There will be no climbers on Mt. Everest this year, as Nepal followed China’s example in closing the peak for Spring 2020. While this decision effectively prevents a coronavirus disaster at the base camps, the announcement leaves climbers and expedition organizers hanging while Nepalese high-altitude workers will be among those hardest hit.
Everest is a lucrative industry for Nepal: each year, Nepal earns about $4 million from issuing Everest climbing permits alone. Permits cost about $11,000 per climber, and climbers pay Nepalese or foreign expedition operators additional tens of thousands on top of the permit fee. An expedition costs anywhere from $45,000 to $160,000 per climber.
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Not all permits had been issued for the 2020 Everest season by the time the closure was announced, so it’s uncertain how many climbers or guides would have been on the mountain this year. However the data from past seasons provides a window into what the numbers this year might have looked like. In 2019, a total of 1,136 permits were issued for Everest attempts, from both Nepal and Tibet. Of these, 720 permits were for Nepalese guides. The 2018 season saw a total of 855 permits from the Nepal side, 514 of which were for Nepalese guides. These numbers suggest about 600 to 700 Nepali guides will miss out on their earnings this Spring.
“I think everyone is in trouble because they don’t have clients,” Pasang Rinzee Sherpa, a three-time Everest summiter and freelance mountain guide said. “Spring is the main season for us to earn money so that we can survive the rest of the year.”
Most Nepalese mountain guides make between $5,000 and $8,000 during the Spring season—wages they won’t receive this year. The wages generally go toward supporting family members and living costs.
When guides can’t find work on Everest, they usually turn to smaller peaks or treks, Rinzee Sherpa said. However, in light of the coronavirus, Nepalese officials have halted all tourist visas until April 30. As such, earning wages from trekking trips is no longer a viable option either. This year, Rinzee Sherpa said, he will go back to his village to help his family if the conditions get worse.
Fortunately, some expedition operators have reached a mutual understanding with their clients, deciding to postpone expeditions to the fall climbing season instead of cancelling altogether.
“Our client, the 7CUMES Brazilian Sherpa team, is well aware of us staying back home with no income source and asked us to keep and use the $5,000 advance payment,” Pemba Sherpa, a freelance guide who has worked on Everest for the past seven years, said.
Despite the loss in wages, guides seem supportive of the Nepalese government’s decision.
“It’s a smart decision,” Pemba Sherpa said. “If we don’t have our health, then what we can do? Health comes over work and money.”