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Triage in the Time of Coronavirus: A Climbing Guide’s Perspective

Roddy McCalley, a climbing guide in Joshua Tree National Park, shares thoughts on helping those who need it most during the pandemic.

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The sense of community is one of the things that got me hooked on climbing in the first place, and my climbing partners have become my second family. Our tight-knit community is well equipped to handle emergencies. I’ve participated in hours-long litter-carries through talus; I’ve shared supplies and encouragement with climbers hunkered down near me during storms; and as we would in any crisis, my friends and I have been checking on each other during this pandemic.

The author, Roddy McCalley. Photo: Robin Schenck.

I make my living as a rock climbing guide and outdoor educator. Joshua Tree National Park, where I work the fall, winter and spring seasons, is closed until further notice.  I don’t have unemployment insurance or paid leave—though the stimulus package will help a bit. Now there’s talk in my community of trying to raise money for out-of-work guides. The AAC-Washington DC chapter has started a GoFundMe. Several people have reached out to me directly, offering financial support.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. In wilderness medicine classes we are taught that the first patient you see or hear at the scene of an accident may not be the one who most needs help.  We’re taught to look past the screaming patient with non-life-threatening injuries, in case there is an unconscious patient quietly bleeding out. It warms my heart that clients with salaries are offering to send me money, knowing that I have no income right now. I love the fact that through guiding I get to form real, lasting friendships with people from all walks of life, and that these people are thinking of me in this difficult time.

But I am not the patient who most needs help.

To be clear, I could really use the income I was planning to earn right now. March and April are my busiest months, and it’s not yet clear whether I’ll be able to lead Sierra trips this summer, or whether folks will even feel safe traveling to Joshua Tree this fall. I will likely lose at least 50% of my expected income for the year.  It hurts. I’m 41 years old and should be saving for retirement. The little house that I fixed up with help from my friends was built in 1959, and will need new plumbing someday. I have 10 acres of raw land that I’d love to build on but can’t afford to. I know intellectually that my 22-year-old 4Runner will not run forever (though in my heart I’m not so sure).

[Also Read Some Joshua Tree Guide Services Continue To Operate Despite State-Mandated Lockdown]

In the late 1990s I worked in Head Start (federally-funded preschool) classrooms in New Haven, Connecticut—a former hub of shipping and industry that had seen its economy tank in the decades prior to my arrival there. I met many people growing up without access to good nutrition or health care. Folks who grow up like that don’t graduate from college and go to work as outdoor educators for $100 a day so they can climb 200 days a year, as I did. Like many dirtbags, I didn’t fear poverty because I was young and healthy, and because I knew that in a pinch I could fall back on my family—though it would have hurt my pride!

Climbers in Joshua Tree National Park.
Climbers in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo: NPS/Robb Hannawacker.

For 10 years after college, living on the road in mountain towns and national parks, it was easy to forget what I’d learned in New Haven. Climbers are often insulated in a kind of bubble: the poorest members of our society don’t tend to pursue adventure sports. They don’t see risk-taking as a “fun” thing.

Settling here in Joshua Tree helped me put things back in perspective. In my dirtbag years, I was the poorest person I knew—my home was a Toyota Corolla, while friends rocked pimped-out vans and Tacomas. Now I live a few blocks from a trailer park, and some of my neighbors truly have nothing to fall back on.

Our wealthy country has huge amounts of real poverty. Think of the part-time workers with no benefits who have children to feed and rent to pay. Think of the people who have used up their savings paying for medical care, or lost their retirement funds in the crash of 2008. Think of the people who came to this country fleeing persecution or war, who make minimum wage and survive paycheck to paycheck. There are communities of people in our country, and they are certainly represented here in Joshua Tree, who have lacked access to education and economic opportunity since the days of slavery, or since they were forced onto reservations.

