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A Climber’s take on COVID-19

Guy Holwill and his family have been unfortunate ‘early’ contractors of the COVID-19 virus and last week, Robert Breyer caught up with Guy via Zoom
Guy and his family, Guide books by Guy Holwill

Guy Holwill is a bad-ass climber from Cape Town, whose place in climbing history is etched in the first ascents dotted around the country and the bolts placed around Cape crags. Guy is the author of Western Cape Crags, one of the earliest publications of climbing in the province and sometimes considered the first ‘guidebook’ of the Western Cape, an evolution from the pamphlets and haphazard documenting of climbing in the region prior to this guide. Guy was also a formidable boulderer, Silvermine’s Top Side being one of his favourite playgrounds. These days he still develops new bouldering areas and climbs at CityROCK with his wife Robyn and two children.

Guy Holwill and his family have been unfortunate ‘early’ contractors of the COVID-19 virus and last week, Robert Breyer caught up with Guy via Zoom to find out what it was like being a relatively fit individual and contracting this disease, what dice he threw in terms of severity, and how he contracted it in the first place.

Guy Holwill bouldering in the Cederberg

So you sound and seem reasonably healthy?

I’m definitely on the tail end of it now. I’m probably on day 15 today and it’s typically a two week/14-day thing. I should basically be done with it by now, but, I can feel that that’s not the case and there are some lingering symptoms. Compared to a week ago, I’m feeling massively better!

So how bad was it a week ago?

I started feeling fluey on the Wednesday – cold and flu stuff, just like when you feel a cold coming on. A bit of a scratchy in the throat. I woke up on the Thursday morning and I felt like I had flu, nothing different.

The only thing that was weird was that I couldn’t really smell stuff, and rather than being neurotic about having COVID-19, I was sure it was because my nose was blocked. Friday was the same, Saturday was a bit better. Sunday I actually felt cool – so day four I actually felt fine. I went for a walk in Silvermine, and then Monday, just completely bombed out.

Interestingly, after the walk around Silvermine, I was really knackered. I thought, “Damn I’ve got unfit during this lockdown!” I mean it was quite a long walk, but it was just a walk. It turns out it wasn’t just being unfit.

So on the Monday I felt really poorly, it wasn’t just the normal flu: body aches and fever and things you would typically think of with flu. The two different bits were: I couldn’t smell anything at all. I even tried taking some crushed garlic and like rammed it under my nose and I couldn’t smell it at all. And then I could also start to feel that my chest was not lekker. Just walking up one flight of stairs it felt like – well I guess, being at high altitude. I’ve never really been at high altitude, I’ve been up to Mt Kenya and it was much harder walking up my stairs than it was walking up Mt Kenya, much harder! It felt like some big dude sitting on your chest. I found myself having to cut my sentences short and have a breath just while talking to people. So it was quite obvious that there was something wrong.

I tried to get a test on the Tuesday but I arrived a bit late, just as they closed. I went back on the Wednesday morning and did the test. I went to the drive-through testing station at Blue Route, the whole thing took five minutes. It was really quick and easy, I won’t say it was painless, it’s actually incredibly unpleasant the test, you can’t believe it can go that far up your nose! By the time you realise how unpleasant it is, it’s done, it’s really quick, but it’s like touching an electric fence – you wouldn’t offer to do it a second time. It’s horrible. But literally five minutes I was in and out. I didn’t get out of my car.

After the test you’ve got a two to five day wait. I did it on Wednesday and two days was Friday. On the Saturday, the test came back positive. So that kind of explained all of that, and it was a case then of just figuring out what to do with everyone else in the family, because we’d been living together as a family for the whole time I’d been sick. So basically, everyone else has got it as well, but they all seem to have got off really lightly with symptoms. It’s not done yet, so it’s possible that it will flare up again with them.

Generally, I think the things that were distinctive; three to four days of feeling generally fluey, then a day of feeling much better and then you get a second wave that hits you – days five, six, seven, eight type thing. Apparently, that’s when the people that would end up in hospital would go to hospital is in that period. I didn’t have a temperature when measured, I had a really minor cough. They refer to it as a dry cough, you sort of cough and there is no real reason to cough, in fact you don’t even really notice that you’re doing it, but you are doing it. I didn’t have a sore throat. I did have fever – body aches and stuff.

The most amazing thing was that Panado made a huge difference, it normally does very little. If I didn’t take it six-hourly, the fever and aches that set in were desperate, like really desperate. If I took it, I was fine. It was amazing that it could make a difference.

