I pulled into the parking lot below Whitehorse Ledge minutes before Bob pulled in. This was my first time coming back to climbing since an injury at the beginning of March followed by an on-going pandemic that generated stay at home orders and strong social pressure to not partake in riskier activities while the local medical centers braced for over-whelming traffic and struggled with sourcing enough PPE and ventilators if things got as bad as they might.
It had been a long and sometimes difficult two months. First, recovering from a painful injury that left me unable to do much more than walk slowly on flat ground. Second, once I felt like I might be able to turn a ski, deciding alpine Spring skiing would have to wait for 2021.
So it should go without saying I was excited to be tying in with one of my longest lifetime friends and climbing partners but it wasn’t without a little trepidation. My family had kept our circle very small and tight and a couple hours on a cliff with Bob was definitely a cautious step forward that I hoped would bring us more and more to normalcy as things evolve with the pandemic.
We had talked about how we would protect each other and manage not just our climbing risk but the risk of spreading a virus that has managed to bring the country to its knees with its ease of transmission combined with how many potential asymptomatic carriers could unknowingly start an outbreak.
When Bob got out of his truck we went without the typical firm handshake or bro hug while gearing up. My rope, his rack. We both used our own hand-sanitizer before shouldering our backpacks and hiking up to the cliff. We walked, almost without realizing it, about ten feet apart instead of shoulder to shoulder like we’d done for hundreds of days of climbing together.
I stacked the rope while Bob racked up slightly further away than normal. We decided Bob would lead the 9 pitch mellow slab route for a few reasons. He had been out climbing a few times already and was feeling pretty good. I didn’t know how I was feeling on rock post-injury and having such a long break from climbing. We also wanted to get back home to our families early and this route definitely climbs faster when not swapping leads. Perhaps I also thought this would mean less handling of gear… most of the pitches were run out slab climbing so I was only cleaning 4 or 5 pieces of protection per pitch, mostly just quick-draws.
We reminded each other that no gear should go into our mouths. This is a natural habit for climbers when cleaning and leading climbs and a habit we wanted to be conscious to avoid. At each anchor I clove-hitched myself in a bit longer than normal, finding it easy to keep about 6 feet between us. Instead of directly handing Bob his gear back I would long-reach over and clip it to his end of the rope. We both reminded each other not to touch our faces.
At the third anchor I donned my disposable face-mask I was carrying. While I might believe both Bob and I are not spreading this virus we can’t be 100% certain at this point, neither of us have been tested for antibodies and even if we had been the jury is still out on exactly what any of those results would truly mean in terms of both immunity and potential to spread. The main reason I wanted to don the mask was to put myself into my potential clients shoes if I end up going back to work this summer.
Current CDC guidelines recommend masks or face coverings if you can’t stay at least 6 feet away from people. I’ve sat through a number of great webinars hosted by the American Alpine Club, The Access Fund, and the American Mountain Guide Association about how climbers and guides should move forward during this pandemic. Both the company I guide for, Northeast Mountaineering, and most guide services I know who are starting to operate again, will be requiring some type of face covering when social distancing is not possible (essentially at belay’s, fitting harnesses, etc).
Two hours after starting up the face we reached the top. I laid what gear I had cleaned from the last pitch on the ground for Bob to collect and stepped back to coil our rope. After stuffing the rope in my backpack and changing out of my climbing shoes we both used our hand-sanitizer again and started our hike back to the parking lot. We then jumped in our separate cars and drove a few minutes to the lower viewing area of Cathedral Ledge for a post climb beer (we brought our own) and to watch two parties getting after it on the cliff, one party on the Beast Flake and one on Camber, two of the cliffs classic hard routes. No one was on any of the easier trade routes.
After some great catching up and the cold refreshment we made tentative plans to start climbing together again once a week. We expressed gratitude to each other for an awesome morning of climbing and then parted ways. No high fives, no fist bumps, no bro hugs. Just a smile and a wave. When I got home I left my climbing gear and rope in the trunk of the car, changed my clothes, and showered, before hugging my kids. I waited a couple days before collecting my gear from the trunk and putting it back into my gear room. It felt good to be climbing again, even though I was doing things a bit differently than before.
See you in the mountains (when they are local and mellow… for now),
Northeast Alpine Start
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