Everest Trail reopens, but cautiously

Nepali hikers have returned to Khumbu, but Covid-free Sherpas do not want virus in their valley

Flying from Kathmandu to Lukla today is almost like taking an international flight. Passengers need a negative RT PCR report not older than 72 hours, have to wear masks, visors and latex gloves on the 45-minute Twin Otter flight.  

The Khumbu Valley below Mt Everest is so far coronavirus-free, and residents here want to keep it that way.

Which is why they have enforced strict rules on outsiders. Since flights restarted on 17 September, Nepalis who had been cooped up for months by the lockdown are making up for the absence of foreign trekkers. Non-Nepali tourists are going to be allowed to fly to Kathmandu after 30 October, although many trek reservations have been cancelled.

Ang Jangmu Sherpa (pictured left) owns Rivendell Lodge in Debuche which has a stunning view of Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. She is happy several groups of Nepalis arrived after the Bahrain Royal Guard expedition members came last month to acclimatise and train in the area. 

“It’s not just our Khumbu region where businesses are suffering. The entire world is affected by Covid,” she said. “We have invested a lot of money to build this place, and suddenly we are in the midst of this crisis.”

Aside from the economic difficulties, Ang Jangmu is also worried about visitors bringing the coronavirus to the Khumbu. But she adds: “As long as people take precautions, get PCR tests, Nepalis are welcome and that would be good enough for now.”

Records show nearly 60,000 visitors entered the Sagarmatha National Park last year, contributing more than Rs180 million in fees and permits. That does not include another levy charged by the municipality, and also what tourists spend on food, lodgings and paying porters. 

The spring season had just started in March when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the government cancelled all trekking and mountaineering, and tourists had to rush back to Kathmandu to catch flights out before Nepal went into lockdown on 24 March.

There had been zero tourists since then. In September, Nepali trekkers started trickling in and the only foreign mountaineering expedition this autumn climbing Mt Manalsu in central Nepal had acclimatised on nearby Mt Lobuje last month.

Many lodge-owners are happy that at least Nepali visitors are finally arriving in the Khumbu after a quiet spring and monsoon, and they see no reason why foreigners should be kept away, as long as they take health precautions. 

“Either the government should look after tourism-sector workers like us, or it should end restrictions on movements of tourists and allow them to travel to the Himalaya with necessary safety measures,” says mountain guide Dawa Nuru Sherpa (left) in the village of Pangboche. “Porters have no work, hotels are facing problems. We should welcome Nepalis, at least people like us can work and earn our living.”

Dawa Nuru was happy that his sons and daughter could work for the Bahrain Royal Guard expedition team on Lobuje, and is glad to see several groups of Nepali trekkers have spent night here on their way to Everest Base Camp.

Nepali tourists are taking advantage of attractive packages offered by airlines, helicopter companies and lodges in the Khumbu. Tara Air, for example, is discounting roundtrip Kathmandu-Lukla flights with four days to Namche and back for only Rs14,000.

“We wanted to use the opportunity to get to see Nepal," said Bishnu Parajuli from Butwal, who works in Abu Dhabi, and has been stuck in Nepal because of the lockdowns. "We followed all the travel safety protocols to visit Gokyo. It was worth every paisa we spent and every step we took. It was amazing and unforgettable.”

Pasang Yangji Sherpa who runs Sherpa Guide Lodge in Phakding was happy to greet visitors after months. As 27 Nepalis arived from Lukla, she had a busy morning last week preparing food and rooms for them. Her neighbor Indra Maya Magar, also a lodge owner, came to help. Pasang Yangji said, “It’s a crisis time but now I’m happy to welcome Nepali tourists. We are following health guidelines, although sometimes in the kitchen or restaurant it is difficult."

In Khumjung, lodge owner Lhakpa Dorje Sherpa, who has climbed Mt Everest and Ama Dablam twice each, looks worried. Khumjung is slightly off the beaten track on the trail between Namche and Tengboche, and few villagers wear masks. Last week, he talked to visitors from two metres away, wore a mask, and encouraged them to use his sanitiser.

“The PCR tests you do in Kathmandu may not be reliable because you move a lot after that test: you were in a plane, met people after that, you may have caught the virus along the way. We have also heard there are fake PCR reports,” he says. 

Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality in Namche, has set up health check posts along key trails that require PCR negative reports from all visitors. The municipality is trying to set up PCR testing facilities in Lukla and Namche, not just for trekkers, but also for the porters they hire who are mainly from further down the Valley in Okhaldhunga or Khotang.

“We don’t have the right health infrastructure at present for PCR tests,” says Lhakpa Tsheri Sherpa of the municipality, “for the moment we have no choice but to rely on PCR reports from Kathmandu.”

It is not just the tourist lodges that are suffering, Sagarmatha National Park also depends on revenue from trekker fees to finance its conservation work, and has been hurting from the loss of income. 

The Park’s Chief Conservation Officer Bhumiraj Upadhyay (pictured left) has this piece of advice to prospective visitors over the Dasain holidays:  “Please make sure that you get a proper PCR test before coming here. If you do so, you will know that you are safe and you will help people of Khumbu remain safe from the virus.”