Nepali expedition to climb Baruntse

The summit of Baruntse (7,129m) in eastern Nepal.

In what climbers say is an attempt to send a positive message to the world that Nepal’s mountains are a safe destination, a seven member all-Nepali expedition is all set to become the first to climb a Himalayan peak this season.

Even while 48 of Nepal’s 77 districts are under strict lockdown, and with the novel coronavirus surging in Kathmandu Valley and the country, the Nepal Tourism Recovery Expedition 2020 is attempting to climb Mt Baruntse (7,129m) this autumn season.

Said expedition leader Dawa Steven Sherpa: “We felt that we Sherpas had to do something to send a positive message about Nepal to the world. The mountains are here, we are here. So why not climb, since that is what we do.”

Although not an eight-thousander, Baruntse is regarded as a difficult mountain because of its steep and icy south face. It was first climbed in 1954 by two New Zealanders of an expedition led by Edmund Hillary, a year after he climbed Mt Everest with Tenzing Norgay.

The expedition will be flying to Khumjung and accclimatising on Mera Peak before trekking up the Hongu River to base camp.  

All trekking and mountaineering in Nepal has been closed since 24 March, and even expeditions that were already starting to climb Mt Everest and other Himalayan peaks in spring 2020 were ordered off the mountains.

The Ministry of Tourism has also allowed a 18-member Bahrain military expedition from the country’s Royal Guard commanded by Sheikh Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa to climb Mt Manaslu (8,163m), the world’s eighth highest mountain. The expedition includes three Britons and will arrive on a charter flight in Kathmandu on 15 September, but it has not been issued a climbing permit for Mt Manalsu or the acclimatisation peak, Mt Lobuje.

Dawa Steven Sherpa is a climate activist, tourism entrepreneur and a mountaineer, and has climbed Mt Everest three times, as well as Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Kangchenjunga and Cho Oyu. He also runs an annual Eco Everest cleanup expedition after each spring climbing season since 2008, and has removed 21,500kg of trash from the world's highest mountain in that time. He trekked across Nepal for three months on a Climate Smart Great Himalaya Trail expedition.

“This is not a commercial expedition and all of us are paying our own way, we hope to show that despite Covid-19 Nepal’s mountains are a safe and pristine destination, and we are waiting to welcome back visitors to our country,” says Sherpa. The only non-Sherpa in the expedition is photographer and conservationist Samir Jung Thapa who has also climbed Mt Everest and Manaslu with Dawa Steven, and accompanied him on the Great Himalaya Trail.

Dawa Steven Sherpa on the West Col of Baruntse last year during another expedition.

The Ministry of Tourism issued the climbing permit for the expedition on 4 September, the first such after the Covid-19 lockdown that has now lasted nearly six months. On Tuesday, Nepal recorded 902 new cases, taking the total testing positive to 48,138. There were six deaths in the last 24 hours, with 306 total fatalities.

The Nepal Tourism Recovery Expedition 2020 receiving its climbing permit at the Ministry of Tourism on 4 September.

Kathmandu Valley saw 396 cases on Tuesday, but for the past four days the number of those recovered has been higher than new infections in Nepal. Solu Khumbu district has seen 16 cases with all of those infected having recovered.   

“We are still suffering from the pandemic, but we have to send the message that we have to come out of this crisis, this permit for Baruntse is the beginning of that process,” said Mira Acharya, the head of the Mountaineering Section of the Department of Tourism.

The expedition has been waiting all packed up and ready to go in Kathmandu since Saturday, but there have been no flights to Lukla because of poor visibility. The climbers hope to reach the summit of Baruntse by 1 week of October.

Said Dawa Steven Sherpa: “With PCR testing, quarantine and isolation trekking and mountaineering can be made safe, and this expedition is designed in such a way as to show the world that it is possible to have a safe holiday.”