Now we’re waiting out the quarantine bit. I guess I’m probably past the infectious bit personally, but probably the kids and Robyn aren’t just yet, so if I went out to go shopping, for example now, I could still transport the virus with me.

It’s a case of just working out how long do we need to wait before there isn’t any more virus around our house, for me to go and take to other people, because that wouldn’t be cool, and just trying to figure all of that out.

Then do I become bulletproof? Because potentially there could be a nice scenario at the end of this where if we’re all lucky enough that we come through unscathed, and there are no lingering conditions (which is still possible) well then can we basically just go back to normal life? Because we don’t have to worry about the virus anymore. So there are some very interesting unknowns there.

And how old are you?

I’m 49 and Robyn is 47

On a scale of 1 to 10, how sick were you?

I was probably about five, to be honest. Maybe a 6. At no point did I think “Okay I need to go to hospital now.” I didn’t get to that point, and obviously people do. But 70% of people who get it won’t even know they’ve got it. I mean 70% of people will be a 0. They really won’t know they’ve got it. I’d say Robyn is probably a 1. Aware there is something is going on. If I hadn’t been diagnosed with it, she would have just ignored it and carried on.

And the kids?

They’ve mostly been okay, my daughter was feeling a bit poorly the other day and was just moping around a bit, but again I’m not sure how much of that was psychosomatic. Once they knew I had it. They’ve been okay which typically is the case with kids. They haven’t been affected nearly as badly.

I guess then from a real health perspective, fortunately, the comorbidities – I don’t suffer any of those. This is cool, and I guess climbers, in general, are going to probably suffer from less of them because diabetes and hypertension are typically linked to obesity, which typically is not a big issue for climbers. And HIV and TB are typically linked to poverty which is not really an issue for most climbers, generally. From a dying perspective, I suspect that climbers are going to be quite low in those stats.

Guy bouldering on the Cape Peninsula

Where do you think you contracted it?

I’m 90% certain it would have been going shopping for groceries. I was only going shopping once a week, 8am on a Sunday morning, when there are very few people in the store, it hasn’t had a whole day of people milling around in that store who may be infected or not. I would then come home, I would then unpack all the groceries into my garage, all the fresh stuff I would wipe down with sanitiser and put it into a separate fridge in the garage. All the stuff that didn’t require refrigeration, I would stack out in one corner of the garage, and then as we needed the stuff I would then go and take it. And that’s kind of the only likely source. That Sunday would have been the last day of level 4. The last day we were kind of restricted with exercise times and stuff. Up until that point, I had gone out in the mornings, typically I had gone at 6am, when it was still ‘night’ because there were far fewer people; going out at 8am was just horrible, and that didn’t feel sensible.

So if the supermarket was where you caught it, I’m curious, what supermarket was it? Did they close in the end? Did they find a known case?

They’ve all closed and opened multiple times. Pretty much all of them. It was the Woolies in Constantia Village. It has closed a number of times already. As has Pick n Pay there. So, the most dangerous places are hospitals, but the second most seems to be supermarkets.

Did they do any contact tracing?

No, I mean I received an SMS saying: “You’re positive, this is what it is, if you want some more information go and check this website out.” Literally, that’s all it was.

We had a good chat with our GP on Monday, and so that confirmed everything we were thinking anyway. The main thing is just to isolate yourself. Stay away from people. Don’t just pop out to go and get some milk, that’s not cool.

So how did you do the shopping?

I’ve got friends who’ve dropped stuff off, I’ve got a bunch of mates who’ve said if there’s anything, please give us a shout we’ll go get it for you, so that’s what we’ve been doing.

I would say the one thing that was useful for others to think about, is that Robyn did go and get tested, so even while the GP and any level of common sense said it was 100% certain she had it, the reason for going to get tested was, if she deteriorated and needed to go into hospital, they first would have tested her and then only let her in, to be sure what was going on, a doctor mate advised us to go and get the test so you’ve got a positive test so that if you need to be rushed in then they’ll just put you straight into the COVID ward. Otherwise, there didn’t really feel like much point. We haven’t tested the kids, we’re pretty certain that’s the answer, and we’re not going to do anything different.


Why were you worried about not getting it? (the groceries in the garage etc)

The problem is just not knowing enough, not being sure that you’re going to get a light version of it. You’re not going to be that one unlucky sod, where either you die or you get some horrible complications, the doctors do talk about people with horrible complications.


Do you think, we in the climbing population should climb outdoors? What’s your take on that? Silvermine for example?

