Climbers on winter K2 are watching the weather forecasts with anticipation, hoping a break in the winds will give them their chance. Meanwhile, with the Everest 2021 Spring season only a few weeks away, there are lingering questions about whether climbers will go, and those who are, should they. Let’s explore the issues.
As almost everyone knows, both China and Nepal closed climbing on Everest in 2020. Two exceptions were for a team of Chinese citizens and another for a survey team to remeasure Everest. Approximate 30 people summitted from the Tibet side, but there is no exact number out yet.
The spread of the COVID-19 virus was the culprit. Early last year, the virus was beginning to leak out of China, but not everyone took it seriously. At one point last year, Nepal’s Prime Minister declared Nepal a COVID-free country. Today, they are approaching 275,000 cases and have over 2,000 deaths in a country of 29 million people. The U.S. has not fared much better.
Quarantine and Lose Rules
Last Autumn, the teams that went to Nepal reported the required COVID test before entering the country and a “soft quarantine” consisting of going out to dinner, taking tours in Kathmandu, working out in hotel gyms… not a very secure environment to minimize a virus spread. I can only imagine how lax it will be six months later.
Unlike Tibet, Nepal is currently open to tourists. According to guidelines approved by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation for mountaineers and trekkers, they were allowed into Nepal starting last October 17, 2020. Visit the US or your country’s Embassy website for more information.
If implemented, the guidelines provide that:
- Trekkers and mountaineers must obtain a visa before arrival through their travel and trekking agencies.
- Trekkers and mountaineers upon arrival must submit negative results from a PCR test taken within 72 hours of departing their home country.
- Trekkers and mountaineers must have a hotel booking for a 7-day quarantine in Nepal.
- Trekkers and mountaineers must possess insurance of at least $5,000 USD against COVID-19.
- On the fifth day of the quarantine, trekkers and mountaineers must take a PCR test at their own expense before proceeding with their trek or expedition.
There is talk of easing these requirements.
While it may be safe for a foreigner to visit Nepal, an asymptomatic climber or one who is exposed in Kathmandu and slips through the test protocol could easily infect the locals throughout the Khumbu. In 2020, only one case was been reported in the Khumbu, in Namache Bazaar, and it was said to be contained. But we have no idea of the real extent of the virus given the infrequent testing performed. I see how the U.S. has handled this pandemic, so I have little confidence countries with fewer resources can do any better. Also, keep in mind that Nepal’s government is in major chaos. Thus, any form of central leadership is hindered.
Crowds or Quiet
I had previously thought 2021 could be a record year on Everest due to pent-up demand from 2020, Nepali operators giving deep discounts, and rumors of significant permit price increases on the Nepal side, perhaps doubling from the current $11,000 per person.
Now, I think the opposite. With some operators canceling their spring trips, the number of permits issued might be down significantly. In 2019; there were 382 permits issued to foreigners on the Nepal side and 120 on the Tibet side. In 2021, that may be reduced by 50%, but we don’t know.
India is the wildcard. Indian climbers, many inexperienced, are eager to climb Everest and there is no travel ban with them or with China. Climbers from these two countries have been the dominant nationalities on Everest for the past few years. So even if a few foreign operators dropout, if the Nepali operators drop their prices to get business from Indian and Chinese climbers, all bets are off and the crowds will appear.
Another factor in my forecast is that three of my five Summit Coach Everest clients have postponed their climbs to 2022. They generally cite being uncomfortable with the ongoing COVID pandemic.
It appears China will not reopen the Tibet side but CTMA officials have hinted they will reopen their 8000ers (Everest, Cho Oyu, and Shishapangma) in the Autumn.
In many ways, it comes down to personal risk tolerance. Living for over a month at 17,000-feet is not the time or place to develop an upper-respiratory ailment. I had a moderate case of COVID a few months ago and am still recovering. While it impacts people differently, my experience revealed how severe this virus is and something not to be ignored.
A few years ago, the common flu spread throughout Nepal’s Base Camp, and 40 to 50 people had their expeditions cut short when they got too sick to climb. The notion that teams can isolate themselves from other teams at these large base camps is ambitious at best.
If you get sick, make sure you have the appropriate evacuation coverage and understand your home countries rules for reentry with the virus. Chances are that you will be living in Nepal for quite a while.
Operator Views: Safe, Not Safe, We’ll See
I reached out to several operators for their status. As you can guess, they range very a definite ‘no’ to a solid ‘yes’ with many in between.
