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Climbing rock–yes, touching real rock–can potentially spread the coronavirus

So far, the warnings about COVID-19 (aka “coronavirus”) have been about climbers gathering outdoors and how groups of people in rural communities could stress healthcare resources in places like Bishop and Moab. But as of last week, a new problem has been presented for climbers: touching real stone.

“If someone carrying COVID-19 touched rock–or coughed or sneezed on it–there’s clear evidence suggesting that, yes, COVID-19 may be contracted via contaminated rock or plastic,” Levi Yant told Alpinist in an email. Yant is an associate professor of evolutionary genomics at the University of Nottingham (UK) and a climber.

Zoe Burns sending Laundry (V2) on her home wall in Basalt, Colorado. Scientists are encouraging climbers to refrain from climbing popular outdoor routes because the coronavirus can remain infectious on a variety of surfaces, including rock, for significant periods of time. [Photo] Cam Burns

Zoe Burns social distancing on her home wall via a problem called Laundry (V2) in Basalt, Colorado. Scientists are encouraging climbers to refrain from climbing popular outdoor routes because the coronavirus can remain infectious on a variety of surfaces, including rock, for significant periods of time. [Photo] Cam Burns

Yant was citing a summary of a study by researchers from The National Institutes of Health (NIH), Princeton University and UCLA, that examined the aerosol and surface stability of COVID-19 that appeared as a letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 17.

“That letter reported on their tests of COVID-19 on steel, copper, cardboard and plastic,” Yant said. “The virus was still infective after being left on plastic and steel for 72 hours. It’s a resilient beast. It didn’t persist as long on cardboard and copper, a day or less. The scientists didn’t test stone, but I don’t expect the results would differ much.”

A summary of the study can be found here.

Thomas Friedrich, a professor of virology at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and a climber, is a virologist who studies the evolution and transmission of viruses like influenza and Zika, and now COVID-19. He agreed such spreading of the disease on stone could be possible.

“If an infected person touches their nose or mouth while on a route, the virus will get on their hands and then onto other things they touch, including holds,” he told Alpinist. “If you touch that hold and then touch your face, you could become infected. It is very, very difficult to guess how long the virus could remain infectious on stone.”

Given that the virus is known to last the longest not just on plastic, but also steel, climbers should also be mindful when considering routes that have fixed hardware, including bolts, quickdraws and/or steel chain or permadraws.

Both virologists stressed that the study, which was reported by National Public Radio on March 18, is not gospel yet.

“The physics governing stability of COVID-19 on other surfaces is pure guesswork at this point,” Yant noted. “Scientists found that on cardboard the data were noticeably ‘noisier’–i.e., there was more variation in the experiment than on plastic, where COVID-19 is very happy to stick around. So, yeah, there may be variation on different stone types, but not anything I would speculate about, nor take any chance with personally. I’d definitely stay off the busy routes till the pandemic is beaten back.”

Both researchers said a more important action for climbers is to simply not congregate at crags or in any kind of communal setting.

“The main point is that we should avoid groups of people for a time,” Friedrich said. “Think of it this way. As the number of cases climbs exponentially, we may get to a point where, say, one in 20 people are infected. This means that if you’re out somewhere where twenty people have gathered, it’s very likely that one person is infected, and could spread the virus to others. This is the situation we are trying to avoid.”

Meanwhile, some public land managers are pushing the issue by simply closing down public lands.

On March 16, the state of Utah and three county health departments–Carbon, Emery, and Grand–declared a joint public health emergency.

Emory County covers much of the San Rafael Swell, which is west of the town of Green River, and north and south of Interstate 70. Carbon County lies north of Emory Country and includes much of the northern Swell. Grand County includes the Moab area, including Castle Valley, the Fisher Towers and Arches National Park.

The order calls out the limited ability of area healthcare facilities to handle an influx of people who might become infected with the virus, stating, in part: “that visitors that are not here on essential business return to their home and non-essential visitors planning to come to Carbon, Emery and Grand counties reconsider their plans and remain near their home[s].” The order also requests that local residents stay put. The order (dated March 17) will be in place for 30 days.

On March 18, the American Alpine Club supported the Utah communities and expanded the notion to other areas with a note on Instagram that asks climbers to stay away from places like Moab, Springdale, Bishop, Fayetteville and Slade.

“These remote towns often have limited access to medical facilities and their closely-knit, interconnected social structures are more prone to the spread of infection,” the AAC wrote. “If you have a trip planned, please reschedule until we are through this health emergency. This is not the time to head to the desert or rally to your favorite national park for ‘social distancing.’ While outdoor time is necessary for each of us during this turbulent period, we need to stay local and limit our interaction with vulnerable communities.”

Spain and Italy have already banned public cycling. It seems likely that there will be additional bans and closures across the planet.