Buzzing throughout the Joshua Tree guiding community is a dispute over whether or not to continue guiding at this time, after California Governer Gavin Newsom ordered all residents to remain at home. As the daughter of the Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institutes of Health, the sister of an ER nurse currently living in a small mountain town that has been severely impacted by COVID-19 (Crested Butte, CO), and a climbing guide with 10 years of experience in an industry that specializes in risk management, this is what I have to say on the subject:
As climbing guides we make our living differentiating between perceived and actual risk. Determining what to do during a pandemic is no different from any other day of guiding except that the boundaries of our risk management have expanded beyond the cliff. The judgment calls we make no longer simply influence our small group of climbers for the day, but vastly larger communities.
While some guide service owners have closed their doors as a result of California’s statewide lockdown this morning, others are still accepting new bookings and continuing to work with clients who have already booked. I have confirmed this with several services directly, and there are likely more disregarding the lockdown. These guide services are continuing operations under the assumption that going to work qualifies as a “necessary” reason to ignore the lockdown. Those I spoke with also reasoned that, since Joshua Tree National Park is on federal, there is no need to adhere to statewide regulations, so long as the federal government does not issue a lockdown on guiding in the park.
To my friends and neighbors who are running these guide services: I am asking you to put the well-being of others above shorter-term business concerns. The economic repercussions of closing up shop during the busiest time of our season are devastating to individual guides and their families. These financial consequences pose an immediate threat and are easy to conceptualize, whereas the potential death of millions of people is more difficult to wrap our minds around. As someone who has lived below or just on the poverty line for most of their adult life, I fully understand the need to make money. But that is not the biggest priority at this time. Right now, however, we need to focus on one problem at a time, and the most important problem facing the globe is the exponential rate at which COVID-19 is spreading.
Encouraging groups of people to travel from the city to Joshua Tree does not promote social distancing. While we often climb in groups smaller than 10 people, it is simply impossible in our line of work to maintain six feet of distance at all times. Not only do we need to have close contact to teach people how to tie in and to perform double checks, we are all connected by the rope and the gear. Clients and guides need to handle the rope to give a top rope or lead belay. How often do you put a cam or the rope in your mouth while on lead?
Small towns like ours will suffer more than other places if we do experience an outbreak because we have a limited supply of medical resources. Furthermore, Joshua Tree has an older demographic whose lives are more directly at risk from COVID-19.
If the virus continues to spread at a rapid rate, we will not have the medical resources to care for patients, and the death rate will rise. If you are denying the projected statistics regarding the death rate, or the rate at which this will spread, then I urge you to look at what is currently happening in other countries. Italy saw 300 deaths from COVID-19 on Monday alone.
As climbing guides we use our knowledge and experience to make good judgment calls. COVID-19 is something that no one in the world had past experience with, which means that all we can do to make informed decisions is arm ourselves with information. Search for credible sources to become a more knowledgeable guide for your community. Below are a few links that may be helpful in that process. While reviewing these sources, keep in mind that most hospitals are not able to test for COVID-19. Any stats put out by the CDC or WHO only take into account confirmed cases, so there are likely more cases and deaths connected to this virus than currently reported.
When we are out climbing and someone yells “Rock!” we all get out of the way. The world is screaming “Rock!” right now—don’t put yourselves, your clients, or our community in the rockfall zone. Stay calm, stay informed, and stay home, please. Do not encourage people from the cities to travel to our small town. You are putting lives at risk by doing so.