As thoughts turn towards the possible easing of lockdown, and we contemplate a gradual or staged return to the outdoors, there seem to be more questions than answers.
What are the implications for possible virus transmission? How will the continued need for caution affect what we can sensibly do, when, and where? Which outdoor activities can more easily be carried out in accordance with social distancing advice, and which are more tricky? Might we need to look differently at how we go about climbing and hillwalking, at least in the immediate term? What consideration needs to be given to Mountain Rescue provision? And how might remote rural communities be reassured that the return of visitors can be managed safely?
"Clearly social distancing is achievable when walking in many situations, obviously a little more challenging in a larger group" says Andy Simpson of Mountain Rescue England and Wales (MREW).
Likewise, in terms of the risk of passing on the virus when climbing, "there is a significantly different situation climbing if you were at Stanage, Shepherds Crag or Tremadog compared to a scramble or multi pitch climb in the mountains."
Possible managed solutions to easing the lockdown in the outdoors have been discussed for weeks in committees and working groups across the UK. The Scottish Government is currently asking for public feedback on the next steps.
While no such initiative is on offer from the UK Government, representative bodies for walkers and climbers have been lobbying behind the scenes to ensure the interests of our sector are part of whatever comes next.
The newly formed BMC Covid-19 Working Group has been working to develop proposals for phased re-opening of the outdoors for hill walking and climbing in England and Wales. The early result of this is a Covid-19 recovery plan for climbing and hill walking, which has been submitted to English and Welsh government ministers and departments today.
This extensive document provides activity-specific reasoning and proposed measures which could allow phased reopening of the outdoors for the activities the BMC represent, in line with government regulations as they adapt.
"This recovery plan aims to give government ministers and their advisors clear information specific to climbing and hill walking on how access to the outdoors for our activities could resume in a safe way as lockdown eases" said Rob Dyer, BMC Access & Conservation Officer (England).
"We eagerly await the announcements from the Prime Minister expected this weekend and hope that this recovery plan influences thinking on a safe return to outdoor activities when lockdown begins to phase out. This is only the beginning of course and there is lots yet to be done, particularly once government strategy is made public, so watch this space as the situation develops."
To add a Welsh perspective, Elfyn Jones, BMC Access & Conservation Officer (Wales), added:
"Wales is one of the most popular climbing and hillwalking areas in the UK, for both local residents and visitors alike. This plan will help Welsh Government with their aim of safely easing the lockdown and to start allowing recreational activities to be resumed in a safe manner and for Welsh citizens and visitors to once again enjoy the great outdoor activities that Wales is famous for".
COVID-19 Recovery Plan
There's too much in the BMC document to quote verbatim, but a number of proposals stand out.
In terms of maintenance of social distancing, all forms of climbing and hill walking could take place within a household group who maintain 2m social distancing from other individuals and groups, they propose. For small groups outside a single household, social distancing is easier with certain sub-activities within mountaineering compared to others:
- Hill walking and scrambling would be easy for participants to maintain 2m social distancing throughout the activity.
- Bouldering and top roping could also restart with measures in place to ensure social distancing.
Other roped forms of climbing would require additional measures, they suggest.
Next comes hygiene:
- Hygiene considerations for climbing and hill walking are no different to current advice for those going on low-level walks on public rights of way from their houses.
- Our advice would recommend use of hand sanitising gel before and after contacting any surfaces whilst outdoors.
- Upon arrival back at home, decontamination should take place by washing hands and quarantining any equipment that has contacted other people or surfaces, for as long as possible outside or in a dedicated area inside.
- Travel should be avoided outside of anyone's local area initially and government guidance as lockdown eases should be followed.
- Short journeys for urban residents to reach nearby countryside would allow those who are used to being able to easily access these places with a short drive to do so once again, (e.g. residents on the fringes of national parks and other green spaces).
- If joining small groups outside of a household group, travel to the access point for the activity should be in separate vehicles until government advice changes to allow sharing, or if public transport is the only option, ensuring all government advice is followed.
- Respect for rural communities and landowners by visitors is crucial as lockdown is phased out and helping to keep the communities visited safe would be a key part of any BMC advice and messaging.
- The areas of highest risk of transmission are likely to be pinch points where visitors are forced together such as gates, stiles, narrow sections of paths, car parks etc. (See hygiene section for advice on mitigating risk of transmission in these places through contact with surfaces.)
