Coronavirus Update: doctors tell us what to know before going back to the crag or gym

Posted on: July 2, 2020


This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. [Image] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.gov)This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. [Image] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.gov)

While the number of COVID-19 cases is declining in some areas of the US, allowing more people to venture outside their homes, some other places are seeing dramatic increases in the number of infections. Meanwhile, gyms have been reopening, restless climbers are venturing out of their home bouldering caves, and many people have been asking how they can start climbing responsibly to avoid the risk of spreading the highly contagious coronavirus that causes COVID-19, a potentially fatal illness.

To lessen the risk of transmitting this nasty disease, the first rule is simple—don't climb if you're sick, Dr. Paul Pottinger said during a webinar hosted by the Access Fund on May 14. Pottinger is a mountaineer and a board certified physician and director of the Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Clinic at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

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"If someone looks sick, that's definitely bad. But even if they look healthy, they are potentially a threat, so you need to know your climbing partners," Pottinger told Alpinist. "Just like you would never tie in with somebody [you haven't met] to belay you if you're leading...it's the same idea with traveling. You should know that person—what's their ethos, are they being straight with you? Have they taken care of themselves? It's the same concept...."

"This virus is definitely very contagious, especially when we're in close contact with someone," Pottinger said. He explained that this isn't mutually exclusive with it being fragile in the open air. Early research suggests that the vast majority of people were infected indoors where fresh air can't circulate well.

"The virus has evolved to do very well in the respiratory tract of humans and other mammals," he said. But outside ultraviolet light from the sun, the temperature and humidity can all make it hard for the virus to survive. "So, the good news is that if you're cragging, it is unlikely that you're going to catch it by coming into contact with, for example, the rock face that you're following somebody else on," Pottinger said.

The CDC's webpage on how COVID-19 spreads reports that it transmits easily person to person and "may be possible" to get from touching surfaces and touching your mouth and nose, but the vast majority of new cases come from tiny droplets people breath out. The bulk of the bigger droplets fall to the ground quickly—thus the 6-foot spacing rule.

"You're much, much more likely to catch it at the belay station, in the car on the commute to the crag, et cetera," Dr. Pottinger added.

Is it O.K. to travel?

"It's not just about the time [spent traveling], it's also about the profile of other people you're coming into contact with," Dr. Pottinger said.

Traveling in your own vehicle with others from your household, or people who have been diligently social distancing isn't a big risk, Pottinger said. "On the other hand," he said, "even a short air [plane] trip is...riskier."

Pottinger encourages climbers to do their research on an area before heading out, as it might guide where you choose to go. Many sources agree that it's a good idea to gauge how busy an area will be and have a plan for what to do if it turns out to be too crowded.

The National Park Service has updated their guidelines with reminders such as, "recreate with the people in your household," and, "If you brought it, take it with you," because "trash pickup and restroom facilities will continue to be limited in many park areas."

While at the crag, it's important to try to maintain a 6-foot distance from other groups, Dr. Pottinger said, and ideally you also cover your face when passing people on a trail.

"But the truth is, the risk of catching this outside does seem to be dramatically less than indoors, with those simple precautions," he added.

This is a transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first US case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots. [Image] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.gov)This is a transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first US case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots. [Image] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.gov)

What about gym climbing?

Indoor climbing is more complicated because even though rock gyms are much larger spaces than typical office buildings, they still aren't in the open air, Dr. Susan Huang told Alpinist. Huang, whose 15-year-old daughter climbs competitively, is a professor in the infectious diseases division of the University of California School of Medicine and the medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at UC Irvine. She said it's really important not to pack the walls with people close together.

For gym climbing, all the usual social distancing rules still hold—wash your hands before touching your face or eating, wear masks whenever possible and stay away from anyone who's sick, Dr. Huang said. "[One] benefit of climbing is that most people, when they're climbing, they're not touching their face," she said.

As of June 30, her local gym, Sender One in Orange County, California, is in "Phase 1" of a four-phase reopening, in which it is limiting the number of people inside and doing symptom checks at the door. The gym is also mandating liquid chalk instead of the typical powder chalk. Various discussions online have explored the idea that liquid chalk can have upwards of 70 percent alcohol, so it may help sterilize hands. This isn't proven, however, and a May 8 Gym Climber article explores the idea further, and why it may help for other reasons.

It's important to clean surfaces often, Huang said, but it's not feasible or necessary clean everything all the time: "you go to the grocery store—it's not sterile either." She said that gyms should prioritize high-touch surfaces. Staff can do what they can throughout the day and "clean the wall when the sessions are completely over."

She added, "I think that the most important thing about returning and being in any space for exercise or otherwise is the person themselves—are they careful? It's not reasonable to put it all on the gym, right?"

If climbers don't follow the guidelines to avoid transmission, more people will get sick, Dr. Huang said. That could force gyms to close again.

"We can do this, it's just a stupid viral particle," Pottinger said. "If people take these simple steps, they can protect themselves and get outside and do what's fun."

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