Spring returns to Nepal’s mountaineering

The summit of Mt Everest taken in 2019 by Karma Tenzing. In the foreground is the remnant of the Hillary Step that came down during the 2015 earthquake. Photo: Karma Tenzing / Nepali Times Archive

A year to the day after Nepal went into its first Covid-19 lockdown on 23 March 2020, climbers are back at Mt Everest Base Camp as high altitude guides start fixing ropes and ladders up the Khumbu Icefall.

The Department of Tourism says nearly 300 foreign climbers are expected to attempt climbing Everest this year, and the numbers are high because of pent-up demand as well as the Chinese side of the world’s highest mountain being closed indefinitely.

Many mountaineers had cancelled their plans after Europe went into a second coronavirus wave, and with Nepal requiring a 7-day hotel quarantine on arrival in Kathmandu. However, the government’s decision on Sunday to waive quarantine for tourists with vaccine passes means the numbers might go up.

In 2019, there were 381 foreign climbers on Mt Everest, and many of them bunched up during a two-day weather window on 22 May, creating a traffic jam below the summit. Because of the bad publicity, Nepal revised its rules and required those attempting Everest to have climbed at least one Himalayan peak above 6,500m high.

The re-opening of Mt Everest and other mountains in Nepal this climbing season has finally provided a ray of hope to hundreds of thousands of lodge owners, porters, cooks and expedition employees who have been without income for a year. Even so, the fear that the second wave hitting India may come to Nepal like last year has prompted the government to issue public warnings about masking up and avoiding crowds.

There are altogether 30 expeditions attempting Mt Everest, and some of them including a 15-member team from the Bahraini Royal Guard have already completed their quarantines and established Base Camp on the Khumbu Icefall.

“The climbers are moving in all kinds of supplies, from food, tents, gear to stacks of oxygen cylinders to Base Camp,” says Mingma Sherpa of Himalayan Trail Blazers, an expedition support company.

Mira Acharya, the head of the Mountaineering Divison at the Department of Tourism told Nepali Times that all climbers have been asked to strictly follow safety and health protocols. She added: “We have opened up this spring only after ensuring that all back-up support is in place for health and safety of climbers and support staff as well as search and rescue and other security measures.”

However, the government’s announcement last week that climbers would not be allowed to post on social media photographs of themselves on the mountains without permission has made Nepal the laughing stock of the world for coming up with yet another absurd and un-enforceable rule.

“As usual the Nepal government is not trying to solve the real problem,” said one mountaineer who did not want to be named. “It should be the crowds of amateurs who should be stopped, not taking pictures of them. This is censorship.”

Acharya from the Mountaineering Division, however, clarified: “There has been a great deal of negative coverage about Everest … this is an attempt to prevent that. This is rule is applicable to expeditions on other mountains as well.”

Despite the predictable bungling, Nepal’s mountains are still a great draw, and the fact that there so many other expeditions on mountains besides Mt Everest proves the point. There are climbers this season on other eight thousanders like Lhotse, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu, as well as Ama Dablam, Nuptse and other lesser peaks.

With the onset of March, there has been a surge in applications for climbing permits and flight bookings. “Tourism businesses are hoping that the economy that has been suspended since the beginning of the pandemic will pick up now,” said Dipendra Karna of Buddha Airlines, which has seen a healthy growth in domestic traffic.

Bahrain’s Royal Guard was the only foreign expedition to receive a special permit to climb Manaslu during the pandemic, and acclimatised on Lobuje is the Khumbu before that.

The team has returned to scale Mount Everest in April-May, and according to the team's Instagram, all members of the Bahraini Everest team were vaccinated before flying in. However, it also brought 2,000 doses of the Chinese Sinovac to inoculate the people of Samagaon in Upper Gorkha, but the vaccine has not got approval from the Ministry of Health yet.

On Everest, Kami Rita Sherpa hopes to make his 25th Everest summit this spring, while Lukas Furtenbach of California-based guiding company, Furtenbach Adventures is assisting 22 climbers in five teams, two of them on Everest.

Three Nepali women, Maya Sherpa, Poornima Shrestha and Sharmila Syangtyan will be climbing Annapurna I from the north side. Annapurna is the tenth highest mountain in the world, and regarded as one of the most dangerous in the Himalaya, mainly because of avalanche and rockfall danger. One in three climbers attempting the peak does not make it down alive.

Meanwhile, Slovak climber Peter Hamor and Romanians Horia Colibasanu and Marius Ganu are gearing up for Dhaulagiri, and another attempt to complete their 2019 route along the formidable northwest ridge of the world;’s seventh highest mountain. Also on Dhaulagiri northwest ridge is Carla Perez from the US.