Climbing & Walking in England: Proceed with CautionOpinion

© Samuel James-Louwerse

The UK Government's relaxation of lockdown guidelines, published on Monday, has been met with understandable excitement from climbers and walkers in our forums and on social media. As keen climbers and walkers ourselves, we were equally intrigued to know when a return to the hills, crags and mountains might be possible. Now that many in England are seeing a green light for pursuing our outdoor passions after seven weeks of confinement, UKC would like to appeal for continued, thoughtful consideration by the climbing community, which has been overwhelmingly restrained in the past two months.

Starting up Nettlerash (HS) on Aldery Cliff  © Samuel James-Louwerse
Starting up Nettlerash (HS) on Aldery Cliff
© Samuel James-Louwerse

The community has come together in force, supporting each other in the forums, on social media and even supporting UKC, UKH and the outdoor industry as a whole throughout these difficult times. Gear manufacturers produced PPE for health workers. People kept up their monthly climbing wall membership payments, donated to crowdfunding appeals and shared their knowledge, expertise and inspiration online to help others keep fit and healthy at home. We appreciate that everyone is in need of a release after the stress of recent events, but, to shamelessly steal Boris Johnson's mountain metaphor from Sunday night,

'We've been through the initial peak, but it's often coming down the mountain that is more dangerous.'

He's not wrong on that front. We've climbed the walls at home and made mountains out of molehills - or the furniture - but being allowed out to climb again, at a time when England alone is still facing 200-300+ daily deaths (627 in the UK today, and 3,403 daily lab-confirmed cases from COVID-19), comes with great responsibility for ourselves and to others. There remains a risk of viral transmission to fellow climbers, local communities and mountain rescue and health workers. The latter groups and their resources have been spread thin, and extra vigilance will be required when playing in the hills for the foreseeable future. The risk to anyone we come into contact with while travelling to our entirely elective day out is also a concern.

As of Wednesday 13 May, people in England 'may drive to outdoor open spaces irrespective of distance, so long as they respect social distancing guidance while they are there' and exercise with up to one person from outside their household. Additionally, people must not travel in a car 'with anyone but those in [their] household' and 'must not stay overnight (day trips only)'.

While many outdoor enthusiasts rejoiced, numerous national park authorities and access bodies have recoiled in the anticipation of a flood of travellers visiting honeypot areas and threatening local - and often at risk - populations.

Consider staying local

Lake District police forces, the National Park authority and local MP Tim Farron have all appealed to potential visitors to stay away. Parts of Cumbria are currently home to the highest infection rates in the UK, as well as being a tourist hotspot with a sensitive local population. A surge in visitors with the likely difficulties in maintaining social distancing measures could prompt a spike in infections. While social distancing is seemingly easier to put into practise in the hills than on the high street - and potentially less risky in terms of transmission - this is not the whole picture. It's important to remember that a journey to and from the crag - especially those of the longer variety - could include food and fuel stops as well as parking in close proximity to others in honeypot areas. 'Pinch points' on busy trails should also be accounted for if possible.

Specific areas such as Portland may well attract a concentrated influx of climbers as opposed to National Parks where a broad mix of outdoor enthusiasts is more likely. Relations with locals on Portland are not great in normal times, so a big surge over the next few weeks will add extra strain to an already sensitive situation.

We believe that staying local and avoiding contact with other communities would appear to be a sensible first step in the coming weeks, a measure advocated by National Parks, MPs and currently enforced in countries such as France, via an arbitrary travel limit. When considering destinations, follow BMC advice and avoid popular areas by seeking out less frequented venues, being flexible and having backup plans to avoid overcrowding. Follow their basic distancing and personal hygiene advice at the crag to minimise transmission:

Stay at home if you are displaying symptoms of COVID-19 or self-isolating.
Maintain a distance of at least 2m from anyone outside of your household.
Be cautious of touching surfaces and shared equipment.
Be committed to good hand hygiene.

Think carefully about access issues

In these uncertain times when outsiders are treated with heightened suspicion, access to paths and crags will likely become a particularly sensitive issue. Local representatives are anxious and have already expressed concern in the UKC forums. 'I hope to draw your attention to access, how delicate it is to some crags and why we need to be very careful about how we as a community move forward,' volunteer access rep for Northern England, Steve Blake wrote. 'I fear that if there are 13 cars parked at the Bowdens or Kyloes, or indeed elsewhere with complex access this weekend, we could have problems of our own making.'

Crag access is complicated at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic, when congregations of climbers could unwittingly be carrying COVID-19 and place small communities under threat.

'It's painful I know, but we need to be patient,' Steve continued. 'The issue isn't about our perception of the risks and 'rights', but about how those who control the access to our crags see us.' In other words, we can be as friendly and as respectful as we like, but the truth is that to many landowners and locals currently, we are more than just climbers - we are potential vessels of viral transmission, and we may be less than welcome.

'I'd strongly suggest avoiding the northern crags in particular, and indeed any crag where either the approach or rock are not on Access Land. Check the guides, check the 1:25000 maps which show the Access Land Boundaries, check the BMC RAD and check the Natural England Access Maps web page for any temporary restrictions,' Steve advises.

Don't push it too far yet

We might be allowed out to play, but hospitals are not out of the woods just yet and we should continue to take utmost care to avoid placing undue stress on NHS services. Multiple health workers in our forums have asked us not to become detached from the reality of the situation in hospitals. Despite their personal desire to head outdoors for their own health and wellbeing, key workers have appealed for careful consideration and, if possible, patience and restraint. Some climbers have been vocal proponents of waiting longer before venturing outdoors, which could help ease the numbers at crags and limit transmission opportunities.

