How to Keep Pandemic Safety in Mind During Group Outdoor Adventures

“This is the crux move, keep me tight,” Crista barked from 60 feet above us, as she prepared for the biggest risk of the route. Lead climbing (without the safety of a rope secured to an anchor above her), the next few moves—a slabby foothold and a crimpy handhold by her fingertips—would dictate a clean send or a big whip down of nearly 25 feet. These quick words were a request to Travis to pay close attention, so that a potential fall would be caught quickly.

lead rock climbing idaho city of rocks
Andy Cochrane

On our third day of climbing at City of Rocks in the center of southern Idaho, the two had already spent 20-odd hours tied to a rope together on this trip alone, trusting each other’s diligence and skills. A mistake by one of them would be covered by the other, assuming they were communicating well. Fortunately, neither took a major fall during the trip, managing to ascend dozens of routes without a costly mistake. Unfortunately, big falls weren’t our biggest safety concern.

Cochrane climbing city of rocks idaho
Andy Cochrane

After dozens of backcountry trips in the last few years, I’ve built quite a few habits on how to pack and plan for each type of adventure. They vary a bit by the location, season, duration, and the crew, but ultimately come down to keeping people safe and remembering that we’re doing it all for fun. However, 2020 threw out the playbook, adding a new set of unknowns, and corollary precautions necessary for backcountry trips during COVID.

“What do you think, pancakes for our second morning?” asked Trav, as we walked down Aisle 4 of Safeway. I was excited for a second—I love breakfasts, especially those that involve syrup—but soon remembered the worldwide pandemic. Muffled under my mask, I suggested we each prepare and cook our own food to mitigate risks. “How about oatmeal packets instead?” I replied, trying to hype up Quaker Peaches and Cream as best I could.

After an hour of shopping—maybe twice as long as it normally takes—we arrived at the register with a cart carrying food for four days of climbing. However, it was a bit different: no group pizza dinner, or shared snacks, or trading pulls of whiskey. To recreate responsibly, we opted to tackle things differently, like sharing food, sharing vehicles and tents, and, everyone on the trip getting tested for COVID-19 beforehand.

While every group, especially one of rock climbers, has its own calibrations of risk, when it came to pandemic precautions, before we assembled, everyone agreed on this pre-trip level-setter to keep our collective health in mind. There are a few other factors that outdoor adventurers should consider in an effort to respect your community and get through this health crisis without further restrictions. One first truth to recognize is that a trip like this is not essential travel; driving five hours from home to play outside is an inherently selfish endeavor. We’re not creating good for others or positively impacting the world, we’re just trying to take a little break from the daily stress in our lives. There’s nothing wrong with that, as most can relate to this desire as the stresses of 2020 continue to compound. So our small group recognized this trip was a privilege; not everyone has the time, gear, and skills to go on a climbing trip. But being grateful for any play-time in the pandemic is a good baseline—especially when the trip doesn’t go as planned.

When it came to group size, the five of us drove from Wyoming in a three-car caravan, sticking to groups that we already lived with at home. While we all probably could have fit into one of the trucks, we deemed this the safer way to go. The same went for tents: We considered a large dome tent for the full group, but opted to split up, believing that this was the safer and more respectful thing to do. This principle applied on the climbs as well, like who we were sharing a rope with.

Andy Cochrane climbing city of rocks idaho
Andy Cochrane

Yet, once everyone subscribed to these often subtle and small changes, the trip felt almost normal. We climbed, biked, ran, drank beers and laughed a ton. We watched sunsets and told bad stories. We got lost and talked about times we were lost in past relationships. We left our phones on airplane mode and stayed present. Wanting to give space to other climbing groups, we went further into the City and explored lesser-visited rock formations and new routes. Sure, we washed our hands a bit more than normal, but that was probably a good thing for all of us anyway.

Idaho City of rocks
Andy Cochrane

Sitting on top of a tower at sunset on our last night, Trav asked me “you ready to go back to the chaos?” After thinking it over for a second, I realized that our trip offered a nice simplification for how to live in so-called real life. There’s a lot we can’t control, which I try not to overthink. For instance, I can’t tell other people what to do, but I can set a good example for them. However, there are a lot of small things we all can do to make the world a better place, and often, they don’t take a ton of time or effort, just diligence.

Wearing masks, skipping communal meals, and giving people space didn’t negatively dictate our trip, and doing so allowed us to do what we love, safely. The tradeoffs were clear: small sacrifices for the greater good, not to mention our own health. Those lessons followed my back home, whereby following some simple boundaries and showing respect for those around you, we all can still live a mostly normal life. Here’s to hoping that everyone can buy into that mindset as we continue the large-group adventure through 2020.


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