High-altitude climbers are some of the fittest, healthiest people on the planet and their pursuits typically steer them miles away from civilization, but they won’t escape the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic that has caused travel restrictions and spurred quarantines around the world.
On March 11, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA), the organization in charge of issuing all travel and climbing permits across the Tibetan Plateau, announced that no one will be allowed to climb Mount Everest from the China-controlled north side of the mountain this spring.
Following China’s announcement, Nepal, in a late-night decision on Thursday, also canceled all spring climbing expeditions, including those to Everest, according to The Kathmandu Post. Additionally, the government has temporarily stopped issuing on-arrival tourist visas. The visa suspension will go into effect March 14 and last until April 30.
Mountain tourism is one of the backbones of Nepal’s economy, and Everest climbers alone contribute more than $300 million to the country, which ranks as one of the poorest in the world. This decision to stop all climbing expeditions will deliver a major blow to the local communities whose economic livelihoods rely on trekking and mountaineering tourism.
“One tourist supports 11 Nepali families,” says Jiban Ghimire, a Kathmandu-based tour operator of Shangri-La Nepal Trek. Speculating about the fallout of an Everest shut-down, Ghimire says, “It’s going to be very tough. Hard to describe. We won’t see it right away, but it’s going to be huge.”
Ghimire says that the real pain point will be the families who own the lodges, tea houses, and shops that are patronized by tourists each season.
“Yes, the government makes a few million dollars, but 90 percent of the money goes straight to the people,” says Ghimire. “Climbing pays for their families, pays for schools, pays for the bills. If we lose Everest, we will have a lot of unemployment.”
Uncertainty with COVID-19
Up until Thursday night, many Nepalis and climbing guides were unsure how Nepal would respond in light of China’s decision and the World Health Organization’s upgraded classification of the coronavirus to a pandemic.
Tenji Sherpa, a prominent mountain guide and former protégé of the late Swiss climber Ueli Steck, is currently in Europe and on his way back home to Nepal. He was supposed to be working on Everest this spring. In an interview on Thursday morning, Tenji Sherpa expressed his disbelief that Nepal would actually enact a ban. He said the “Icefall Doctors”—the team of highly experienced Sherpa who each year set the trail of fixed ropes and aluminum ladders for climbers to follow through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall at the foot of Everest—are currently in base camp and have already begun working on their route.
“If there is no Everest season it will be a big economic impact, not only for the Sherpas but the whole nation,” he said.
Nepal has a track record of prioritizing the lucrative climbing industry. For example, after the reports of dangerous overcrowding on Everest in 2019, when 381 climbing permits were issued to foreign climbers, the Nepali government announced new regulations intended to reduce the number of climbers on Everest in 2020. Yet recently the government backtracked and decided not to enforce those rules after all.
Containing the virus
The Nepali government has reported just one case of coronavirus, though Nepali health experts say that the question is not “if” the virus will strike Nepal but “when.” There are concerns about Nepal’s ability to respond with its relatively low rate of .7 physicians per 1,000 people (compared to, for example, the U.S. rate of 2.6).
“To bring COVID-19 to a less healthy and less well-resourced population, you can cause a lot of damage,” says Monica Piris, a climbing expedition doctor whose experience includes 12 Everest trips and more than 20 expeditions around the Himalaya. “You have a responsibility to protect them.”
Alongside the economic considerations are the ethics of travel to this region amid an unconstrained pandemic. Seasonal flu is already a major challenge for Nepal. Last year, an outbreak tore through the Khumbu and ravaged many communities. Many climbers fell ill, but the brunt was born mostly by locals.
Ghimire agrees, noting that most Nepalis live three generations in a single home, which could be a dangerous setting for this particular virus that seems to target the elderly. “We don’t have the infrastructure so an outbreak could be a big disaster.”
Even during the healthiest years, few climbers survive the two-week trek through the Khumbu valley to reach Everest’s base camp in Nepal without getting sick. Mountaineers and trekkers all stay in the same lodges and tea houses, which are typically small spaces with group dining areas. With running water limited in many places, just washing your hands can be impossible in this region.
“If you’re a virus, the Khumbu is an infectious disease haven,” says Piris. “You’re getting huge numbers of people from all over the world bringing their own mutated version of the virus. They’re all collecting at the same ledges, dining at the same confined tables. Even access to basic hygiene is limited. It’s as infection-prone as anywhere could be.”
Piris says she is “relieved” that Everest is closed to climbing this season. One of her top concerns as a doctor was an ability to distinguish a viral infection from other more common altitude-related respiratory illnesses that inflict Everest climbers, such as the so-called “Khumbu cough.”
“The idea of facing a particularly virulent infection at Everest base camp was not one I relished,” she says. “On a mountain you’re limited by what you can do, so you end up trying to treat for everything. Given where we would be, the logistics of evacuating people would not be easy.”
Capping a decade of ups and downs
Over the past decade, Everest has experienced a mix of successful seasons with record numbers of summits, prompting growth in tourism, and years racked with tragedy affecting climbers and local communities alike. In 2014, a massive avalanche killed 16 Nepali guides who were working in the Khumbu Icefall. The climbing season was canceled.
Then, in 2015, no one climbed Everest for the first time since 1974 after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, killing roughly 9,000 people, injuring 22,000, and severely damaging critical infrastructure throughout Nepal. Some climbers, although unscathed by the earthquake, found themselves “trapped” above the Khumbu Icefall and called in helicopter rescues, for which they received criticism for diverting a life-saving resource away from other areas that could have more greatly benefited from helicopter support.
The past two years have been defined by increasing crowds that set record numbers of summits: 807 in 2018, and 891 in 2019. This increase in traffic, with huge numbers of climbers all trying to squeeze their summit attempts into narrow spring weather windows, resulted in viral photographs of seemingly endless lines of climbers, clipped into a single rope. In 2019, 11 climbers died on the mountain, and some critics pointed to the massive crowds as a contributing factor.
Now the 2020 season will mark the second time in five years that Everest won’t be climbed due to a catastrophic event.
“Certainly not getting to climb Everest pales in comparison to the other effects of coronavirus,” says Adrian Ballinger, of Alpenglow Expeditions, one of the guide companies affected by the closure. “But a lot of our clients have been working hard and putting in a lot of time and money for this for many years. It is disappointing, but I think a conservative approach is warranted and I agree with the decision.”
Ballinger says he had planned to employ 22 Nepali staff and 10 guides and that his company is committed to paying everyone “at least something,” while also trying to give as much money back to the clients as possible. He says he hopes all guiding companies provide support to their staff in Nepal. “It’s not like they can just pick up other work like trekking work.”
Given the amount of traffic on Everest in recent years, contributing to environmental impacts, perhaps a “break” from the mountain—and the mountain lifestyle—could be a good thing. “Maybe it’s time to reunite with the family,” Ghimire says. “People in the West are so disconnected from their families. Maybe we can use this time to all stay at home.”
“I think it’ll be good if no one climbs Everest this year,” says Cory Richards, National Geographic photographer and Everest climber. “I’m smiling imagining the mountain standing by itself, unencumbered by the machinations of the world pouring down on it.”