Back in 2002 or 2003, when Colorado lingered in the apex of the West Nile Virus epidemic, I decided to head up to the Poudre Canyon, outside of Fort Collins, for a day of bouldering. July was boiling the state dry and I was hunting for cooler temps and fewer crowds, even though I’d known Fort Collins was a vector for the disease. What did I have to worry about? I was a healthy twenty-something. Most people infected didn’t demonstrate symptoms and it passed like a stranger on a crowded sidewalk.
My friend and I quit bouldering after he stopped counting mosquito bites on my back at 50, shaking his head and packing up his pad. For the next three or four days I went to work. I sold crash pads and fit people for climbing shoes. I went to the bar. I hung out with roommates and cooked with them in the kitchen. And then I started feeling pretty bad. One hospital visit later and a headache/body ache for the ages, I tucked into bed for the next 10 days with West Nile fever.
Now, imagine if I’d been contagious? How many people would I have infected during those three or four days? Imagine if I’d been asymptomatic but still transmogrified into some wretched and flailing vector to everyone I touched? How many people would my impertinent, selfish decision have harmed? That would have been pretty awful.
This is the reality we exist in today, struggling to manage and mitigate the novel coronavirus. We’re all potential vectors, at least partly due to the fumbling ineptitude of our governmental response. But I’m not here to point fingers at the government. That doesn’t do any good anymore. I’m here to point my finger at you. At me. At the entire climbing community.
Bishop, California hosts some of the finest bouldering in the world, along with a friendly community dependent on visiting climbers. With COVID-19 sweeping into every nook of our nation, however, the town is struggling to limit visiting climbers; so far, unsuccessfully, putting the local population at risk for infection, a bleak prospect for a tiny community hours from the nearest metropolis.
“The current scene feels like people are on winter or spring break,” said Tammy Wilson, a local climber, skier, restaurant worker, and Volunteer Coordinator for the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival. “Lots of cars in the parking lots, more people at the boulders than Thanksgiving week. Massive crowds of people camping and in coffee shops and grocery stores.”
Despite mass outreach and the desperate warnings from physicians and health care workers worldwide, climbers from around the country have descended upon Bishop as though a global pandemic were some sort of hall pass from responsibility and magnanimity. These climbers, many of whom laud social services and universal health care and employ progressive social media messaging, have willed themselves to rise above distress and summarily jettisoned the very meaning of community in favor of sending some random V8 on volcanic tuft.
Paula Flakser, a Bishop local and longtime climber/advocate, recently headed out for a run on public lands. “I saw at least 30 vans camped out,” she said, noting she usually sees no more than five on busy weekends along her route. “I, personally, am livid seeing people use this as an opportunity to take a climbing vacation ‘away from it all.’ You are not away from it all. You are just going to a different type of community.”
While every gym in America took down their shingle and schools shuttered to keep their neighbors safe, a disappointing throng of climbers used the public health crisis to plan a road trip. Bishop locals pointed to around 300 cars “parked” on Chalk Bluff Road, at the mouth of the Happy Boulders, last weekend. This is a staggering number on the best of days. During a pandemic, where COVID-19 remains on rock surfaces for hours (at least) and travels through the air via cough and sneeze, it’s patently dangerous.
“The traveling climbing community just doesn’t seem to be taking this seriously,” said Trevor Markel, a former Evolv athlete and Bishop local. “Today we had a shitty weather day and the parking lot at Black Sheep [the local coffee hang] was packed with vans. There are traveling climbers everywhere.”
If you’ve spent six minutes in front of a television over the last month, I don’t need to remind you what every virologist and epidemiologist, every healthcare expert and advocate, every doctor and nurse has been pleading. Coronavirus is highly contagious. Not only can it cause a debilitating sickness, but it’s potentially lethal for large swaths of society, both the wizened and those with concurrent health issues. It has the potential to obliterate the very notion of normalcy, as witnessed in Italy and Spain.
Beyond that, an avalanche of newly infected people holds the potential to radically cripple our healthcare infrastructure, which is acutely evident in tiny townships like Bishop. Stephen Muchovej, a local climber and elected member of the City Council, warns against the strain potentially placed on Inyo County. “As great as our local hospital is, it is small, with roughly two-dozen beds in total, four in the ICU. Even a few cases of COVID will place an enormous strain on our awesome healthcare workers.” He continues, “30 percent of our community is over the age of 60. Recent data show that upwards of 15 percent of people infected will require some form of hospitalization, that 5 percent will require a respirator, and that the typical hospital stay is of 14 days. When we fold that into the capacity of our hospital, you can see that if we have roughly 150 cases of the disease in our area in a two-week period, it will severely strain the care our hospital will be able to provide.”
Wilson, echoing everyone I spoke with, added, “Resources are limited. There are zero specialists in the area. We all deal with risk mitigation as climbers, so mitigate risk and please don’t come up here. Stay closer to somewhere that has a more modern ICU.”
And yet, the boulders are packed. Flash Foxy cancelled their popular Women’s Climbing Festival, while the Bishop Climber’s Coalition sent out warnings (though not nearly forceful enough). And yet, not a seat remains at Black Sheep, still open as of their most recent Facebook post, March 14th.
“People from many different places are congregating and mashing their filthy hands onto the same holds that someone just mashed theirs on 30 seconds previously,” said Flakser. “Then those people are flooding coffee shops and restaurants on days like today when the weather is bad. 300 cars at the Happies? Let’s say that’s 600 people in a small canyon. You do the math.”
When the Happies grow crowded, of course, many other areas await the influx. “There was a line of cars waiting to get in to the Buttermilks on Saturday and over 40 people crowding the Ice Caves [a small corridor in the Sad Boulders],” said Wilson. “Mammoth Mountain [just north of Bishop] closed its lifts on Saturday and in return an influx of people bombarded the tiny restaurant I work at. The people were pissed off, rude, entitled, and treated everyone with disrespect.”
The locals are frustrated, taking to social media to warn potential visitors away. Markel is despondent. “A lot of locals are pissed at the influx of climbers. People have been trying to instigate some sort of action to address the issue of large groups still congregating. Its shit weather and we have a ton of travelers in town. What does that mean? Climbers are in close quarters to share shelter and anywhere that is still open is flooded. It fucking sucks driving around town seeing a complete disregard for the public health emergency we are experiencing just because people would rather go bouldering. I’m really disappointed in the climbing community right now.”
Flakser frames her concern with a bit of patriotic flare. “America was built on a spirit of individualism and free will, and we’ve put it aside before and we can do it again, but this time we have WiFi. Please go home and hunker down. It’s two to four weeks; we can handle that. Let this little, wild community thrive and have a fighting chance. If you love it here so much then go home. It’s just for a little while.”
Muchovej, the city councilor, drives home the point. “We know this is a hard reality for someone planning to come here for their spring break vacation. But for those of you who have decided to heed the advice from health experts and have postponed your travel plans, we want to thank you for considering visiting us in the first place, and further thank you for making a decision that is right for our community’s health, and hope to see you soon when we have all gotten through this.”
A sincere offering of gratitude goes out to Tammy Wilson, Paula Flakser, Lana Morris, Stephen Muchovej, Trevor Markel, Dennis Lim, and Luke Kinney, who made this story possible.