The GoFundMe model of crowdsourcing is a powerful tool, but one that may actually magnify, rather than reduce, the effects of socioeconomic inequality.  According to a University of Rochester study cited in the New York Times on March 26, only 27% of GoFundMe campaigns reach their goals during normal times. Now the crowdsourcing platform is exploding with campaigns related to coronavirus layoffs and medical expenses, and early indications are that in this hyper-competitive landscape, an even smaller percentage will succeed. According to a November 2019 article in The Atlantic, the most successful GoFundMe campaigns tend to be those created by “relatively affluent people with large, well-resourced networks.” Tech-savvy influencers tap into well-to-do networks of family and friends, while campaigns by less well-connected people often fizzle.

I am not ready to ask for that kind of financial assistance quite yet, but there are members of the climbing and guiding community who are closer to the edge. Many guides are young and relatively free of obligations, but some have children to support and mortgages to pay. Several of my friends own small guide services here in Joshua Tree and are not only worried about their own families and businesses, but also about the guides and office staff who depend on them for work. I’m worried for my friends, and I’m worried for all of the small local businesses that depend on tourism.

To those in my community who have kids to feed, who are going to miss rent or a mortgage payment, and especially those who have no family to lean on—I hope you will find help in the climbing community. I hope you will use platforms like GoFundMe and Facebook Fundraisers. I’ll help you spread the word!

Let’s help our friends in the climbing world, but let’s also keep in mind that there are large parts of the country that may face even greater need, with even fewer resources. I hope that climbers with secure jobs and the ability to help others during this crisis will reach outside of our insular community and support organizations that provide food, health care and housing to the very poor. I stopped by my local soup kitchen with $20 and some canned food for the boxes that they distribute daily (mainly to older folks on fixed incomes). I gave a few bucks to an organization called No Kid Hungry ( Do you know of any worthy outfits that could use extra support right now?  I hope you’ll spread the word!

For out-of-work guides, here’s an idea: I heard on a radio show that customers are buying gift cards from their favorite small shops and restaurants to help them stay afloat. A gift card is an interest-free loan. One woman bought a $1,000 gift card at her favorite little boutique. The shop owner was so touched and grateful. I’m doing this already, in a small way: I offered to return all the deposits I’d taken toward days of guiding later this season, and everyone has told me to keep the money as deposits toward future days of guiding. Done! Thanks!

Meanwhile,I’m going through my photos, looking for shots that I can sell. I have friends who are selling t-shirts and live-streaming climbing instruction.  I’m working on a non-profit to raise money for outdoor education in public schools—a project I started years ago but haven’t had much time for. I’m working on promotional emails and social media posts, in hopes that when this crisis is over I’ll have lots of work lined up. Do you have a story you’ve been meaning to write, a website you’ve been planning to build, or a pile of gear you’ve been meaning to repair? There’s so much talent in the climbing community—it’s staggering to think how much creativity could be unleashed during this lockdown.

At our best, we climbers make up an open-minded community in which people from many different backgrounds are brought together by a shared passion for something whimsical and beautiful and profound. Climbers are good at doing what needs to be done, without panic, even as a storm is raging.  I hope that in addition to supporting each other, we’ll lend our strength in this time of crisis to the entire country, and the entire world.

Take good care of each other, and I look forward to seeing you out there when this storm has passed!

Here are several other options for small businesses struggling to remain afloat

1. Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance: this is a ‘loan that does not have to be repaid’ from the Small Business Administration.  Up to $10,000

2. Expanded unemployment benefits, including for contractors and the self-employed (e.g. business owners): apply for unemployment through your state, and be clear that you are out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic. Federal money has not yet been disbursed to the states, so the money is not there and the process does not yet exist… be persistent!

3. GoFundMe Small Business Relief Fund: one-time matching grants up to $500 for small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Roddy McCalley teaches climbing in Joshua Tree from October through early May. Still a part-time nomad, he works and plays at Tahquitz Rock and in the eastern Sierra during the warmer months. More info at

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