The hold that COVID-19 has on mountaineering appears to be easing. Viewed another way, some guides are taking more risks, so now it’s up to the clients to make their own decisions. However, it’s easy to hear what you want to hear, so this is a critical period for due diligence.
I spoke with a high official in the Tourism Ministry, and he said an announcement is expected soon to clarify the rules for trekking and mountaineering in the Autumn of 2020. Nepal officials already issued a notification that the Kathmandu airport will open for international flights on August 1, 2020. Be aware that these types of pre-announcements have been made before and not materialized.
Foreign Commercial Guides
By this title, I mean guides who are not Nepali based. In speaking with several companies, receiving marketing emails, and browsing their websites, it appears they all assume (hope?) the Himalaya will be back to normal by October. The usual suspects of expeditions include:
- Cho Oyu
- Ama Dablam
- Island Peak
Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering told me “I’m planning a Gokyo trek in Nepal this autumn, and have a few folks interested in Ama Dablam. I’d like to do these trips if we can. I understand that Nepal is still closed until July 21 at the earliest. Let’s see what happens…. I’m planning Carstensz Pyramid as well in late October.”
Adventure Consultants‘ Guy Cotter gave this cogent advice:
We at Adventure Consultants are as keen as anyone to get back to the mountains and especially Nepal. However, with the Khumbu being covid free and with vulnerable elderly up there in their villages I cannot foresee how the Khumbu could open without exposing the locals to risk of infection. We are very conscious of our social responsibilities and any operator who is not cognisant of this would be doing their community a disservice in the name of profits. Should the Khumbu communities declare they are open to tourism and with appropriate precautions in place we would be more than willing to return so we will await word on their position before moving forward. People would be well advised to curb their enthusiasm until they have considered the implications to all involved.
And Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures added to the conversation:
I am not very optimistic but we are on standby.
If Nepal lifts travel restrictions and if Airlines start to fly there in time, there will be a mandatory quarantine of 14 days after arrival and government is also discussing a 14 days quarantine before departing as well. An Island Peak trekking would then take 2 months. I don’t think that many would take this burden.
For weeks Nepal is repatriating their workers from abroad and many of them are being tested positive. But there is no real isolation or quarantine for them so Covid19 is spreading quickly. The numbers we hear from Nepal are only scratching on whats really going on.
Pakistani operators were also telling about their confirmed clients and groups until the very last moment. Some of them are still doing so… Fact is that so far not a single climber or trekker arrived to Pakistan. Now it’s the same in Nepal. I understand that everyone is desperate to get business and full of hope for their seasons but to be honest, I don’t see the autumn season happening under the given circumstances and global developments.
At the end it’s also a question who really wants to travel in this situation with the uncertainty of a second wave while beeing away.
Finally, Greg Vernovage of International Mountain Guides (IMG) contributed:
It is a busy week around Mount Rainier and our HQ as we are looking forward to getting back on the mountain. Until we see the first boots up high, I remain hopeful as you can imagine.
In terms of heading back to Nepal this Autumn, we have climbers ready to head to Ama Dablam, Lobuche, Island and the EBC Trek. That said, we will not and have not fully committed to the trip. The reasons which are perfectly understandable are that Nepal has still not opened to tourists or offering Visa’s. They have also not committed to giving climbing permits.
We are hopeful that we can return to climbing and trekking but must be able to do it safely for all people involved.
A vaccine and cure is top priority. It might be a bit of a stretch for any company to say they are “full speed ahead” for climbing anywhere around the world.
Internal Local Guides
By this, I mean local guides, and almost anywhere you look local guides are offering climbs regardless of their country’s COVID status, travel policies, and airport access. For example, Nirmal Purja is marketing a combination Manaslu/Everest climb this Autumn, as well as Ama Dablam (look for Ama to be crowded if Nepal really opens!).
Mingma G’s Imagine Nepal posted on Facebook:
We are now taking booking for Manaslu 8163m and Dhaulagiri 8176m. Both the mountains are guaranteed to run so anyone willing to go Dhaulagiri and Manaslu are welcome to join our team.
So I reached out to Mingma for details on why he was confident Nepal would reopen in the Autumn, He told me that he has a wide range of international clients, including from Europe. He went on to say:
This is a very difficult time for everyone. If we talk about Nepalese tourism workers then almost 90% of them are jobless since November 2019. Spring and autumn seasons are the busiest season in Nepal and our spring season of 2020 is gone. We are not sure about our Autumn Season 2020 unless we have our international airport opened and tourists come. We are hopeful our government will open an international airport from August 1 and we can welcome our guests to provide jobs to our guides, cooks and porters. Without foreigners we are jobless and our government has not shown any concern to us. So I would like to request all our beloved friends and well wishers to visit Nepal and help the tourism workers to earn for their livelihood. Visit not only Nepal but so many other countries where millions of workers depend on Tourism.
