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COVID-19 As Climbing

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Now, more than ever, climbing matters. In addition to its intrinsic value, climbing matters because it can teach us—all of us—strategies for how to live during the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 as First Trad Lead

Do you remember your first—like, very first—trad lead? If you are anything like me, you brought way more gear than you needed, and still ended up missing the key piece of pro for the crux. With more experience, you realize most of the gear you clipped to your harness was to make you feel safer, even if it didn’t really make you safer on the climb you were on. Same goes for toilet paper and bottled water here—they are great pieces of gear, it’s just that they’re not in play on the sickness that is COVID-19 (E10 7a).

Photo: Hayden Farris.

COVID-19 as Dirtbagging

Many are the virtues of dirtbagging. Not least among them is MacGyver-like resourcefulness. No toilet paper? Use the junk mail. No junk mail? Use that smooth rock. No bread or pasta? Go to the desert aisle and carbo-load.  No hand sanitizer? Use that alcohol-based liquid chalk you got sampled at OR. No job? Go climbing! Can’t afford to go climbing? Go Internet climbing.  No Internet? Daydream about climbing.

COVID-19 as Epic-ing

Remember that one time you completely lost your shit? You know, that time when you got total tunnel vision and knew nothing other than being scared? Oh yeah, it was when ____________________. For better or worse, I’ve had my fair share. But what stays with me is not the dread. It is the memories of those calm, competent souls who talk you off the ledge.  The climbing partner who, being in the same situation you are, diffuses a very serious, life or death situation with a ridiculous joke or—when there is nothing left to do—a “fuck it, I know this sucks, but we are here and have to keep moving” attitude. That sober, calming force was all you needed to stop your tantrum, get your shit together, and turn the epic-ing into solid Type-2 Fun.

COVID-19 got you climbing the walls? Photo: Hayden Farris.

COVID-19 as Tragedy

It is a strange thing to know tragedy through climbing. One day I was just walking up the talus to the sport crag, like any other day. A climber I never met was hopping on one of the well-travelled classics. At about 35 feet, the climber yelled “take” and sat back in his harness. But his knot wasn’t finished, and he crashed into the talus all broken and bloody. We huddled around him and did what we could until the helicopter came. Once he got air-lifted out, none of us was quite sure what to do next. The climber’s rope—with its half-finished knot—was stuck in the quickdraw at the fifth bolt.  It was haunting and eerie, but we had to shoe-up, tie our knot, and climb to the same spot to free up the rope. I don’t remember how much more climbing we did that day, but I do remember it feeling sober and strange—especially at first.

COVID-19 as Comps

You’ve done it. You’ve made finals! There is just one thing between you and comp glory—isolation. Almost by definition, isolation can be a lonely and awkward experience. But how you handle isolation can make or break your comp performance. Develop a routine and stick to it—prepare yourself internally as much as you prepare yourself externally. Don’t let others psyche you out (whether through their own nervousness or something more sinister) and, above all, show good sportsmanship. Any one of us might have a good day or a bad day out there (you can never really tell, and a lot of it is out of your control). But treating your fellow finalists the same way you would want to be treated will always lead to the best outcome—in this comp and the next.

COVID-19 as Injury

This was the moment of glory you had been waiting for. Everything is clicking on that weird coordination bloc in the middle of the finals set. All you have to do is jump sideways, kick off the volume, do a double clutch onto the phat pinches and hold the swing. You go for it and next thing you know you are on the mats writhing in pain. You are injured. Your season is over.  In many ways, the injury itself is not the most painful part. The most painful part is letting go of all the great things you had planned. It is knowing all the precious fitness and climbing days you are going to miss.  The work really begins once you get through all of that. You accept your circumstances as they are and apply that energy to the matter at hand.  First, this means rest. Then, it means healing. After that, it means rehabilitation. And then, finally, it means a return to climbing. Humbled and grateful just to be climbing, that first day back—even if it is projecting that purple problem on the slab which used to be your warm-up—will, in some meaningful sense, feel better than it did before.

Dealing with COVID-19 is more like climbing that you think. Photo: Hayden Farris.

COVID-19 as Rest Days

Rest days on a long road trip are a rite of passage. Literally, the entire purpose of the day is to rest. The only rule is no climbing or anything else that might get in the way of your recovery. You don’t have a hotel room or much money, so you have to figure out how to kill time. Be bored—or not.  Walk around in the rain looking for that Unicorn of an undiscovered boulder or cave. Make up party trick challenges on chairs. Play cards and board games. Watch that same movie over and over on your laptop plugged into whatever socket you can find. And work your way through a stack of magazines and guidebooks—paper or digital—to help form a dream of the climbs to come.