Operational Changes for COVID-19

Updated February 14, 2021

Reopening and Continuous Improvement

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take lives and endanger the health and economic vitality of the planet, American Alpine Institute has worked hard to find ways in which we can continue to pursue the mountain recreation we love while minimizing the risk of spreading the infection.  Like society’s larger effort to grapple with the disease, this is a work in progress.  By following the latest news and recommendations for best practices from the CDC and other public health authorities, we have continued to adapt our operations to the changing needs of the moment, keeping our participants and employees as safe as possible, arresting avoidable spread of the disease, and continuing to lead trips into the mountains that build climbing skills and rejuvenate the spirit.

During the “lockdown” phase of COVID control measures in Washington state, we worked with our office and shop staff, guides, and medical advisers to re-examine every aspect of our operations in light of the “new normal” in which we all now live, producing in the end twenty-some odd pages of concrete instructions and guidelines dictating how we will operate in every situation we might encounter.  From the rental department in the basement of our Equipment Shop to belay ledges high in Washington Pass, and from our registration form to our guides’ personal notebooks, we’ve analyzed patterns of activity, contact, and communication, looking for ways to stop the spread of the virus.

Throughout this intensive process, we’ve been guided by a few fundamental rules and principles.  Some of them are concrete and lead to clear directives; others are more abstract, and help us see the forest through the trees.  Taken together, we believe they constitute a workable strategy to enable us to keep doing the work we love.

The Prime Directive: Stay Home and Get Tested If You Have Symptoms

Because of the nature of COVID-19, it’s hard to know for sure if you have it.  We can’t get a COVID-19 test every day, but one thing we can do is listen to our bodies and pay attention when we feel unwell.  In the pre-COVID era, many of us went out to work or play in the mountains despite having cold symptoms and that nagging sense that we might be getting sick.  In the COVID era, that kind of wishful thinking is finished.  It could cost lives.

  • Sickness policy:  Our policy is that no person will be allowed to work at AAI or participate in an AAI trip if they have any COVID symptoms. The standard we use is that even a single, distinct principal symptom, reported with confidence, and not obviously explained by other causes, justifies replacement of staff or postponement of that client’s trip. Managers and guides will, as always, exercise their judgment, but they are directed to err on the side of caution.
  • COVID-19 testing:  All our staff will undergo proactive testing for current infection on state-of-the-art PCR equipment prior to or during the first two weeks of their active season, in addition to ad hoc testing in case of symptoms or possible exposure.
  • New policies on trip postponement and employee sick time encourage conscientiousness and compliance on the part of both participants and staff.
  • Pre-Trip Screening:  We’ve added screening questions to our registration form to help us determine if participants will present a risk of bringing COVID-19 to their trip.
  • First Day Screening:  We will conduct a mandatory main screening on the first day of each and every program, surveying participants about their contact history and possible symptoms, and checking their body temperature and blood oxygen saturation (SpO2).
  • Daily AM/PM COVID Health Checks, conducted in both morning and evening, provide a framework in which participants and guides pause and quickly self-evaluate for symptoms (including an opportunity to take their temperature and SpO2) and to observe trends and other diagnostic signs.
  • Acknowledgement of Additional Risks and Responsibilities:  A new addendum to our regular waiver outlines our new operating practices and helps insure that all participants share the same understanding of our mutual responsibilities.

Principles of Mutual Protection: Requirements for Staff and Participants

The biggest improvements in public health have often come about from simple changes in habits, not from new scientific innovations or technology. Most major advances have come from small, reflexive behavior like boiling water before drinking, emptying standing water, trapping rodents, and washing hands. COVID-19, at least until a vaccine is available, is no different.

1. Limit Personal Contacts – Number, Time, and Proximity

This principle is universally understood to be the linchpin of all efforts to tackle the COVID pandemic worldwide – the foundation of “lockdowns”, but also of more modest forms of contact reduction, such as limiting business hours and room capacity.

When you’re standing near a person with an infection – an infection of which that person may be unaware, even when they’re highly contagious – the simple acts of speaking and breathing the same air can transfer small amounts of virus through minuscule droplets suspended in the air (aerosols).  Small amounts, transferred over time, can add up to an infectious “dose” that overwhelms the immune system’s first line of defense.  But by the same token, limiting the possible intake of individual virus particles at every opportunity limits that total dose and can help you avoid infection.

Each new person you come into contact with presents a new risk of infection – a new spin of the roulette wheel, so to speak.  So the number of people you see affects your chances of infection, as well as how close you come to them and how long you spend in their company.

At AAI, we are limiting contact in many ways, including:

  • Reduced Group Size and Ratios:  During initial reopening under Washington's Phase 2 guidelines, maximum group size was reduced to five persons total, including participants and guides, for a  maximum ratio of 4:1. Update for 2020-21 winter season through early January: Maximum trip size is six persons total. Courses that normally run with multiple instructors will be broken up into two different trips (or pods) to limit contact.
  • Social distancing:  We'll maintain at least six feet of distance in all settings where practicable.
  • New solo rental tents to allow every participant personal sleeping and cooking space.  Participants and guides are required to refrain from sharing camping space with others who are not members of their household.
  • Reduced seating capacity in the shared company vans.
  • Personal vehicle use: Participants will be asked to volunteer to drive themselves in their own personal vehicles to campgrounds and trailheads.
  • Changes to traffic patterns in the Equipment Shop to limit accidental contact among participants and staff during gear check and rentals.  We conducted time-and-motion studies to determine which areas of our shop saw the most incidental contact.
  • Occupancy signs and traffic control for the bathrooms have been improved to help prevent accidental contact.

2. Keep Air, Hands, and Surfaces Clean

This principle is behind a number of new practices at AAI that are intended to remove virus particles from media of transfer – the air, skin, shared objects, and surfaces – thus reducing the number that could contribute to an infectious dose for any given staff member or trip participant. 

  • Face-covering requirement: Staff and participants are required to wear cloth face coverings at all times when they cannot maintain a six-foot personal distance.  For example, climbers sharing a small belay ledge will need to "mask up" upon arrival.  The same would be true for a hands-on instructional session, such as for snow-anchor construction.  Some climbing situations will allow sufficient social distancing to obviate mask use, but many will not.
  • High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters have been installed in common areas of the office and Equipment Shop to limit the danger of aerosol transmission from a sick occupant to a subsequent user, and cleaning schedules have been stepped up.
  • Hand Sanitizer is now required equipment on all trips. We require each participant to bring adequate quantities to allow use before meals and snack breaks and at various times before touching shared equipment or other items throughout the day.
  • Rental equipment and vehicles will be cleaned scrupulously after every return, then set aside for a quarantine period to provide assurance that virus particles have disintegrated.


Risk Mitigation, Not Elimination

Though entailing many changes, both large and small, our risk management approach for COVID-19, at a high level, is much the same as the one we have always used on our climbing trips.  Since mountaineering has many inherent risks that cannot be eliminated entirely, our job as guides is to keep track of the risks, limit them as much as possible, and work within the probabilities. We do what we can, within reason, to reduce the hazards in each domain of risk, be it weather conditions, team cohesion, movement errors, or many others.  Infectious disease, in the form of COVID-19, has simply become one more domain of risk to be managed – albeit a risk that has greater implications for the wider community. Lessening the probability of accidents and errors in each of these domains lessens them for the whole trip, reduces the cascading effects of chance events, and allows us to proceed with confidence, even if not with perfect certainty.


If you have any questions about our COVID-19 Risk Management Plan, please don’t hesitate to call our office at (360) 671-1505.

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