Running from the Pandemic

Featured image above 📸: David Frietz @frietzphoto

Our tiny troop spent November through January in Little River Canyon. It was new terrain for us. We made our home in the Little River RV Park, conveniently located three miles from the Little River Canyon access road and not far from the small rural town of Ft. Payne. In the “Pop-up Camper & Tent Only” area the sites were well spaced, giving us room to feel socially distant from other patrons of the park. Almost immediately we discovered that most of the occupants were not interested in protecting themselves by wearing masks. In conversations with long-term residents who were staying in the actual RV sites above us we were told that many of the locals were fearful of travel, but not because of Covid-19. Most of them were frightened by the idea of traveling through large cities where Antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters may be lurking. This was shocking to hear. We responded by mentioning that we had never encountered any threats from either entity despite recent travel through several large metropolitan areas. We emphasized the threat of exposure to Covid-19 which was killing humans everywhere and at an alarming rate. Our return rejoinder seemed equally shocking to our new local friends.

Maggie working out beta on The Word (13a/7c+) in the Concave. 📸: Karen Lowery

Little River Canyon sees only a handful of visiting climbers this late in the year, thus we were provided a fair amount of solitude while we flailed away on short powerful sport routes. Not our favorite style of climbing but a reasonable substitute for our typical winter bouldering season. Our favorite area was the Concave, which is steeply overhanging and stacked with short, well protected, hard routes. The only downside was the north-facing aspect, which provides rough conditions in the dead of winter. Concave is also prone to seepage after heavy rain so frequent random wet holds were common. The approach time to the crag is about five minutes from the car and on easy terrain for our Lola mutt to access. Dog access to a handful of the crags can be problematic, but for the most part we were able to find a way to get Lola safely to the majority of the areas in the canyon.

Climbing in the sun at Crazy House.
Kyle Townsend on Unshackled (13b/8a) at the crag of the same name.

During the coldest days, we spent a fair amount of time at the Jungle Gym. Here we found afternoon sun on moderately steep terrain. There are a decent number of high quality routes in the mid-5.12 range. A handful are chronically wet at the finish this time of year along with random seepage on the bottom portions of several routes. When necessary to chase morning sun, we frequented the right side of the Unshackled area, which had several good lines on varied terrain steepness. Also receiving morning sun is Ninja wall. The approach is long and somewhat adventurous, but worth the effort for guaranteed all day seclusion. It had a couple of worthy routes. Other areas we visited were Crazy House and Toomsuba. Both crags gather all day sun in winter. A 60 plus degree day will bake you off the often small or rounded holds. Due to solar collection, these zones see higher traffic during the winter months and are best avoided on weekends.

At least Little River Canyon is gorgeous, no matter the conditions.

Overall we enjoyed our Little River Canyon climbing experience, until the weather took an ugly turn in late January. Mother Nature suddenly decided to punish us with excessive rainfall, often 3-5 days in succession, low temps in the teens and occasional snow accumulations, which are unusual for Alabama. The final factor was an extremely rare January tornado which touched down a mere 50 miles east of Ft. Payne. It wreaked havoc on the small town of Fenton. The twister took one life and did considerable property damage in the process. We took it as a sign that it was time to seek higher and drier ground, thus we made our way to southern Arizona to check out Dry Canyon, aka, The Dry, which is 60 miles east of Tucson. 

We began the first week of February by checking into the Quail Ridge RV Park, near Huachuca City. Life here was an eye opening experience for us. Surrounded by immense RVs in tightly packed sardine like conditions, our tiny Scamp trailer looked as if it were an insignificant child’s toy. We were far from comfortable in this city-like environment. Most of the inhabitants were snowbirds from northern regions. As we experienced in Alabama, many of the patrons we interacted with either believed that Covid-19 was a hoax, or just didn’t care whether or not they became infected. The unfortunate truth is most of these folks didn’t appear to be healthy enough to survive a round of the normal flu. We remained vigilant with our mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing regardless of the often strange looks we received.

On the approach to The Dry. Seems so close, doesn’t it?

We decided to recon the climbing access by peddling our heavy and (might I stress) rarely used mountain bikes three miles steadily uphill on a weathered 4×4 forest service access road. We parked our cargo van just off highway 90, heeding the warnings stressed in Mountain Project that FS road 4011 was impassable to anything but well equipped off-road vehicles with high clearance. Even Subaru’s be damned! Three miles in, we reached a point where the road became steeper and more heavily rutted. With our legs already beyond rubbery, we ditched the bikes for the final mile of road by foot. The two track road eventually gave way to a single narrow trail lined with a vast array of cacti, creosote and mesquite bush, none of which were tall enough to provide shade from the blistering sun. With the crag in full view for the past half hour of travel, it scarcely seemed closer at this point. We followed a large switchback up canyon from the wall and after an additional 30 minutes of laborious bipedal travel we arrived at the left end of the quarter mile long escarpment. Our legs were spent. Both of us were feeling the altitude since The Dry is roughly 4000’ higher then Little River Canyon. We would need time to acclimate.

