UPDATED AT 29 AUGUST
The UK government has removed both France and Switzerland from the list of countries exempt from the requirement to quarantine. Italy remains viable for the moment for climbers and mountaineers from the UK wanting to get their fix whilst avoiding 14 days of quarantine.
As travel restrictions between the UK and France ease, here is some information on how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected our capacity for mountain activities in and around the Chamonix area.
A fast moving and uncertain situation
It goes without saying that the situation is rapidly evolving on a weekly and sometimes a daily basis. This piece was originally written on the 15th July 2020. I will attempt to keep it updated, but it may not necessarily be current and you should check reliable sources of information such as government websites. Rules when and where they exist are being interpreted in a variety of ways. If rules are absent and instead there are guidelines or recommendations, the interpretation is even wider, sometimes even ignored and so you should speak directly to service providers such as hut guardians, lift companies etc. to get the latest picture.
My personal view is that risk management of Covid is similar to avalanche risk management in winter. We have a low probability high consequence situation, where we can never be sure of the exact risk level to which we are subjecting ourselves. But we can take certain precautions to try and minimise our exposure such as keeping to sub-thirty degree slopes and carrying transceiver, shovel and probe. In the same vein, the decision as to how much risk you as an individual are prepared to accept is a personal one, though the law will occasionally override those personal views, especially if your actions expose others to risk as a result of your behaviour.
With that in mind, let’s examine various aspects of summer alpine activity and see how they are affected by the pandemic, which at the time of writing is still ongoing.
Travel to/from Chamonix
Air travel is starting to pick up but is still far from pre-Covid levels in terms of availability and price. Many arrivals I know of in Chamonix at the time of writing have used personal cars and certainly it will be easier to maintain a bubble if you and a few friends can travel together.
If you do choose to fly, airlines appear to be making a big effort to keep travel healthy. Minibus transfer companies also have effective protocols in place.
At the time of writing, domestic tourism in France has exploded. Many hotels are fully booked, though some have taken the decision to remain closed for the summer season. To remain in a bubble, self-catering accommodation would be my personal choice, whether that’s in a chalet, a van or a tent.
Precautions in the valley
Up until today, there has been a wide variety of precautions taken on the ground in Chamonix. I estimate less than 50% of people wearing masks in shops for example. However, wearing of masks in public places in France will be mandatory as of August 1st.
I have been wearing a mask in enclosed public spaces and/or have been keeping windows open while travelling in private cars. This can feel awkward especially with people I know.
All uplift in the Chamonix valley is now working as normal after a delayed start to the season. I used the Aiguille du Midi for the first time on 17 July. Here is an image of the cabin:
I will prioritise use of gondola style facilities such as the Brevent and Flegere lifts. Places in the Skyway lift to Pointe Helbronner on the Italian side of the massif need to be purchased and reserved in advance. I should be up there this weekend and will update accordingly.
UPDATE at 29 August
The Helbronner is less busy as a general rule than the Midi. With both installations, the key is rto avoid busy times. Ascent last thing in the day and bivvy or stay in a hut, and descent first thing in the morning will minimise exposure to what is inevitably a high risk environment.
Most huts are now open, with a variety of restrictions. Some have reduced capacity. As per normal, you will need to bring a sleeping bag liner. Some huts are asking people to bring their own slippers, and some for individual sleeping bags as well. My personal view is that a night in a hut will be the time when exposure to infection is at its highest. A night in a hut will involve sleeping in communal dormitories where space is limited. Physical distancing will be close to impractical. Other people will be tired and in an unfamiliar environment.
I will place greater emphasis this season on day trips from the valley, bivouacs and camping to avoid use of huts, a view supported by the French guides association very early on in the development of the pandemic.
UPDATE at 29 August
I spent 3 nights at the Plan de l’Aiguille hut above Chamonix recently.
My client and I had our own private room, and on two of the three nights we had our own individal table for the evening meal. On the third night we shared a table with other people. We were more spaced out (in a geometrical sense!) than would be “normal”, but it was less than ideal. There was a good supply of hand gel distributed throughout the hut and the staff wore masks when in communal areas. Respect of the requirement to wear masks indoors was less than ideal from many (though not all) other hut users.
Precautions while climbing
The Syndicat National Des Guides de Montagne has been pro active in terms of providing protocols early on in the pandemic. As a result, the ban on climbing in France was lifted on May, with a short delay before multi-pitch climbing was allowed. Clearly physical distancing is difficult on stances halfway up a cliff. Here is a leaflet in French on recommendations for various mountain activities. You can click on the images to see them full size:
Please note it was published at the end of May 2020 and circumstances have changed.
Some key points are as follows:
• Wash hands regularly
• Use a mask if necessary
• Try to stay 1.5m away from others
• Use individual water and food supplies
• Choose quieter routes
• Roped teams of 2 are better than 3.
• Use liquid chalk
Most of my recent activity in the mountains has been single pitch sport climbing at valley level and multi-pitch climbing in non-glacial environments. I’ve avoided putting quick draws in my teeth. I have marked the ends of my ropes so that we each use a distinct end. I have been washing communally used kit such as quick draws and rope ends.
Instructional sessions have been less tactile and more based on visual and verbal delivery.
The New Normal
It would be nice to think we could return to doing what we did before. Many aspects of life have now changed and as a mountain guide I’m not immune from that. In fact, adaptability in a dynamic environment is a key part of a guide’s skill set.
I look forward to meeting old climbing friends and new this season.
If you have any questions or concerns, please drop me a line.
Stay healthy everyone.