As COVID-19 forces us to remain at home, I can’t help but dream about the mountains and 14ers I miss. However, as I do, I’ve realized that mountaineering has a lot to teach us about getting through this pandemic. Climbing the Colorado peaks requires a bit of risk management critical for daily life today. We often can’t see a summit while climbing, but we keep climbing, as in this crisis. We need special gear, and the knowledge to use it to stay safe in both situations. And most important, we take care of our own, on the mountains and in our communities. Here’s what mountaineering can teach you about surviving this pandemic.
You Can’t Ignore Risk. You Have to Manage It Carefully.
Risk is everywhere in the mountains. There are cliffs and steep slopes to fall down, rocks and logs to trip on, cold temperatures that freeze and hot temperatures that weaken. In the winter, ice and snow complicate things further. If mountaineers entered the hills without considering that risk, we wouldn’t stay alive long. Risk management is a critical skill that all mountaineers practice, each to their own comfort level. That means checking and planning for the weather, bringing the ten essentials, and practicing first aid techniques.
In this situation, we all need to practice proper risk management. If a COVID outbreak rages out of control, millions of Americans could die. That’s why it’s so important we proceed with caution and consider our actions. Practice social distancing, avoid any activity that may strain search and rescue crews, and self-isolate if you fall ill. If we don’t manage our risk, many won’t make it long.
When You Can’t See the Summit, Just Keep Going.
Every climber knows the experience of aiming for a summit peak, only to find it’s false… the true summit lies behind, hundreds of feet above. Other times, thick clouds or fog obscure the mountain top, leaving us to rely on maps, GPS and gut intuition to lead us to the summit. Some approach hikes may require hours, or days of hiking before your peak comes into view. When we can’t see the destination, mountaineers are particularly adapt at putting one foot in front of the other and keeping faith.
That quality of hopeful action has never been more important than today. Uncertainty is everywhere right now, and it’s one of the biggest sources of stress. If we knew the date that COVID would end, it would be easy for many to count down the days. That’s not the case – it could be months, to years, according to some estimates. Let’s all help keep the faith that better days will come. We just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The summit is out there somewhere!
The Right Gear Helps Keep You Safe – IF you Know How to Use it.
Part of risk management for a mountaineer involves the gear you pack and bring with you. However, it’s not enough to have lifesaving gear. You have to know how to use it. An ice axe can save your life is you slip on steep icy slopes, but only if you know how to self arrest. Similarly, a first aid kit is little help if you have to take time to look up what to do in the guide book. You need both – the right gear, and the right knowledge to put it to use.
In this pandemic, personal protective equipment, or PPE, is critical for reducing transmission of the virus. However, as with mountaineering, proper technique is key to making the gear worthwhile. If wearing a mask, ensure it covers your nose and mouth, and avoid touching it or your face. If wearing gloves, they are only helpful if changed after touching potential sources of the virus. Social distancing and hash washing are the best defense.
We Take Care of our Own. Practice Compassion.
We’ve all read the stories of amazing rescues on Everest or Denali, where climbers set aside their summit aspirations to save the life of another. I recently wrote of about one rescue on Aconcagua at 18,500 feet where cerebral edema set in. Without a word, the other climbers and porters put aside their goal, and helped carry her down the mountain to save her life. Sacrifice is in our nature as mountaineers, as is compassion for our brothers and sisters on the mountains.
We’re asked to practice that same sacrifice and compassion today to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This isn’t easy, I understand, 100%. My goals for this spring included 4-5 snow climb first ascents, including a trip to California to climb Mt. Shasta, my 2nd California 14er. These things, however, can wait, if it means saving the lives of millions of Americans: the sick, immunocompromised and elderly. This, I am happy to do – because it is the right thing to do. Now is the time for the mountaineering community’s culture of compassion to shine through stronger than ever before.
This Isn’t Easy. Then Again, Neither is Mountaineering
We’re all struggling right now to make sense of these weird times, and the isolation we feel. For those of us in love with the hills, we miss our home away from home in the mountains. However, the lessons from our time in the hills leave us better prepared to tackle the challenges ahead. With proper risk management, a bit of grit, the right gear & knowledge, and real compassion, we can make it through this crisis. Stay healthy out there, stay safe, and keep the faith. The summit is there – we just can’t see it. One foot after the other.
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About the Author: Alex Derr
Alex Derr is a mountaineer and blogger based in Denver Colorado. He is working to climb Colorado’s highest 100 peaks, and the 20 tallest peaks in California. He created The Next Summit to share advice, stories, history & reflections from the Colorado Rockies & Sierra Nevada. When not climbing, he is managing the Communications strategy at Visible Network Labs.