruin the integrity of your gear.

Though these problems with sanitizing the gear may be risky if you are trying to remove the virus, it is still an important step that you should take to maintain the health of your gear and the health of anyone that uses it, so it is better to clean them than it is to just leave them in your bag.

Public Recommendations to Avoid Hiking

One of the reasons people are so concerned about climbing outdoors during a pandemic is because many national parks and popular hiking areas have been closed due to COVID 19. When you search online, you will likely find a number of contradictory recommendations including those that say it is ok to hike as long as you use social distancing practices and then those that say hiking is just as dangerous as walking around the mall because of all the people doing it.

Because of all the contradiction, many sources have suggested using best judgment and if somewhere is closed, don’t trespass and hike there. 

You may be wondering why a section on hiking is in an article about climbing, and the biggest reason is that climbing outdoors requires hiking to get to the crag. However, it is also a comparison, if you should use your best judgment while hiking (an activity that doesn’t require touching every handhold that every other person in the area has been doing) then you should probably be even more cautious when considering climbing outdoors.

On the flip side, many sources recommend that the calming effects of being outdoors may be helpful for your psychological health and thus worth the minimal physical concerns that come from being outdoors among other humans.

Limited Hospital Care Resources

No matter how good you are at climbing and how safe your gear is, there is always the chance that you get injured and need medical assistance.

Some communities and local hospitals have asked locals to restrict activities that risk injury including rock climbing and even hiking because any injury that requires medical help takes resources away from patients with COVID 19.

However, some climbers suggest that they feel comfortable climbing as long as they climb well within their limits. This suggests that they feel that they have a sense of control over an injury and even though climbing easier routes will minimize risk, climbing is still very risky.

For example, you can slip on a handhold and get caught by the belayer, but you may also slip into a sharp edge and break your chin open, which would need stitches.

With virus cases in the US and other countries continuing to rise, the allocation of medical personnel and funding is already being stretched to its limit.

This makes rock climbing outdoors socially irresponsible and thus you should do everything you can to stay safe and healthy.

Climbing with Symptoms

I can’t believe I have to say this, but to ensure this article is as comprehensive as possible, I need to mention it. If you are sick or have any symptoms such as fever, cough or shortness of breath, stay home. The same goes for your partner, don’t climb with anyone that have these symptoms.

In addition, be considerate of those that have family members or people in their household or that they come in contact with who may have symptoms. Even if your climbing partner doesn’t have symptoms but their flatmate does, don’t go climbing with them and ask them to stay home.

Overall Consensus

Many climbing gyms and professional climbers have posted on social media cautioning people not to go climbing outdoors. One of the biggest reasons is because people are flocking to the mountains and ignoring social distancing. In addition, if someone is sick and climbs, then you climb that same route a couple of hours later, you may be susceptible to it if you touch the same surface that they touched or coughed on. 

There is no way of knowing when someone was there last and whether or not they are sick so this is a completely logical concern.

Just like any newspaper or reputable source would say while trying to avoid getting sued for being told they can do something and then get a deathly virus for doing it, you should always use your best judgment.

Sometimes it is better to be safe than sorry, but sometimes you may feel like you are going crazy just sitting at home.

If you are feeling stir crazy consider climbing around your kitchen counter and disinfect every surface you touch. Maybe read a book about climbing or do some at-home exercises to help build your climbing muscles. Even better, consider binging all of my videos on YouTube about climbing. If you still aren’t feeling better and the pandemic is still keeping you couped up, consider the risks before calling your climbing partner to go climbing.

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