Mountain rescue teams have appealed to climbers and walkers to stay within their capabilities to reduce the risk of an accident requiring rescue and medical resources at a time when PPE is still in limited supply, and often impractical on the hill.

Mike France, SEO of Mountain Rescue England and Wales, said: 'Any surge in visitors and call outs is going to put a huge additional pressure on mountain rescue volunteers, in addition to the extra work of using PPE and stringent cleaning of kit and vehicles. It is essential that everyone heading for the hills takes responsibility for their own safety, and should be aware that mountain rescue response times will be longer because of the additional preparations needed.' Any call out could involve a large number of team members, especially if a stretcher carry is involved. Volunteers risk not only their own health, but also that of their families.

Read this story from Coniston Mountain Rescue Team, which explains the tangled web that one minor accident can weave during COVID-19.

Watch out for wildlife

While humans stayed at home, wildlife has been reclaiming territory in urban spaces and most likely in the wilderness, too. 'With little recreational activity in the outdoors, it is quite possible that birds have returned to crags they would normally ignore,' Steve Conlon wrote in the UKC forums. 'Be aware that it is not unusual at this time of the year for bird bans to have been placed on a number of the UK's crags. Information about nesting birds normally filters through from climbers, Access Volunteers, National Park Rangers, et al. Since the lockdown, responsible climbers have been following climbing restrictions and it has not been possible to justify survey visits as necessary travel, so the situation is unclear. It is worth remembering that whether a ban is in place or not, it is a serious offence to "willingly or recklessly" disturb nesting birds.'

Be aware of the borders

Whatever the weather, inconsistencies in exercise and travel guidelines between the devolved nations must also be observed - even though the sun has been shining in Scotland throughout lockdown. 'When travelling to outdoor spaces, it is important that people respect the rules in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and do not travel to different parts of the UK where it would be inconsistent with guidance or regulations issued by the relevant devolved administration,' the new guidelines read. Read the BMC's nation-specific guidance, which includes updated information on low-risk climbing and walking close to home in Wales.

Be responsible and respectful

As the Government emphasises, 'These measures may come with some risk; it is important that everyone continues to act responsibly, as the large majority have done to date.'

Being climbers and outdoor-goers, we're used to mitigating risk and weighing up the consequences of our actions for both ourselves and our climbing partners. In the case of COVID-19, the risk stretches beyond the individual and our immediate group. We need not only to consider our personal hygiene and interactions during outings, but the risk of onward viral transmission and also how we might be perceived by local residents. Climbers and hillwalkers have no more reason to use the hills and honeypots than other tourists seeking beauty and fresh air. We might be lumped in with the rest, or - as has happened historically - we might stand out as selfish, hedonistic risk-takers who can't resist the urge to climb and bring more than just our rope, rack and a packed lunch with us, especially if we are involved in an accident requiring a rescue; a potential media magnet and a perfect storm for consequent reputational damage.

Shortly before the UK lockdown was announced in March, and following discussions with a virologist and outdoor industry figures, we at UKC/UKH made the decision to shut our logbooks and advise readers to 'put climbing on hold.'

After two terrible months we have little faith in the competence of the UK Government to always make the best decisions, and we feel that once again the new guidelines show insufficient clarity in their messaging. Although the flood gates have now effectively been opened, we believe that rushing to the crags en masse may not be a sensible option, from both a health and a moral perspective. Now that climbing and hillwalking is back on the cards in England and in other countries across the globe, we have reopened the logbooks and support the BMC's key message:

Our key message to climbers and hill walkers is to be cautious in your actions, respectful of local communities and extremely vigilant in avoiding transmitting the virus.

'We have a route and we have a plan,' Boris Johnson told the country on Sunday, continuing his mountaineering analogy. It's been a tough slog so far, thanks in no small part to decisions made at the top. Though it may be a relief to get outdoors again, can we be sure the route now set out for us is the wise course? The devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland do not seem keen just yet to follow Westminster's lead. But while the UK government offers no specific guidelines for climbing and hillwalking - and who'd expect it of them? - now more than ever it's imperative that we as individuals take responsibility into our own hands. That is, after all, the essence of climbing and hillwalking. Climb if you must, even if you want, but if you have a route in mind, have a plan in hand. Respect others and your surroundings, and climb safe.


The UKC/UKH Team

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12 May, 2020

Agree with most of what you've said, some minor bits not so much but what I did like is that you've clearly published this as an opinion piece. It would have been nice to see some of the other stuff coming from various other sources labelled as such. The articles on here have been really good from Dan Bailey as well.

12 May, 2020

Well balanced.

After all the vitriol on the forums over this issue, I'm genuinely impressed that you've managed to write that many words without attracting a single dislike as I post!

Nice to see that you've incorporated some of the best advice that's been posted in the forums recently as well.

13 May, 2020

All very sensible. Small point but where did the 70 cases a day come from? It’s more like about 4,000 a day in the UK (of which most will be in England).

13 May, 2020

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, tweeted: “In tentative steps & in the least risky outdoor environments, we can imminently allow some sports activity like golf, basketball, tennis, fishing - solo/in households.”

Also, the new guidelines for exercise state: "Maintain good hand hygiene (this includes not touching shared surfaces [...])"

So it really doesn't sound like climbing was what they had in mind!

13 May, 2020

Suits me 🙂

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