CityROCK is now open to members and restricted day pass customers under level 2 lockdown regulations. We look forward to welcoming you back to CityROCK! Please visit our Covid-19 protocol page to see our access regulations and policies.
Author – Claire Keeton, Adventure travel journalist and CityROCK Cape Town member
When the wind blows your rope sideways and hair into your eyes, coronavirus is unlikely to get a grip on you. The setting for this safe ascent: CityROCK in Cape Town, under lockdown level 3.
Climbing here has mirrored the breezy conditions of being outdoors better than any local or overseas gyms I’ve visited since it opened its doors, and garage-size windows, in Paarden Island in 2018.
Under the Covid-19 pandemic, the fresh and moving air in this giant space takes on new significance. A breeze or moving air disperses virus particles, reducing the risk of infection, says Wits infectious diseases expert, and CityROCK regular Professor Francois Venter.
The ventilation is equally effective at CityROCK in Johannesburg, mimicking wintry weather outside.
“The windows are wide open and fans going so it is freezing but hey, we can climb!” says physician Dr June Fabian, who is elated that CityROCK has opened up again – in a responsible manner.
This month CityROCK started to admit paid-up members, after implementing a strict set of measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The director of research at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, Dr Fabian notes: “They restrict numbers with an online booking system. They also measure your temperature as you arrive, cross check your name for the booking and there are hand sanitisers everywhere.
“They even changed the taps in the bathroom so that they don’t have handles. They have also added a cover to the autobelay handle so that it can be sanitised. Lockers are sanitised after you take your stuff out and there is half an hour between sessions to clean up. It is pretty impressive.
“There is probably more risk of being infected in a supermarket!”
Climbers are required to use liquid chalk with sanitising alcohol between routes, besides the usual sanitising on entry and exit.
The use of chalk “reduces the amount of model coronavirus on a plastic surface by 99%”, suggests preliminary research by doctors at De Montfort University in the UK. These promising results are yet to be peer reviewed and published.
Venter offered advice to CityROCK on infection prevention and control before they let climbers back onto their routes. The fitness areas and yoga studios are still off limits, though the shop is open.
“The gym has made it as safe as can be,” he says. “Wearing a mask is a pain, but I can live with it.”
Batman and Catwoman may belong in masks but for most of us, even superhero climbers, masks feel like a hassle until you adapt to breathing in them. But masking in public is critical – and the law – to slow down Covid-19 infections.
“Climbing with a mask is a bit of a pain but, if you use a thinner one for actual climbing, it’s not too bad,” says top trad climber Douw Steyn.
Steyn, who has led 31 on trad and with Gosia Lipinska opened Incy Wincy Spider (29) on Table Mountain, is glad to get back into training at CityROCK.
Given the wet winter this year, marked by waterfalls all over Table Mountain, outdoor climbing is often impossible.
The dams are at 77.8%-6% fuller than this time last year while many Cape Town climbers are who-knows-what percent weaker (except for maestros like Tinie Versveld). But the re-opened CityROCK can fix that.
“In some respects, CityROCK is better than normal since it’s so uncrowded. One has to have more of a quick power session than usual because of the short time slots,” says Steyn, who feels completely safe there.
Another hardcore climber, Jason Tan from Joburg who climbs up to 30, has been impatient to get back to training.
“The months of lockdown had me itching to get back on plastic. With infection rates rising however, it has become an ethical decision whether to regularly gather indoors with a group of heavily breathing friends and strangers.
“Since reopening, CityROCK has implemented their COVID19 protocols with the same intensity that ensures that lead tags are displayed, figure 8 knots tied, and belays safe. It is evident that sanitising and social distancing procedures are taken as seriously as climbing safety,” says Tan.
“Booking a time slot with a partner, waiting for liquid chalk to dry before each route, and changing clipping habits because you can’t bite your rope are a few minor inconveniences of level 3 gym climbing.
The new “normal”
“While these conditions are far from normal, being back at CityROCK (if only for 2 hours at a time) has restored a sense of normality that we are all desperate to return to.”
Tan is among many returning members who revel in the feeling of getting to climb and regain some sense of normal, whatever that means under lockdown and curfews.
Coffee is off limits under the current set up, so get your hit before you come climbing, and remember to book.
Marlu da Conceição, who is not a fan of the booking system, says: “It is worth it for the opportunity to be training again. The safety measures also strike that perfect balance of the ‘new norm’ and sanity.”
In our element
Members of Joburg’s INSIDEedge sport climbing club, who train at CityROCK, are also thrilled to be back on bright plastic.
Head coach for the club, Devin Sender, says: “The re-opening of CityROCK has been a long-awaited joy to our club members.
“Our coaching programme was adjusted to cater to private one-on-one or two-on-one training sessions in order to adhere to the maximum group numbers in the gym. We had 17 club members return to coaching in July, a mix of adults and children.
“They have all relayed that they could not be happier to be climbing again with the new protocols at CityROCK.”
Young gun Tegwen Oates, who could onsight 24 and 6C boulder problems before lockdown, is excited to be training again too.
“In my time training at the gym everyone has been extremely respectful to keep their distance even when I’m jumping quickly from climb to climb to keep the pump in my arms.
“At first when I started climbing again wearing a mask felt like altitude training, but it was very easy to adapt to. I feel like it has now helped me concentrate on breathing through my nose, something I would often forget to do.”
Keeping us climbing
Capetonian Kate Larmuth, a medical biochemist with clinical experience in cardiovascular disease, supports the safety protocols despite a personal antipathy to masks.
“Climbing in a mask is kak,” she sums up, but nevertheless she’s coming in.
“The first session back, the fingers complained from being cold- from both the evaporating liquid chalk and the gym air.
“But we seem to get more routes packed into the session because there’s definitely less socialising and more climbing happening,” says Larmuth, a popular climber in Cape Town.
Everyone I interviewed for CityROCK was happy they were open. Everyone felt safe, including me.
As Larmuth says: “I think the system they have set up is very responsible and gives us confidence in the gym that they are doing everything they can to keep us climbing and Covid free!”.