We at Imagine Nepal are planning to run 8000ers like Dhaulagiri and Manaslu in September, Himlung, Ama Dablam and Cholatse in October with some other 6000m peaks and few trekking groups. Beside this we have First Ascent project in November too.
Experts say Covid-19 gets transmitted through hands, eyes, mouth and nose. If we use face masks,glasses, wash your hands properly and maintain social distance then we can somehow easily avoid this virus. Beside these, there are several safety measures which we can adapt and run tourism safely in Nepal. Our Department of Tourism is assured to open in the Autumn season. Those travelers who are travelling with recent COVID-19 negative test and proper travel history might not be forced to stay 14 days quarantine.
As per my discussion with Official at Department of tourism, they said to have sent request letter to higher level mentioning to avoid 14 days quarantine for foreigners if they can show 14 days travel history with negative Covid-19 test. Because foreigners won’t travel knowing they have infected with this virus. Int’l Airport might open from August 1.
While this is potentially good news, the COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Nepal, albeit at a smaller rate than in Pakistan or India for example. The northern parts of Nepal, in the mountains, seem to have fewer cases but that could be due to testing schemes and reporting rigor. There are a few papers that link people who have lived at high-altitude for decades appear more resistant to the virus.
The Ministry of Tourism issued a long document called “Operating Guideline with Health Protocol for Tourism Sector” that covers protocols for hotels, restaurants, transportation, and adventure activities. Most are common sense items such as social distancing, masks, and hand sanitizers. However, this one that stood out to me, “Only Namastes, no hugs or handshakes with anyone at any time!!!.”
“The virus is not contagious”
But the local operators have a wide range of opinions. The trade group Tourism Pati had a series of quotes from local guides. They ranged from “Nepal’s tourism sector is currently going through the worst situation in history. Even if the government gave this time on the basis of what it can do and what it can do, those involved in the Nepali tourism sector like us would have a livelihood. But the problem now is that no one listens to us.” said Princy Tamang, a local trekking guide. Then Narendra Shahi is quoted saying, “The virus is not contagious. The tourism sector is at a standstill. There is no way to make a new plan and move forward. Earnings this year also fell to zero after the announcement of a lockdown in the season. The government should give us work, not relief.”
Sadly, Nepal is also seeing an increase in suicides. source
For the record, Johns Hopkins: Nepal is reporting 15,784 cases with 34 deaths and a mortality rate of 0.2 per 100,000 population. Compare this to the US with 2,852,807 cases, 129,718 deaths, and a 39.64 mortality rate.
For comparison, Nepal’s neighbors or popular climbing Himalayan destination of India has 673,283 cases, 19,628 deaths, and a 1.42 mortality rate. Pakistan currently has 10,766 cases, 123 deaths, and a 2.18 mortality rate.
As always I’d consultant your countries’ State Department, for example in the US, for the latest advisories.
This is the crucial statement from their website regarding travel to Nepal (or anywhere) for US citizens:
Global Level 4 – Do Not Travel: The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. Many countries are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and implementing travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, closing borders, and prohibiting non-citizens from entry with little advance notice. If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe.
UK travelers will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days upon return from Nepal. source Currently Germany bans travel from Nepal. source Australians must undertake a mandatory 14-day quarantine at designated facilities in your port of arrival. source
Quarantine or No Quarantine and Where?
Will Nepal really open in late 2020? I still say, it can go either way, but that may not be the real issue. Even if Nepal (or Pakistan, or Tanzania, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, etc.) opens its airports and borders to foreigners, can you get back to your home country after the expedition? If another spike occurs while you are on an expedition, the rules might change, dramatically in some cases, leaving you stranded. We continue to see many countries, especially in South America and the US struggle to manage this crisis wisely.
Are you prepared to be trapped outside your country for an indefinite amount of time? If you can get back, then you may face another two-weeks of quarantine, potentially increasing your lost income. Clearly, this is an individual decision based on your risk profile, financial status, and commitments.
Finally, I reached out to Mira Acharya, a spokesperson for Nepal’s Department of Tourism in Kathmandu. She provided the most clarity I’ve seen thus far, yet is still on the fence:
We have already made an operational guideline to open the tourism sector, Government also seems very positive about restarting our tourism sector as before but it depends upon the world’s condition. We are looking at the world’s scenario. If we can connect international flights regulally, our mountains might open for the autumn season.
2020 remains in the balance for me. I’m extremely sympathetic to everyone impacted by this crisis, but we must take the long-term view.
I’m expecting record crowds in 2021 for all Tibetan (Cho Oyu) and Nepal (Everest, Manaslu, etc.) popular peaks so if you can wait until 2022, that might be best. However, I also expect higher permit fees. China has already made a dramatic increase that makes Cho now an expensive climb, ~$30K, compared to a few years ago.
Perhaps letting the mountains rest a bit more, is in order, however, governments around the world must assist their citizens during this difficult time.
Memories are Everything
**All COVD-19 stats from Johns Hopkins University