By Lorea Zabaleta | Photo by Patil Khakhamian
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to be taken seriously in the U.S. and social distancing guidelines were put into place, many found their daily lives disrupted. Jobs lost, plans canceled, school over. Suddenly, normal activities like brunch with friends were both immature and a danger to public health.
Naturally, some thought they were exceptions to the rules — particularly people whose daily activities or jobs involve being generally social distant. For outdoor enthusiasts and professionals, it seemed that perhaps life could continue as normal, albeit with a few adjustments. However, as the situation progressed, it became more and more clear that even pursuits far from society, involving little to no other people, were still irresponsible.
Climbing.com weighed in on climbing trips and climbing outside at all during these times in a recent article. The piece seems to conclude that the activity, even with precautions, still presents far more negative consequences than benefits for the time being.
Rock climbing, of course, is not the only outdoor hobby under fire. Ice-climbers also hung up their gear for the season after realizing that the sport presents a risk that could cause unnecessary patients for the already overwhelmed healthcare system, especially in relatively rural areas with smaller hospitals, place potential first-responders to an incident in danger (from the virus or the elements), as well as simply increase the potential for contact with strangers. Backcountry skiing has become controversial as well, due to avalanche danger and accident potential not being deemed worthwhile risks by many.
In western Montana, in places such as Bozeman, people are still partaking in these activities as a hobby — hopefully with great caution and distance between those they do not live with.
However, the situation differs for those for whom the outdoors are a profession and source of income, whether it is through guiding others or being a sponsored athlete.
Bozeman residents Sam Magro, owner and chief guide of Montana Alpine Guides (MAG), and Conrad Anker, professional mountaineer, climber, and former North Face team leader, give insight into how the pandemic has affected the professional outdoor world.
MAG is a locally owned and operated guide service in Bozeman, Mont., running trips within Montana, Wyoming, and abroad. Magro himself was in Tanzania, guiding Kilimanjaro, in early March as the situation worsened worldwide, and was barely able to make it home before the travel ban went into effect. He immediately placed himself in quarantine upon returning due to a layover in Europe.
For the week of March 14 to March 20, MAG continued its guide services with severe restrictions, such as a carpooling ban, meeting outside the office, and prohibiting groups of more than one party, in order to “remove incentives for people to travel across the country to climb and ski with us,” says Magro. However, MAG, despite all these precautions, decided to end their season early, announcing on Instagram Thursday, March 19 that their last guided trip would run on Friday, March 20. “I don’t know if any other guide services closed prior to us in this region; I don’t believe they had,” said Magro. “The decision was one made out of respect for the lives of others. Financial earnings are secondary to people’s well-being and health for all MAG operations.”
“Companies that hesitated were concerned with losing income, which is a legitimate and real concern. We lost a lot of money. But again, I saw no other choice. [It] would be hard to explain to a dying person that you wanted that last paycheck. I’d want the same from other companies for my health and that of others. I do think some of the climbing gyms should have closed far earlier than they did, but I do see their reservations.”
Anker also seems to be an advocate of the stay at home movement, often posting on social media about its importance. “Given the risk factor of climbing and backcountry [travel] if a participant were to be injured, the resulting search and rescue operation and stay at a hospital would further compromise the health care system,” he said.
Luckily, in a place like Bozeman, it is easy to play outside in a safe manner. Anker has been taking walks with his wife, Jennie Lowe-Anker, and their two dogs.
Due to the intensive nature of climbing, skiing, and mountaineering, just as the U.S. and global economy suffer, the guiding and professional outdoor world is taking a hit. MAG and other companies worldwide have cancelled and continue to cancel expeditions. Denali National Park and Everest are closed for the climbing season. This loss of future revenue as well as the burden of offering refunds to clients whose trips were cancelled, or who cancelled trips in early March, has greatly impacted MAG, and similar circumstances are likely occurring with other guiding services.
Anker corroborated this point, saying, “Across the board, businesses in this sector are experiencing fewer sales. Retail sales are much lower than they were one year ago. As I work in marketing and many of the events are in person, there is an obvious downturn.”
Despite all of these negative impacts, both Magro and Anker said that they are actively trying to look for a silver lining.
“I’m optimistic and looking at this as an opportunity to grow as an individual, a business, a nation, and a world,” said Magro. “Undeniably there will be tragic loss of human life, economic stress this creates, and general sorrow for individuals, but I do like to think we CAN come out of this stronger. Now is a time to show our best sides. As the old saying goes: It’s not what happens to a person in their life that makes them who they are, but rather how they deal with and respond to those happenings.”
Anker speculates that in the case of global recession, the outdoors as an industry may actually be one of the first to not only recover, but help people recover from the trauma of this pandemic. “Being an optimist,” he said, “the outdoor section might rebound sooner as people realize that getting back to nature offers therapeutic benefits and is a cost-efficient form of recreation.”
Lastly, he said, “be good, be kind, and be compassionate,” a phrase present in his Instagram bio and truly some good advice to humanity during this time.