- For narrow sections of path, respect for other users and taking turns to move through these when others are around is key.
- Hill walking routes should be planned with an awareness of pinch points (which should be avoided wherever possible).
- These issues exist now for anyone taking their daily exercise on public rights of way so continuing to use current advice on managing this risk is appropriate whilst acknowledging that it shouldn't prevent resumption of other activities that also use these pinch points. Such pinch points are fewer on the mountains, hills and Open Access land.
Accommodation and other local services
- Day trip access to the countryside is not reliant upon accommodation, cafes, pubs, shops etc but overnight trips will require it.
- Initially, to provide some access back into the outdoors and allow improvements to physical and mental wellbeing, day trips only (within stated travel restrictions) would be manageable to avoid issues with reopening accommodation.
- As and when local services are allowed to open for business, visiting climbers and walkers (amongst others), will provide crucial economic input into these areas, and without visitors, recovery of the rural economy will stall.
It is anticipated that the increase in risk of transmission caused by climbers and hill walkers visiting more popular venues can be mitigated through advice to avoid such places for the foreseeable future, although it is noted that no such restrictions exist for walking or cycling.
Key messages will be to:
- Stay local initially, don't travel beyond government travel limits as lockdown eases.
- Take the opportunity to visit new and less frequented areas.
- Avoid visiting popular venues and have several backup plans so that if you arrive at a busy venue you can go elsewhere.
- Be aware that closures of certain honeypot areas (e.g. Snowdon in Wales) will likely continue even as other parts of the countryside are opened.
Consistent messaging across the UK will be required, they suggest, since many walkers and climbers travel across country borders to carry out their activities.
"A united approach across all four home nations is essential to ensure that as people are allowed to travel once again, there is a clear and unambiguous set of measures in place that applies across the UK."
An activity-based approach to returning to the outdoors is proposed, which "considers risk of transmission for each of the main sub-activities within climbing and hill walking with the idea being to allow recommencement of each activity as appropriate when we begin to move away from full lockdown"
- For those who are able to climb or walk with others within their household or social bubble (if this concept is adopted), any activity would be possible following the basic principles laid out earlier in the document as social distancing will not be required within your group.
- Most social distancing issues with climbing can be resolved by choosing a single regular partner, a measure which is often the norm anyway but which could be included as a strong recommendation in BMC C-19 advice.
Hill walking and scrambling
- Small groups can easily maintain social distance whilst carrying out these activities
- Participants should stay well within their physical and technical limits, being sure of their ability to be self-reliant, navigate and travel across all terrain on their chosen route, manage forecast weather conditions, deal with likely incidents and be appropriately equipped.
- Honeypot areas with high desirability (e.g. Snowdon/Scafell/Pen y Fan etc) may need significant supervision to manage crowding or even to remain restricted.
- Low risk of injury which can be mitigated by avoiding anything other than low problems with good landings that don't require a spotter.
- Can be carried out solo or in pairs/small groups.
- Greater hazard than the forms of activity above due to the potential for short falls, however this should be contextualised by the injury stats listed earlier in the document showing that overall risk of injury is extremely low per participant hour.
- Social distancing could be maintained by adoption of adapted techniques to prevent climber and belayer having to be close together at the start and end of a climb.
- There will be mutual contact with ropes and other climbing equipment but this can be mitigated with use of hand sanitising gel.
- Risk of transmission could be further reduced by each climber bringing a full set of their own equipment, with each individual only using their own equipment.
- Very low risk of injury as the climber always has a tight rope above them to prevent a fall.
- Social distancing can be maintained between both climber and belayer on the ground and whilst climbing/belaying.
- There will be mutual contact with ropes and other climbing equipment (e.g. top anchors) but this can be mitigated with use of hand sanitising gel.
- Increased hazard compared to sport climbing, but again in reality a very small number of injuries compared to the number of participants (52 incidents across all forms of rock climbing in England and Wales in 2017), so still low risk of injury.
- The normal techniques used for traditional climbing make social distancing slightly more difficult to achieve; however, there is certainly plenty of scope for exploring new methods which could allow this alongside our partner Mountain Training bodies
Government advice on safety in the outdoors is bound to change as the situation, and thinking, develop. The current advice for walkers from The Ramblers, based on general health guidance, states that if you chose to walk as your daily exercise, you should:
- stay local and use open spaces near to your home where possible – do not travel unnecessarily
- only go outside alone or with members of your own household
- keep at least 2 metres (6ft) apart from anyone outside your household
- if you have a garden, make use of the space for exercise and fresh air
- take hygiene precautions when you are outside – for example, avoid touching gates and railings with your hands - and wash your hands as soon as you are back indoors
- if walking your dog in areas used by other people, you should walk your dog on a lead to ensure you can safely keep 2 metres away from others.