These guys pretty much had the cliff to themselves until we showed up on our recon.

After traversing the entire length of the wall, checking out the possible routes we were hoping to climb, we made our way back down to our bikes and rolled slowly back to our van. By the end of the day we were spent. Poor Lola was equally exhausted. She can’t quite grasp the concept of pacing herself as she spent the early part of our ride sprinting back and forth, doubling and tripling the distance we traveled, unaware that her wasted playful energy would be needed later on. Fortunately, our recon did provide us with the knowledge that our two wheel drive van could make it to within a mile of the trailhead, thus avoiding the need to pedal our bikes three miles in-and-out… whew!

Two days later, after a full day of recovery, we humped our heavy packs laden with climbing gear, extra water and superfluous clothing in anticipation of unpredictable weather conditions typical of the high desert region this time of year. Our legs were still recovering from Monday’s recon and the altitude was still having an impact on our non-acclimatized bodies. Forced to climb in the sun, since the crag is mostly south facing and receives only shade on the steeper sections in late afternoon, we baked. Our portable weather station displayed an air temperature of 91 degrees with a mere 10 percent humidity, which was measured in the shade of Maggie’s pack at 11 am.

Creative shade for the hot, black dog.

On our first warm-up climb I flailed my way up a long vertical 5.10 route. Nearing the finish, I was greeted by a slight overhang. At this point, I was able to see a 15-20’ runout to the anchors on vertical slab which was split by a thin finger crack sans chalk. To add to my angst, my rope was running over a sharp, rope-cutting lip because the last bolt was tucked in below the bulge. I contemplated bailing, but instead warned Maggie about the situation and then went for it. Somehow, I scrapped my way through to the point where the anchors were staring me in the face with my feet smeared on nothing and lactic acid filled fingers desperately grasping rounded crimps not suitable for clipping with. My only solution was to dead-point to a hopeful chalk-less, dirt covered jug just above the anchor chains. Luckily, the hold was adequate enough to clip the anchors, and I lowered to the ground. Minutes later my hands were still trembling. To add to my torment, my toes were killing me from the slab movement on hot stone. I should mention that we have nothing but downturned steep terrain shoes in our inventory. Not one slab approved set since we live by the adage, “friends don’t let friends climb slab!” Maggie suffered her way on top-rope to clean the route, agreeing with my assessment of the unfortunate route quality.

Hanging out in the Bee Cave, after the sun was gone.

We left that section of the wall and promptly headed to the Bee Cave area, which by now was coming into the shade. Here we found steeper, better protected (more closely bolted) actual sport routes appropriate for our shoe repertoire. And yes, there were bees, lots of them. And yes, one of us got stung. Luckily, for me, it was Maggie who got nailed (I did remove the imbedded stinger, btw) and without provocation other than she was wearing a bright yellow tank top. Apparently they are “just” honey bees searching for water dripping from the cliff band and not the Africanized Bees, aka, Killer Bees that inhabited the area in the distant past. We’re guessing that since there was no evidence of moisture along the cliff (Dry Canyon did live up to its name and was indeed bone dry) the bees were looking for the moisture coming from our bodies as a desperate substitute. In the Bee Cave we tackled a couple of lines with slightly better success. With the sun beginning to set on a short winter day, we hurried down the long trail to our van, arriving just in time to beat nightfall. The temps were now hovering just above freezing. It was an unfathomable 60 degree difference from our midday melting experience.

Returning better rested and slightly more acclimated two days later, we headed straight to Bee Cave. It was somewhat better than our previous day’s experience. The routes were bouldery and typically involved hard crimpy sections with stopper moves not favorable to aging fingers. Our sincere hope was to find a possible new crag for future winter climbing and we had now determined that this was probably not going to work. With short winter days and yours truly being a slow moving member of the golden age category, we rationalized that we would spend most of our time getting to and from the wall, with very little climbing time. 

After a week in The Dry, we packed up the Scamp and rallied for the Hurricave, just south of Hurricane, Utah, where the climbing is always exceptional. Here we can get back into our compulsive routine climbing schedule of Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Our plan is to acquire the climbing fitness necessary for the ensuing summer season filled with lofty goals waiting for us in northern Wyoming.

Feels like home.

