Climbing and all other tourist activities will reopen in Nepal in time for the fall season the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation announced July 21. This follows the Nepali government’s announcement that all international and domestic flights will resume starting August 17, The Himalayan Times reported.
The news comes after Nepal closed Everest to expeditions earlier this spring in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 within its borders.
According to DoT spokesperson Meera Acharya, the Tourism Department has begun creating guidelines for climbers arriving during the post-August-17 period. The Department will release a Standard Operating Procedure for climbing and trekking agencies during the fall season.
Adrian Ballinger, founder and head guide of Alpenglow Expeditions, wrote in an email to Rock and Ice that “seeing Nepal’s announcement is both exciting and concerning.”
“We are excited to utilize our experience and conservative decision-making to safely operate trips,” wrote Ballinger. “At the same time we are concerned not all operators will operate with safety first in mind, and that Nepal’s health system will struggle to keep up with testing and treatment needs for the inevitable outbreaks.”
Most expedition operators that resume trips will run expeditions on popular peaks like Manaslu and Ama Dablam, with others potentially seeing more traffic once flights resume, Iswari Poudel, Vice-president of the Expedition Operators Association, told The Himalayan Times.
But many companies are unlikely to resume operations this year. Lukas Furtenbach, owner of Furtenbach Adventures, noted that countries from which most expedition members hail—like the U.S., Russia, and countries in Europe, South America and the Middle East—are still in the middle of the pandemic. People are afraid of a second wave of the virus, as well as new quarantine requirements that may prevent them from returning home.
There are too many unknown variables and factors at play in mounting an expedition at this time, Furtenbach believes. “I think running an expedition now would be trial and error,” said Furtenbach in an email to Rock and Ice. “Trial and error was never our strategy for expeditions, where we are responsible for the lives of our staff and our clients.”
The risks associated with one person on an expedition team having COVID-19 are high. The immune system is already weakened by exhaustion, the cold, and lower levels of oxygen at high altitudes. The close quarters of a typical basecamp setup, in addition, are ideal for the virus to spread quickly.
Furtenbach decided to cancel this year’s fall expeditions, instead focusing on developing health and safety protocols for basecamps in 2021, “when we hopefully can be back on the high mountains,” he said. The protocols will include making basecamps closed systems and testing people before they enter.
Meanwhile, Ballinger and Alpenglow Expeditions have been working hard this summer to have COVID-19 safety plans ready for whenever international expeditions got the greenlight. They have new protocols built around private groups, dedicated vehicles, single accommodations and testing requirements for guides and members.
“While tourism dollars, and therefore travel, are essential for the survival of countries like Nepal, we must prioritize safety and health for everyone involved, and for the populations we visit. I hope Nepal as a whole, and all of the operators (local and foreign) remember this as we partake in the reopening experiment,” said Ballinger.