U.S. Climbs and Treks: Pandemic Options

September 16, 2020

Categories: COVID-19, Health, Partners, Safety, Travel Tips,

There’s a certain allure to an international climb, but the pandemic has reminded climbers of the excellent options available in the United States.

Hikers can choose to traverse flat terrain along a mountain or a coastline. Trekkers hike for a longer period of time, setting up camp or staying at a lodge along the way. Climbers trek at a higher altitude, exploring rugged terrain at low levels of oxygen.

With international travel unpredictable, many American climbers and trekkers – and some international ones, too – are looking at options in the U.S.

Gordon Janow of Alpine Ascents said his domestic programs are doing well.

“We’re full for Mount Rainier, which is a three-day climb. We’re full for Mount Baker and Denali is almost full for next year,” he said.

Lukas Furtenbach, owner of Furtenbach Adventures based in Innsbruck, Austria and a Global Rescue Safe Travel partner, believes U.S. peaks offer almost everything.

“Many of them are a perfect training ground for the bigger international peaks. Customers who planned international expeditions for 2021 are using this year to gain some more experience,” Furtenbach said. “For climbers and mountaineers, it is not too bad not being able to travel abroad.”

Penn Burris, a senior advisor at Global Rescue and former director of operations/CFO of the American Alpine Club, agrees.

“The Sierra Nevada, the Teton Range, The Needles, the Adirondack Mountains — there are all these places in the U.S. where you can practice your craft whether it be hiking, climbing or trekking,” he said.

How US Peaks Differ

Comparing U.S. peaks to their international counterparts exposes some distinctions and many similarities.

“Our mountains in the Pacific Northwest are very similar to that of the European Alps, however the lack of infrastructure in the U.S. provides a level of remoteness and solitude not often experienced in popular venues in the Alps and Nepal,” said Mark Allen, owner and lead IFMGA guide at The Mountain Bureau based in Seattle, Washington. Allen is referring to the custom of using Sherpas and other support personnel for non-U.S. mountaineering.

“Many mountains in the United States are remote compared to international peaks, where you can walk out the front door of your five-star hotel, put on a backpack and take a rail car into a Swiss Alp,” Burris said. “A climb in the Grand Tetons, however, there’s a six- or seven-hour approach to get to the base of the mountain. It takes a lot of effort to pack in before you even start climbing.”

Burris, who has more than three decades of mountaineering, guide and wilderness medicine experience with the American Alpine Club and the Colorado Mountain Club, notes climbs at lower altitude can provide the same experience as a higher altitude climb, minus the altitude.

“There’s a certain excitement going to Europe for a climb, but U.S. peaks will get you ready for your next international climb. Conditioning, strength, mental training, solo camping, practicing with your gear — efficiency translates into speed and that’s the safest way to climb in the outdoors,” Burris said. “You don’t have to practice at 18,000 feet; you can be at 7,000 feet. It’s a great time to explore your own backyard.”

The U.S. may not offer as many high-altitude choices, but there are some rugged options.

“In the White Mountains of New Hampshire or Green Mountains of Vermont, the vertical rise can be significant,” Burris said.

While Denali in Alaska is currently closed for 2020, the Sierra Nevada range in California is another U.S. example of a fast vertical rise, rising around 8,000 feet in 10 miles.

The North Cascades, a glaciated volcano with lots of snow coverage, is also considered an excellent training ground for any glaciers you might climb overseas.

“Many people don’t realize how world class the North Cascades experience is and they may be a Washington resident,” Allen said.

COVID-19 Protocols

Regardless of where climbs and treks are taking place, everyone is putting COVID-19 protocols in place.

Whether you solo or with a guide, Global Rescue members also have access to services for pre-trip planning and risk assessment, such as coronavirus hotspots and testing facilities. During the trip, if illness or injury occurs while you are 100 miles away from home, field rescue and emergency medical evacuation services are available.

Furtenbach Adventures offers a 100% refund policy for cancelled trips, as well as enforcing physical distancing, reliance on small groups, use of masks during transport, gear disinfection and insurance.

“For our basecamps for international expeditions in 2021 we are testing on location with FDA-approved equipment. We plan to run our basecamps as closed systems with every person that enters being tested on the spot by our team doctor,” Furtenbach said.

Greg Vernovage, program director and Everest expedition leader at International Mountain Guides and a Global Rescue Safe Travel partner, has put in more than two dozen protocols for his Mount Rainier climb.

“We would always drive people to Mount Rainier, now you have to self-drive. We have a gear check at our office, which is done outside in groups of four or less. We’re not cooking for clients anymore; instead we’re providing hot water for freeze-dried meal prep,” he said. 

So, how do climbers and trekkers feel about all this? Customer attitudes have been understanding and positive.

“People are excited to get back to doing the things they love. People recognize and appreciate the lengths we go to in order to mitigate exposure to programs. Feedback has been good,” Allen said.

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