Like Goldilocks, we find Hurricave not-too-cold, not-too-hot, but just right for the rest of winter and early spring season. It’s a little dryer and bit more crowded then we’ve experienced in the past, but we’re adapting. Overcrowded climbing areas are becoming the norm as the overall population of climbers seeking difficult routes grows. It speaks volumes for the progression of our sport. However, this explosive growth is accompanied by a catch-twenty-two.

On the positive side, we now have an abundance of indoor climbing gyms. What was once a fringe, extreme outdoor activity has become a sport, and training for climbing has become a science with which we’re obsessed. We are learning and profiting from better methods of route preparation as many climbers with varied strengths find different ways to unlock hard sequences to a number of routes. More challenging new routes are being established by a plethora of elite climbers. Gear companies are providing better and more innovative equipment. We are all beneficiaries of better shoe designs and better knee pad construction. We’re finding more routes with durable fixed cable perma-draws on steeply overhanging terrain. We have better belay devices and thinner ropes for less drag on long routes. Having a larger climbing community provides better funding for entities like the Access Fund and regional climbing coalitions, which are extremely valuable to all of us to help us maintain access to our beloved climbing areas!

When we were first here, just five years ago, this many vehicles in the parking lot would have seemed insane.

The growth of our sport comes with its drawbacks, as well. The more of us there are, the more detrimental impact we have on our outdoor environment, as witnessed by degradation of approach trails through erosion and loss of vegetation, often the result of short-cutting and braiding of new trails created by newcomers unfamiliar with the approach. We are seeing the adverse awareness of property owners and land managers concerned about impact of large numbers of visitors to their domain. Over population creates crowded camping conditions on public land, which we have witnessed with alarming frequency. We see large groups of climbers (not recommended) rather than small parties of 2-4 climbers (highly recommended) sieging a crag or bouldering areas on prime climbing days. We witness large climber groups occupying dispersed camping zones and flooding parking areas with vehicles which are often destroying vegetation. Consequently, we are seeing an increase in camping and threat of climbing access closures as a result of this lack of mindfulness.

If you don’t know how to develop climbing routes, take the time to learn how. Route development is physically demanding work, but also incredibly rewarding when you get to see others enjoying the fruits of your labor. We need more developers to increase climbing terrain and to help distribute the growing climber population. By gaining route development knowledge you will also have increased respect for those who have sacrificed their time and financial resources to develop new routes in the past. 

Every climber should become proficient with trail building. It’s a valuable skill for fixing or developing sustainable trails to new crags and already developed climbing areas. This awareness will also come in handy toward trail maintenance and repair work when needed. Always check with the local land owner, public or private, prior to any major trail project. 

Be active in your local climbing community organization. If your community is without a local organization, help start one. Join the Access Fund and maintain an annual membership, which often includes a joint membership option in conjunction with your established local climbing organization. Maggie and I are both Access Fund members. Although we live on the road, we split our local climber coalition memberships with the RRGCC and SLCA since we spend a fair amount of time in both those communities. When we travel to someplace new, we spend a portion of our rest days on trail repair work, picking up trash, fixing bad bolts and replacing worn anchors. If all members of the climbing community contributed even a small amount of effort toward following the suggestions I’ve made above, the likelihood of our continued climbing access would increase dramatically.

When it comes to crowded climbing conditions, we are all part of the problem and also part of the solution. If you are prone to inviting several of your friends along on a climbing foray, whether it’s a day trip or months on the road, please stop doing this! By keeping your group size small, you’ll have less impact and most likely have a more enjoyable climbing experience shared with a good partner or two. Plus, you’ll be social distancing to help curb the spread of Covid-19! 

In the past, I have jokingly complained about the rapid growth of our climbing community, and of the overall world population growth, by suggesting that this third rock from the sun needs a good pandemic. Fortunately, my prognostication had nothing to do with the reality of our current Covid-19 crisis situation. My truthful wish is that we all remain vigilant regarding taking precautions to prevent the spread of this pandemic. Wear a mask. Wash hands frequently. Practice social distancing. Get vaccinated! As of this writing, I’ve received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine and have an appointment set for round two. Maggie will have to wait a little longer since she doesn’t meet the 65 plus age requirement, but she’ll get her vaccination as soon as it becomes available.

Eventually, this pandemic will subside and life will return to normal, albeit, most likely “new” normal. For this to happen we need to stay the course with the recommended CDC precautions until herd immunity is reached and beyond. We have several months left for this to happen, so hang in there! We all need to express patience through perseverance, similar to a well-earned and difficult red-point, in order for us to “send” this pandemic. Rest assured, there will be more plagues in the future, but hopefully, as a worldwide community of human beings, we have gained some valuable knowledge to help us in forthcoming battles. Hopefully.

Chuck

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Running from the Pandemic