"We urge all walkers to respect the interests of all people who use the outdoors and follow government advice to only to walk locally, for a short period of daily exercise, to avoid crowded areas and to practice social distancing" they say.
"If you are walking in local countryside from your doorstep, it is vital to walk responsibly. Be considerate to others and make sure you follow the Countryside Code (England and Wales) and Access Code (Scotland)."
- leave gates as you find them
- keep dogs under close control
- follow advice on local signs
- take litter home.
- Where possible, you should also avoid touching gates and railings with your hands
- consider using alternative routes that do not pass through gardens, farmyards or schools, where social distancing may be difficult
- consider avoiding popular locations and times of day if you can.
Nobody leaves home expecting to be rescued, but accidents happen. What if it all goes wrong, and you need the help of Mountain Rescue?
Do short-staffed teams currently have the capacity to cope with a mass return to the outdoors? And how can volunteer rescuers protect themselves from the risk of Coronavirus transmission?
We spoke to the umbrella bodies for mountain rescue in Scotland, and England & Wales.
"MR teams work together and call upon each other for mutual aid as needed for extra help on a regular basis" says Andy Simpson of Mountain Rescue England and Wales (MREW).
"These back-up plans and reinforcements are always available to our teams and are continuing in the current situation."
A mountain rescue currently looks the same as ever, with the addition of appropriate PPE for the rescuers and rescued. But to what extent is clinical-level PPE even an option on a mountainside?
"Teams [in England and Wales] are using level two PPE when working around the casualty and stretcher" explains Andy Simpson.
"That comprises gloves and a basic face mask when working with a stretcher or delivering casualty care. Quite clearly wearing a mask when undertaking physical activity or a stretcher carry is an added challenge in itself. Visors etc are totally unrealistic in our environment. Wrap around sunglasses or clear protection glasses are also worn."
Currently, all MRTs in the UK have asked people not to go hillwalking or climbing, and while that is clearly not a line that could be maintained as lockdown eases the onus will be on all participants to make sure they minimise the burden on stretched rescue services.
"Hill walking is perfect for social isolation … until something goes wrong. You can't maintain a safe distance on a stretcher!" says Damon Powell, chair of Scottish Mountain Rescue.
"Overall the majority of people have been fantastic through the lockdown, heeding the government advice and requests from Mountain Rescue to stay local and stay off the hills."
"The available manpower in Scottish teams is currently reduced, due to the fact that some team members are key workers in their day jobs, while others are self isolating. However the response capability of most teams is still looking OK."
So what about that PPE?
"Scottish teams now have adequate supplies of masks to meet the current low demand" says Damon Powell. "However if there's a mass return to the hills then supplies may need to be increased. Wearing the typical hospital PPE of an apron is clearly a non-starter up hills in the wind, and it's hard to wear a mask when you're breathing hard."
MRTs are experimenting with wearing full waterproofs and goggles or sunglasses on call-out, as a more practical solution in the outdoors environment than clinical PPE.
"All clothing and PPE used in a call-out will have to be decontaminated afterwards, and this will add work and potentially a time lag between call-outs" says Damon Powell.
"For the foreseeable future rescues are likely to be slower, and more limited than formerly. Call-outs are now assessed over the phone for possible COVID-19 risk, and we may be encouraging more people to walk themselves off the hill than in former days. Teams are now responding to call-outs with the minimum number that they think they can get by with. Guidelines around resuscitation in the outdoors have also changed."
"When thinking about getting out we would urge people to consider the potential consequences of what they're doing, and carry out a basic risk assessment. If you're going somewhere that's close to vehicle access then rescuing you if something went wrong should be straightforward and would require only one ambulance and crew. On the other hand if you're heading somewhere more remote, far from vehicle access, then a lot more resources and manpower would be needed in the event of an accident."
"On a typical call-out the casualty needs around 12 people, but it can be 20+ depending on the technical and remote nature of a rescue and weather. Searches can swallow 100 and still need more, but on the other hand it'd be easier to maintain social distance on a search."
