Everest trek closed, open, closed, open again

This Bahraini team acclimatising on Mt Lobuje in September was the only expedition climbing in Khumbu so far in 2020. Photo: Seven Summit Treks

The Everest Trail that has been closed or most of 2020 has finally opened again on Monday after a confusing series of conflicting decisions last week due to a coronavirus scare.

The first Tara Air plane from Kathmandu landed on Monday morning after the airport had been closed since 23 October after an elderly local man suffering from asthma tested positive for Covid-19. 

On Saturday, a team of medics helicoptered to Namche and contact traced 123 people, of whom nine were found to be positive – all of them young men who are asymptomatic. 

The municipality, however, reversed its decision and rescinded the flight ban and on foreign and Nepali trekkers from hiking on the Everest Trail. 

A street in Namche was empty this weekend, after all Lukla flights were cancelled after a Covid-19 case was detected in the town. Flights resumed on Monday. Photos: Damien Francois

“They decided that since those who tested positive are in isolation, and every passenger to Lukla is only allowed to board flights in Kathmandu with a PCR negative report, it was safe to reopen,” said Apa Sherpa, who owns Numbur Hotel in Lukla. 

More than 60,000 trekkers visited the Everest region in 2019, but a tally board at the entrance to the national park at Monjo (below) shows that this year there had been only 3,728 visitors till September. 

Trekking and climbing income sustains the livelihoods of Sherpa lodge owners, mountain guides and porters. Trekking income and fees to enter Sagarmatha National Park also help fund nature conservation in the region. Tourism revenue from the Lukla flight is the mainstay for domestic airlines like Tara Air, Summit Air and Sita Air, as well dozens of helicopter companies.

The bulletin board in Monjo shows the total number of visitors to the national park, and other information for trekkers.

The first mountaineering expedition this year was a Bahraini military team that acclimatised on Lobuje in September before heading off to climb Mt Manaslu. Since 1 October, Nepali visitors have started arriving on the trail, and foreigners have been trickling in after 17 October and spending a week in hotel quarantine in Kathmandu. 

Only foreigners who can present trekking and climbing permits are given visas, and other foreigners are not allowed into Nepal yet. Flights from India have also not resumed.

The entrance to Sagarmatha National Park in Monjo, which used to be crowded with tourists in this trekking season, wore a deserted look on Saturday.

There are two expeditions attempting to climb Mt Ama Dablam, one of them already heading up to the mountain and another is flying  to Lukla after completing quarantines in Kathmandu. One of these is led by Briton Kenton Cool and includes Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdullah Al Thani from the Qatar royal family. 

There is also a trekking group to Gokyo and another small expedition to Mt Ama Dablam. Elsewhere, Manang and Mustang districts have said they will not be allowing outsiders without PCR tests, and have removed a rule about a 2 week quarantine. Mustang is the only district in Nepal with zero active cases.

A Nepali trekker with a lodge owner in Khumjung Photo: Surendra Phuyal

Most locals say that since the region’s economy depends on tourism, the Everest trail needs to be kept open as long as strict health precautions are taken. Ater local concerns about fake PCR results, the municipality is accepting PCR negative reports only from four hospitals and clinics in Kathmandu. 

Says Apa Sherpa: “So far we have kept Khumbu Covid-19 free, but there is no option for local livelihoods but to reopen. I support the municipality’s decision, and they should ensure that the PCR negative reports are enforced.”

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