A climbing community deals with coronavirus

They've closed Rumney's gigantic climbing area; now what?

What do rock climbers do when they close the big climbing areas?

They lament. They chafe. They express solidarity. Some virtue signal. They rededicate themselves to their hang boards. And - this is important - they crowd into the smaller climbing areas.

On March 26th last month, the U.S. Forest Service closed down the huge expanse of sport climbing spread over Rattlesnake Mountain, one mile from my house in Rumney, New Hampshire. That morning, my partner and I and our kids went for a walk. It was part of our daily ritual while schools were closed and the state was on lockdown, an easy way for everyone to get out for some air and exercise.

It was one of the first truly warm and sunny days of Spring, so we decided to extend our walk up one of the trails to Waimea, Rumney’s “flagship crag.” Waimea is a gloriously over-hanging, wave-like behemoth home to dozens of hard routes, including Jaws II, one of the hardest climbs in North America. I was excited to show my 9-year-old.

We spent about 20 minutes at the crag, admiring the cliff and the view of the Baker River Valley, then hiked back down to the parking lot, where two U.S. Forest Service guys about my age were parked in pickup trucks. I asked what they were up to on this fine morning, and that’s when I learned: they were there to block off access to the parking lots and close off the area.

Outdoor spaces closing worldwide

It’s not just Rumney that’s closed, of course.

Around the world, governments and institutions are closing outdoor areas with the stated purpose of preventing crowds from forming. And while rural New Hampshire has plenty of outdoor space to go around even with the closure of a major climbing destination, that’s simply not the case in the urban areas hardest hit, where each closure simply crowds people into the other outdoor areas which are still open.

Vox writer Matthew Yglesias noted as much a few days ago. In a tweet, he wrote that “the various moves to restrict access to outdoor spaces in the name of anti-crowding seem self-defeating.”

Meanwhile, yesterday in The Atlantic, writer Zeynep Tufekci echoed the sentiment, using as an example the closure of Brockwell Park in London, which the local Lambeth Council announced via “scolding tweet”:

All of these closures are well-intentioned. But there are two glaring unintended consequences, both of which could have serious public health consequences themselves.

The first is that closing outdoor spaces is like squeezing a balloon. You’re just pushing people into other areas, just as Yglesias observed that Malcolm X park in Washington D.C. gets more crowded each time a public space elsewhere in the city is closed. D.C. has a particular problem with coordination, as so many of its public spaces are managed by different municipal and federal agencies (more on this further down).

The second unintended consequence is the potential harm to people’s immune systems and overall health simply by keeping them inside. As Tufekci wrote:

The outdoors, exercise, sunshine, and fresh air are all good for people’s immune systems and health, and not so great for viruses. There is a compelling link between exercise and a strong immune system. A lack of vitamin D, which our bodies synthesize when our skin is exposed to the sun, has long been associated with increased susceptibility to respiratory diseases. The outdoors and sunshine are such strong factors in fighting viral infections that a 2009 study of the extraordinary success of outdoor hospitals during the 1918 influenza epidemic suggested that during the next pandemic (I guess this one!) we should encourage “the public to spend as much time outdoors as possible,” as a public-health measure.

All of which is to say that closing outdoor public recreation areas might be the last thing we would want to do in a global pandemic caused by a virus that targets the respiratory system.

This is all common sense, of course. But as George Orwell once said, it takes a constant struggle to see what is in front of one’s nose. We know the outdoors and sunshine and exercise are important for our health. But that hasn’t stopped the institutions of the world from starting down a path, which, the further one goes, the more counter-productive it gets.

The Rumney climbing community’s response

As the coronavirus pandemic accelerated in early March, as restaurants closed, then schools, then all non-essential businesses, as social life all but shut down, and as people were asked to #stayhome, being in Rumney was a saving grace.

My family wasn’t stuck in a tiny New York City apartment. Instead, we were a mile’s walk from one of the greatest sport climbing destinations in the country, planting our garden on an abundant acre of land that I owned, in a rural, tight-knit community with neighbors who knew and supported each other.

Last year, before any of this was even a blip on the radar, I wrote, “If the apocalypse comes, you could choose worse places than Rumney to ride it out.”

The Rumney crags themselves contain more than 1,100 climbs spread out over dozens of individual cliffs. It would be easy for locals to spread themselves out. But Rumney is also a destination for climbers throughout the Northeast, and as the winter began to thaw, climbers began to make the drive. The cliffs never got crowded - it was still too early in the season for that - but they got busy enough that the Rumney Climbers Association (RCA) decided to make a request.

