Porters with supplies for trekkers head towards Namche, in Zamphute, a village in Nepal.
Porters with supplies for trekkers head towards Namche, in Zamphute, a village in Nepal.

Everest's closure is a massive blow for not just tourism

By PAT GRAHAM and BINAJ GURUBACHARYA Time of article published Mar 24, 2020

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Kathmandu - Apa Sherpa knows firsthand all the risks of climbing Mount Everest.

The potential for a covid-19 outbreak at base camp had him just as fearful as a blizzard or cracking ice.

The 60-year-old mountaineer from Nepal who now lives in Salt Lake City applauded the decision to shut down the routes to the top of the famed Himalayan mountain over concerns about the new coronavirus.

That meant Sherpa didn't have to worry about the health of anyone on the mountain, including his niece, nephew and cousin as they follow in his Everest-climbing footsteps.

Now, he has another fear: How will those who work in the shadow of Everest make ends meet?

The closure has significant financial ramifications for the local Sherpas, cooks, porters and others who make their living during the short climbing window.

"I just feel bad," said Apa Sherpa,

Phurba Ongel was all set for spring work guiding western climbers to the 29,035-foot (8 850-metre) Everest summit when he heard the news nearly two weeks ago. He has already scaled Everest nine times and makes about $7 000 (about R122 000) per season.

That was money he desperately needs for his two sons' school, rent and groceries.

“Now," Ongel said, "I don't have much.”

Birds fly as Mount Everest is seen from Namche Bajar, Solukhumbu district, Nepal. Picture: AP

"It is devastating for the tourism industry in Nepal and abroad," said Lukas Furtenbach, a mountaineering guide.

By shutting down the passage through the south route of Everest, the Nepal government stands to lose some $4-million in permits alone. There are thousands of people who depend on the money spent by climbers in Nepal.

"They have no income right now. Nothing," Apa Sherpa said. “But the government made the right decision. The lives are more important.”

“The closure of the mountains has made thousands of people jobless in the mountaineering community," Tshering said.

It's setting up a potentially risky proposition in 2021 - overcrowding on the mountain. There will be a backlog of clients eager to make the trek, along with a new batch of climbers.

For the Sherpas, it's about finding a way to hang on after their source of income was halted. They're the backbone of an expedition — the first to reach Everest each climbing season and the last to leave. They set up the camps, carry the equipment and cook the food for climbing parties. They fix the ropes and ladders over the crevasses and ice-falls that enable mountaineers to scale the peak.

A porter carries crates containing oxygen tanks.

Generally, a Sherpa can earn $10 000 or more should they summit. Porters or cooks at the mountaineers' camps average between $3 000 and $5 000 during their three months of work. That's a significant amount compared with Nepal's $1 035 annual per capita income.

But it's treacherous work.

That's why Apa Sherpa started his foundation - to give young kids another route.

Born into poverty and with a modest education, he had no choice but to climb. By the age of 12 he was working on climbing expeditions. At age 30, he summited Everest for the first time. He had earned the nickname “Super Sherpa” before retiring in 2011.

His organisation - the Apa Sherpa Foundation - attempts to provide hot meals to students at the Ghat School in the Khumbu region. It also pays the salary of six teachers in Thame and provides school supplies such as computers. He's hoping to expand the foundation's reach into other schools in Nepal.

“If I'm still in Nepal, I have no choice. I would have to climb,” said Sherpa, who moved to the U.S. in 2006. “I have a choice here in America. I don't have to take a risk. I'm just trying to help."

The climbing community has seen an interruption on Everest before: An earthquake-triggered avalanche killed 19 at the base camp in 2015 and another avalanche over the dreaded Khumbu Icefall in 2014 killed 16 Nepali workers.

Apa Sherpa shuddered at the thought of anyone being at base camp in the midst of the coronavirus. He has plenty of family that still serve as mountain guides.

For most people, covid-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, with the vast majority recovering in about two weeks. But anything respiratory can have dire consequence at base camp.


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