Often-overcrowded Everest reopens to climbers and now some are questioning why
By Antonia Noori Farzan
Last spring marked the first time in decades that Mount Everest wasn't packed with "traffic jams" of aspiring peak baggers.
With climbing permits cancelled and international borders closed as the coronavirus swept the globe, the world's highest mountain peak was temporarily granted a reprieve from disturbing scenes of climbers stepping over bodies on their way to the top.
Those days are over: Nepal has reopened to foreign tourists who test negative for the coronavirus and spend one week in quarantine, allowing the main climbing season to begin under near-normal conditions in April.
Mira Acharya, a tourism official for the Nepalese government, told Reuters more than 300 foreign climbers are expected to attempt the ascent this spring - only slightly less than the record 381 climbers who attempted to do so in 2019. That year, at least 11 people died on the peak, and some of the fatalities were blamed on the long wait to descend to base camp.
The decision to reopen the peak is proving controversial, with at least one tour company cancelling its spring expeditions over safety concerns. Meanwhile, some in Nepal want to see restrictions eased even further, as many of the cooks and porters who typically make a living as support staff for Everest climbs have struggled to feed their families amid the sudden loss of income.
Nepal has technically been allowing Everest expeditions since the fall, but the overwhelming majority of climbers typically make the ascent between April and June, when conditions for reaching the summit are most favourable. The Tibetan side of the mountain, which is claimed by China, remains closed.
Most of the overcrowding in recent years has taken place on the Nepali side of the mountain, which is considered the easier route to the summit. Tourists and guides typically bunk together in crowded tent cities as they wait to ascend the peak, creating the ideal conditions for a superspreader event.
This year, Nepal's protocols require that climbers sleep in single-occupancy tents and that communal dining tents are well-ventilated and allow space for social distancing.
While foreign travellers must provide proof that they tested negative for the coronavirus in the 72 hours before flying to Nepal, and submit to another polymerase chain reaction test on their fifth day of hotel quarantine, that doesn't eliminate the possibility they could still get sick once inside the country. Given that breathing at high altitude is difficult under the best of conditions, an outbreak of the deadly respiratory virus could be devastating.
In January, the California-based tour company Alpenglow Expeditions announced plans to call off its Everest expedition for the second year in a row. "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," founder Adrian Ballinger wrote on Instagram.
Other outfits, including the guiding company Furtenbach Adventures, plan to add safety measures such as bringing along a team doctor and establishing a closed quarantine "bubble" at base camp. Contact with other groups of climbers will be minimized, which will be "hard and sad" but necessary, Lukas Furtenbach, the company's owner, wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
Many of the climbers planning to take part in expeditions this spring have already been vaccinated, Furtenbach added, but the decision to go forward with the treks was a difficult one.
"To be honest, it would have been easier to cancel Everest," he wrote. "At the end we do it for our clients, for our staff, for our local partners, our superstar Sherpa team. They all need us to run this expedition. To feed their families or to make their dreams come true."
While Nepal welcomed nearly 12 million tourists in 2019, that number fell to just under 47 000 in 2020. Some guides aren't sure how they will survive without the return of foreign climbers. During the pandemic, many of these guides have returned to eking out an existence by growing rye and potatoes in Nepal's harsh terrain. "I often think I will die of hunger before corona kills me," Upendra Lama, one of the out-of-work porters, told the New York Times in November.
Tourism is typically a $2-billion industry in Nepal, with Everest expeditions contributing more than $300-million to the economy in 2019. Some there want the government to further ease travel curbs, especially for foreigners who are vaccinated against the coronavirus.
"For the industry to recover, we need the government to take a drastic step," Deepak Raj Joshi, former chief executive of the Nepal Tourism Board, told the Kathmandu Post.