On March 18th, they posted to Facebook:

Though it’s incredibly hard to believe it has come to this, we are reaching out asking climbers to please avoid the crags right now. The same message is being spread around the globe. We love climbing more than almost anything... Almost.

Part of their reasoning was that many of Rumney’s climbing old timers were also those most susceptible to coronavirus. The request was made in part to protect those locals who had helped develop Rumney as a climbing destination in the first place:

Out of respect for them and others who stand to get very sick if this situation doesn’t improve. Either take a break, train at home, or find a crag so remote you are sure no one else will be on it this month.

From the comments on social media, it was clear Rumney’s climbing community was supportive, though obviously sad. Even so, people didn’t stop climbing all together. Every day after the announcement the parking lots at the base of the crags had a few cars parked in them. After all, the climbers association had left the door open to climbing so long as you picked one of the more remote cliffs.

Besides, crowding at Rumney didn’t seem to be a problem as long as the campsites and the hotels were closed. Without a place to spend the night, the crags were naturally limited to those within easy driving distance, and that was a population low enough to make spreading out easy.

Then came the forest service closure on March 26th.

That day, the RCA again posted to Facebook:

It would have been hard to imagine the RCA reaching a point where we'd support the closure of Rumney Rocks to climbing, but the current COVID-19 situation has made many unimaginable things come to bear.

The USFS has (temporarily) closed Rumney Rocks to climbing. The parking lots will be barricaded and signs will be posted with details.

Again, the community was sad but supportive. But, like Washington D.C., Rumney is not immune from the unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies.

The next day, my family and I walked the opposite direction from the crags to a local bouldering area, called The Pound, which is on private land and therefore not subject to the U.S. Forest Service jurisdiction. It was another glorious Spring day, a Friday, and I even brought my crash pad, shoes and chalk just in case.

As we rounded the bend in Quincy Road and the parking pull-off for The Pound came into view, however, I realized my folly. There were three cars parked, which meant enough climbers were there to complicate physical distancing. And even if one could stay away from the other climbers, it struck me as borderline idiotic, in that moment, to boulder in an area small enough that every climber there would likely have touched the same rock as you within the past few hours.

I was desperate to climb. So was my kid. Neither of us had touched real rock in four months. But we didn’t.

“We can do better”

We turned around and regretfully walked home without climbing a thing, but not before snapping a picture of the parked cars, which I texted to a neighbor, also a climber, with whom I had been chatting about the closures. I told him my analysis: “well-intentioned government policy backfires.”

He texted back, “climbers still can’t socially distance!” which, I noted, was kind of the point. By closing off Rumney crags, the forest service had pushed all the climbers who desperately wanted to get outside into the one small bouldering area. The policy was self-defeating.

A few days later, The Pound was also closed, signs posted. The owner of the land evidently didn’t want every climber in the area congregating there during a pandemic. The RCA again took to social media, urging everyone to abide by the closure so as to preserve future access once this was all over.

This time the Facebook comments were harsh toward the climbers who had crowded in over the weekend. “I am so embarrassed by the climbing community because of this. Absolutely shameful,” wrote one. Another posted, “Come on, climbing community...we can do better.”

I thought the climbers were idiotic for crowding into a bouldering area so close to each other - but I was also sympathetic. After all, I was dying to get out there myself.

As a global community, climbers are used abiding by a common ethic, one that combines a shared respect for nature with a fierce commitment to protecting our access to it. In fact, considering how much of the average climber’s capacity for civic engagement is focused on protecting our access to public lands, we shouldn’t be surprised if some percentage of climbers decide to flout closures. Indeed, we should expect it, and plan accordingly.

If there is real a finger to be pointed, it’s at policy-makers, who have been failing us pretty much at every turn. And beyond that, there is a larger systemic problem, namely the lack of coordination between local, state, and federal government institutions. When different officials are on different pages, implementing a sensible policy response in the face of a global emergency is all but impossible.

It’s not hard to imagine a different scenario, one where national leadership set a clear direction for the whole country, and actually, you know, coordinated. But those aren’t the leaders we have right now.

As Tufekci concluded in The Atlantic, there are other ways our public spaces could be managed through this. A coordinated response could sensibly ration access, for example. There are a lot of potential strategies that would be better than poorly planned, full out closures:

We could, for instance, reduce congestion by regulating inflows of people over time… In large cities with limited park space, households could be assigned days for visiting, with even and odd house numbers going on different days… We could install number counters in parks and on trails, similar to those in parking garages or some museums, and provide sensible limits… Walking and running trails could assign directionality so that everyone runs and walks in one direction, avoiding close encounters.

There are more suggestions, but the point is this: we can absolutely do better.