Adrian Ballenger of Alpenglow canceled his spring climb on the Tibet side after saying in late 2020 that the CTMA had approved opening Everest on the Tibet side. Adrian has been running Everest northside climbs each year since 2015 (other than 2020.) He cited:
“Alpenglow made the difficult decision to cancel our 2021 Everest North Side Rapid Ascent Expedition this week. We don’t have confidence in Tibet opening for the spring, we don’t believe we can safely run an Everest climb in the current circumstances from the Nepal side, and we don’t want to risk our clients losing money for a second year by continuing to move forward with planning and committing funds.
While I am saddened for all the hard work our members, guides, Sherpa, local staff, partners, and the office have put in, and that we won’t get to test ourselves on the highest playground in the world again this year, I am thankful for what we ARE able to do. I’m grateful that we’ve been able to reopen our Lake Tahoe programs and keep them running since summer 2020, and I’m looking forward to spring/summer expeditions to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Pakistan, Russia, and more.”
I’ll post a video interview with Adrian discussing his decision later this wek.
Garrett Madison of Madison Mountaineering has a very different take. He ran a successful climb on Ama Dablam in late 2020 and feels the Nepal Government will ease restrictions (despite the growing number of cases.) They feel there will be around 200 Everest climbers in 2021, and there is no pent-up demand based on his few expeditions to other peaks such as the rarely climbed Mt. Kenya, Ojos del Salado, and the more popular ones like Kilimanjaro and Cotopaxi.
With our Mount Everest expedition beginning in just over two months, we are confident the season will happen. We believe we can safely run an Everest climb in the current circumstances from the Nepal side. After our recent 100% successful and safe Ama Dablam expedition in Nepal nearby Mount Everest (where we were the first commercial expedition team to enter the country since the COVID shutdown last March), Garrett met personally with the Nepal Tourism Minister, who assured us that Nepal is planning to continue opening for tourism. By the time Everest kicks off in early April, we hope that the Nepal entry requirements will be relaxed. However, we are prepared to comply with additional health safety measures, such as a 5-day “quarantine” in Kathmandu, special visa-on-arrival letters, COVID travelers insurance, etc., if necessary, as we did on our November Ama Dablam expedition.
I spoke with Gordon Janow of Alpine Accents, and they are cautiously optimistic.
“With guides, climbers, and staff all committed, we are looking to operate this season, but will wait until we get closer to departure to monitor the situation in Nepal. If we can’t run safely, within the acceptable risk parameters, we won’t go.”
And Mike Hammill of Climbing the Seven Summits weighed in:
“We are planning to run our Everest expedition with very robust covid protocols in place, and in accordance with the all the Nepalese government regulations. We are committed to safely giving our clients the opportunity to return to the mountains and our Sherpa and staff the chance to get back to work and earn much-needed wages.”
As for other foreign operators, Altitude Junkies, IMG and Climbing the Seven Summits are running Nepal trips. Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures and Kobler & Partner appears to be running at least a Nepal Everest outing. Furtenbach will go to Tibet if they open.
At this writing, I’m not aware of any Nepali operator rejecting deposits or canceling plans. On the contrary, Seven Summits Treks has published a year-long schedule for all the 8000ers plus other peaks throughout Nepal, primarily selling their trips on a low-price strategy. Nims Purja’s new guiding company is aggressively marketing Everest, as well.
The obvious play going on is money. The virus, travel bans, quarantines, have financially hurt so many people worldwide. So, while it’s understandable that some will set aside the data about infections and death rates, to run trips to recover lost reveue feels very inappropriate. I wish the global governments would come together to provide financial relief, especially for the smallest of small business so that wouldn’t feel compelled to tell their customers what they want to hear.
If You Go
As I’ve previously warned, marketing a climb and running a climb are two different things. If you book, make sure your deposit is 100% refundable or buy ‘for any reason’ trip cancellation insurance. It’s expensive but less expensive than losing your entire Everest investment.
Operators that are going are promoting their safety protocol, but just like in Nepal, announcing a protocol and adhering to it can be challenging. With so many people at Base Camp, even with 200 permits plus and another 200 Sherpa support and 50 cooks and staff, Everest Base on the Nepal side will be the annual tent city of 500 people. All it takes is for one person, showing symptoms or not, to spread the virus, especially the highly contagious variant now working its way around the globe.
I respect the operators and their decisions but to take the Nepal government’s assurance of a safe environment for the airport to Kathmandu to Lukla, Namche to Everest Base Camp is a leap of faith.
Best of luck to all, wherever you climb in 2021.
Memories are Everything