With COVID-19 still ravaging most of the world and vaccine rollouts, particularly in the United States, developing slower than planned, coronavirus is very much a factor in the 2021 Everest season. At last report, foreign travelers are banned from entering the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and it’s unclear if the Chinese will open Tibet in time for the spring Everest season in May, particularly given the rapid spread of new COVID-19 variants. As a result, many Everest guiding companies are throwing in the towel and cancelling their trips for 2021.
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Tahoe-based Alpenglow Expeditions founder Adrian Ballinger reported on Instagram last weekend that his outfit was nixing their 2021 Everest expedition. “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, and we don’t want to risk our clients losing money for a second year by continuing to move forward with planning and committing funds.” Ballinger also noted that he still hopes to go ahead with other spring and summer trips in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Pakistan, and Russia, among other locales.
The world’s tallest mountain is primarily climbed either up the Southeast Ridge from Nepal or the North
Ridge from Tibet. The former route is the route used by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary in 1953. Traditionally, the Nepalese side is also considered to be slightly easier, and has seen more rampant commercialization and overcrowding in recent years, which has led to many outfits transitioning to the Tibetan side of the mountain in response.
Unlike Tibet, Nepal is currently open to tourists, though that is of course subject to change as COVID-19 develops over the spring. According to the U.S. Embassy in Nepal, a PCR test is required for entry for all travelers, and health screenings are in place at all airports. Full Nepalese guidelines specific to mountaineers are below:
— Trekkers and mountaineers must obtain a visa before arrival through their travel and trekking agencies.
— Trekkers and mountaineers upon arrival must submit negative results from a PCR test taken within 72 hours of departing their home country.
— Trekkers and mountaineers must have a hotel booking for a 7-day quarantine in Nepal.
— Trekkers and mountaineers must possess insurance of at least $5,000 USD against COVID-19.
— On the fifth day of quarantine, trekkers and mountaineers must take a PCR test at their own expense before proceeding with their trek or expedition.
The decisions to cancel trips appear to be a mix of ethical and economical. Many outfits are cancelling due to the restrictions themselves, while others, like Damian and Willie Benegas’ Benegas Brothers Expeditions, are fed up with Everest spring season in general.
The Benegas twins are moving all their future expeditions to the fall, to avoid the increasing crowds that have swamped the mountain in recent years. A fall climb offers a chance to give clients an experience more akin to how Everest used to be, said Damian. Even though it may be more difficult to achieve a summit, a September-October expedition allows his team to base their decisions on the mountain and the conditions, instead of having to prioritize navigating the morass of hundreds of other climbers on the peak. “It will be just us and Everest. Not us, other expeditions, and Everest. We believe we will see other smaller guiding companies, like ours, switching to Everest in the fall, too,” Damian said.
The cost of a fall trip, he added, will be comparable for clients. Though the rope fixing, for example, results in increased cost for a fall trip because it can’t be crowdfunded by the multitude of outfits on the mountain, fall Everest permits are cheaper than spring, so it ends up evening out. Though there will be no crowds to navigate, compared to a spring trip, “chances of summiting will be equal or perhaps less, due to the harsher conditions,” said Damian. “Still, this will help take people back to the true spirit of Everest, which is far more important, in my opinion.”