"To help people make sensible decisions and err on the side of caution, we are considering adapting some of the normal planning processes for a day in the mountains, such as the avalanche aware app."
Proposal: A rescue-centred approach
If walkers and climbers don't come up with plausible solutions to the problems of rescue during the pandemic, there is a danger that we will have a solution imposed on us. Already, the spectre of licensing or competency certificates issued by the authorities has been mooted.
In the spirit that individuals should be responsible for making their own calls, Duncan McCallum, host of BBC Scotland's Adventure Show and the force behind the new Inverness wall The Ledge, has drawn up draft guidance that he hopes might help inform our next steps.
This has been shared with Mountaineering Scotland and various Mountain Rescue Teams, but does not represent any sport governing body, or official thinking.
Duncan's Risk Resources Scale is designed to limit the number of people involved in a response to a worst case casualty, which of course varies a lot depending where you are:
"The principle of the scale is not to necessarily to grade an activity by the risk of the activity/sport, although some consideration must be given to how close to the limit of skill/performance an individual maybe i.e. if you are a HVS climber or a Red Skilled XC rider these may not be the times to attempt your first E2 with poor gear or attempt a Black Down Hill trail" he suggests.
"But instead to gauge the exposure risk to virus infection to those who may have to rescue you, and the number of people and resources engaged in retrieving a casualty from any given situation or environment.
"A Grade 1 activity would be a simple evacuation into a car or ambulance from an activity site requiring either easy self evacuation or in the worst case evacuation, on a basic stretcher carried by 4-6 people, 0-15mins carry from a road which can be accessed by a standard non off-road vehicle, whereas a Grade 5 activity could involve a multi agency response, coastguard, MRT teams and Helicopter access potentially in bad weather or in challenging terrain where complex rigging/time is required or sustained searches requiring many people maybe required.
"The idea of the scale is to provide sports organisations with a set of simple guidelines for participants to use when self managing the transition back into outdoor action and adventure sports.
"Wider guidelines on who you can climb, surf or ride with will no doubt be issued by Government as social distancing rules evolve over the next period, but these are likely to be:
- Do not or enter any outdoor sport areas if you're exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
- "Play" exclusively with members of a "two- three household bubble" or a contact traceable group of a maximum of 10 persons (size to be defined).
- Practise physical distancing at all times by maintaining a minimum of 2 metres between yourself and others who are not in your contact traceable-defined group.
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Weather, poor visibility or high wind would add a factor of ONE to each activity.
- Pushing to your performance limits add ONE (gauged by the individual not the NGB - we do not want to get into a situation where we limit long term how people perform as individuals).
The size of the contact traceable group will be defined by larger sports/activities such as premiership football behind closed doors etc.
The system is graded 1-5, which tries to balance the "Risk" of the activity in a way we as participants can argue it is safe, and the amount of rescue resources required to evacuate a non-walking individual.
RRS Grade - Climbing/Mountaineering
1- Bouldering 0-15 mins from a road (one stretcher carried by 4-6 similar to carrying someone from a Golf Course or down stairs in a large house) Injury style twists and breaks
2- Sport climbing 0-15 mins from a road (victim will be on the ground) Maybe more complex carry but with no need for MRT teams in large numbers as stretcher rescue carry only
3- Single (smaller) Pitch Trad 0-20 mins from road and small hills in known locations ( Jetty - Dunkeld - Stone Valley)
4- Summer Multipitch Trad in Mountains - Resource heavy and helicopter potential required and many people involved in lowering victims (The Ben - Glencoe)
5- Sea Cliff Climbing, Winter Ice Climbing and remote crags - Full service rescue potentially involving multiple agencies and searches
Possible examples in other sports:
Munro Bagging Summer Grade 3-4 (This is a tricky one, but if we are defining the risk as exposure of rescue resources to Covid 19, then this has to be strict)
Munro Bagging Winter Grade 5
Kayaking Aberfeldy Grade 1-2
Kayaking Findhorn Grade 2
Beach Surfing where an ambulance can access the coast or a road is close by e.g. Lossiemouth and Thurso - Grade 1-2
MTB - Trail centres with forest tracks within 15mins carry of the farthest trail point e.g. Glen Tress Blue-Red Trails - Grade 1
MTB - More remote managed trail centres with harder trails in more challenging areas e.g. Inner Leithen Red-Black - Grade 2
MTB - Highland Trail 550 - Grade 4
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