Climbing out of coronavirus
Sitting at the top of a rock face, Ponderosa Pine forests spread at my feet, a distant view of the Methow River, and beyond that, the snow-capped peaks of the North Cascades, it's hard to remember that I'm in the midst of a global pandemic. As I belay my 15-year-old daughter up the climb I just led, I remind myself. School moved to remote learning on the first day of spring. I've been doing my job from home since mid-March. I go grocery shopping once every week or 10 days, and other than that, have little in-person interaction with anyone outside of my immediate family. In the state and the nation around us, people are dying from COVID19. Yet we are rock climbing. And loving it.
When our governor’s Stay at Home order was announced in March, our family cast about a bit for evening entertainment. We were used to evenings filled with board meetings, social engagements, kids’ sports—the stuff that makes up life in a small community. With our evenings now free, Netflix called. But so did the mountains. Lucky for us, we heard them.
Now, with the days lengthening and the temperatures warming, a few times each week we head to a local crag and get a couple of climbs under our belt. For the past few years we’ve been doing spring break climbing trips to Smith Rock or Skaha, but we’d never been the family that would spend weekday afternoons on the rock. Until now.
The enthusiasm with which the kids, ages 13 and 15, have embraced this family pastime is somewhat surprising. And yet with no evening homework, no sports, and no gathering with friends, our teens have turned to their parents for companionship: something we hadn’t expected would happen until after they’d moved out of the house (which, depending on how long the pandemic lasts, may not happen for quite some time). Even more astonishingly, they like it.
The suspended sense of time that makes up the global pandemic for most of us can only be understood by those who have experienced it—which is all of us. It’s sometimes difficult to remember which month we’re in, let alone the date and day of the week. My work schedule has gone feral. I send emails late at night, grocery shop in the middle of the day, where I see masked friends and neighbors, heads down, filling carts as if we are all under siege, or underwater with the clock ticking on a limited supply of oxygen. I’ve been wearing leggings and t-shirts for weeks, often the same sets for days on end. I put on jeans the other day and it felt like wearing a wetsuit.
At 5:30pm every day, my phone pings with our county’s COVID19 update, and we all pause before looking at the increasing number of confirmed cases that each day brings. Knowing that others are having similar—if not identical—experiences helps mitigate the strangeness of the new paradigm.
But climbing with my kids feels—to use a word we hardly know the definition of anymore—normal. If it’s just the three of us, I lead a couple of moderate climbs that give us access to top roping some harder ones. If my husband is there, he leads something that we all enjoy burning our muscles out on.
For a few hours, at least, the pandemic and the uncertainty about the future it has created simmer quietly on the back burner while the urgent concerns inherent to rock climbing sizzle at the front of the stove. Wondering whether schools will reopen in the fall fades in the face of wondering if I’m brave enough to lead a route one notch above my grade. Consumed with the focus climbing requires, I forget, for minutes on end, that nothing in the rest of our lives is as it was. The rock, however, and my predictable response to it, are reassuringly constant.
In any given climbing session we cycle through all the usual markers of a good day on the rocks: fear, grace, swearing, communication, teamwork, encouragement, frustration, elation, disappointment. For a few hours, we live in a bubble free of coronavirus, free of masks, free of Zoom meetings and Google Classroom, free of hand washing and social distancing. Free of worrying about losing our jobs at non-profit organizations, or of losing our parents to this virus. Free of wondering if the kids will be going back to school in the fall, if our 15-year-old will be able to complete Driver’s Ed. Free of wondering how long our little family unit will be able to sustain us socially. On the rock, we’re forever looking upward, our only goal a graceful ascent to the safety and satisfaction of the next anchor point.
When we go to the rock in the evenings, we bring snacks or even dinner and watch the sun set over Silver Star Mountain, the sky on fire, glowing under the clouds. Then we hike out in the gathering dusk, our unwashed hands caked with chalk and dirt, our hearts filled with gratitude for another day of being truly alive.