Climbers would be very good hosts for the virus because you’re unlikely to get sick, so in many cases would be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, which means you’re the ideal host, from the virus’s perspective because you can spread it to a lot of people. Whereas somebody who gets sick quickly, is likely to take themselves out of circulation, so I think that is important. I mean getting outside I think there are a million great reasons for your mind and body as to why that’s important. I think you have to be sensible about the whole thing. I don’t really know. There are times when you go climbing when it’s really difficult to avoid other people. You think of those days at Silvermine or Blaze of Glory when there are just too many people there, well that’s clearly just not a good idea. But, certainly, getting out on your own, well I think that’s probably a great thing to be able to go and do. As long as you can keep some distance away from people, I think it’s probably a good thing.

Some solid compression bouldering on Cederberg sandstone

And gyms? CityROCK? I mean we’ve been test-driving (I call it a beta test) these new rules for re-opening that have developed, with facemasks, liquid chalk (our own liquid chalk has 70% alcohol). It’s like a 10 page document that we’ve developed over the last month. But I’m getting really worried…

I guess the difference is that in CityROCK’s best day ever, you’ve never had your gym as full as a Woolies is on a Saturday morning? So that’s got to be the main risk factor. The sheer number of people that you’re ramming into a small space.

And if you can restrict that, you’ve solved the major problem. The biggest thing is that the people going in there are just diligent and if there are in any way feeling anything, they just stay away. If people do that, I think you’ve ticked the second biggest issue, and then you’ve just got to take reasonable precaution, I think you know, distancing is obvious.

Then again, when you’re climbing, you’re going to breathe hard. So, if I’m climbing a route, I will breath onto the holds and if the next person coming along does touch that hold, well I mean, they will have it on their hands, and if they then wipe their nose, it’s possible that that can happen.

I think fresh air is probably important, it probably just dissipates everything much more into the air. So again, I think the key things would just be A) it’s possible to maintain some distance, by not letting in hundreds of people B) the people are themselves being diligent.

I know people who have gone into offices, knowing they are sick. It’s probably criminal to do that. And it’s the same at the gym. Don’t just think ‘toughen up, it’s a cold, it will be fine.” Maybe it is just a cold to you, but to someone else who it turns out has some underlying illness, it’s a whole lot more than that.

So people have got to be properly diligent about that, and if they’re going to lie to you about how they feel, then you’re in trouble, but if they’re all going to be properly sensible about it then you’ll likely be fine.


Thanks Guy for sharing your thoughts and opinions here!


Please be aware that these answers were edited slightly for ease of reading but that any opinion in this article is just that, an opinion.

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Gail Daniel
Gail Daniel
3 years ago

Thanks Guy and Robert. Very interesting article. Hope you are fully recovered Guy

Guy Holwill
Guy Holwill
3 years ago

Thanks Gail, we’re all fine now.

Justin Lawson
3 years ago

Very interesting and good to know about the usage of Panado. My line of thinking is that we are all going to get this lurgy at some point.
Thanks Guy and Robert

3 years ago

Bla bla covid covid…….. never mind the lurgy – where is the second bouldering pic taken??? (Much more interesting 😉 )

Chris F
Chris F
3 years ago

Interesting reading, have your senses recovered, or are you going to enter some chilli eating contests?

3 years ago
Reply to  Chris F

Smell came back after about a week. It affected the nerve, so it comes back instantly once the nerve is ok

Andrew N
Andrew N
3 years ago

Good article. Thanks
Any idea how much lung function Guy has got back so far?

3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew N

It got much better quite quickly, then seemed that stagnate for about a week. I’m probably better than 95% now. My doctor advised against any strenuous exercise for 6 weeks

3 years ago

Looking in from an expert view (having worked with infectious respiratory viruses Corona and designing the tests and learning the connection of the body’s health from a systems view) the susceptibility is better well understood. Sorry you had to experience this and have also been helping those with slow recovery. All those that I j ow got it were all healthy and fit. There were common factors and that has helped us globally see a pattern which we can hone in on. How precious and fragile we can be to one time hungry and so resistant to another. Such valuable lessons.

3 years ago

Looking in from an expert view (having worked with infectious respiratory viruses Corona and designing the tests and learning the connection of the body’s health from a systems view) the susceptibility is better well understood. Sorry you had to experience this and have also been helping those with slow recovery. All those that I know got it were all healthy and fit. There were common factors and that has helped us globally see a pattern which we can hone in on. How precious and fragile we can be to one thing and so resistant to another. Such valuable lessons.

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