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As Climbers Return to Everest, an Already Dangerous Ascent Becomes Extra Perilous


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Nepal, desperate for tourist money, says it has taken steps to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, including social distancing at base camp and evacuation plans in case Covid-19 flares up.

Bahrain’s Everest expedition climbers working out at a gym in Kathmandu,  Nepal, before heading to the Everest region. Bahrain’s Everest expedition climbers working out at a gym in Kathmandu,  Nepal, before heading to the Everest region.Credit…Uma Bista for The New York Times

April 4, 2021

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Mark Pattison played wide receiver for three National Football League teams in the 1980s. Now he wants to fulfill another dream: to climb all seven of the world’s highest peaks, including Mount Everest.

To prepare, Mr. Pattison, 59, packed weatherproof outerwear, polarized goggles and ice crampons. But he is climbing Mount Everest in the midst of a global pandemic. He has supplemented his usual gear with face masks, gloves and sanitizer. He took out extra insurance to pay for a rescue if Covid-19 strikes.

The coronavirus is resurging in South Asia, but Mr. Pattison is undaunted. “I wanted to be there,” he said, “in Nepal, this spring, at any cost.”

Nepal has reopened Mount Everest and its seven other 26,200-foot-plus peaks in the hope of a mountain-climbing rebound. The tiny Himalayan country was forced to close trails last year, dealing its economy a devastating blow. For this year’s climbing season, from March to May, Nepal has granted more than 300 climbers the licenses needed to ascend Mount Everest. Many of those climbers hope to reach the summit, 5.5 miles above sea level.

The pandemic has made the already deadly climb — traffic on Mount Everest contributed to 11 deaths in 2019 — even more hazardous. Local officials have instituted testing, mask and social-distancing requirements, stationed medical personnel at the Mount Everest Base Camp and made plans to swoop in and pick up infected climbers. Climbers are typically greeted in Kathmandu with raucous parties thrown by expedition staffers. But not this year.

ImageNepal has reopened Mount Everest and its seven other 26,200-foot-plus peaks in the hopes of a mountain-climbing rebound. Nepal has reopened Mount Everest and its seven other 26,200-foot-plus peaks in the hopes of a mountain-climbing rebound.Credit…Prakash Mathema/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“No party. No handshake. No hug. Just ‘Namaste,’” said Lakpa Sherpa, whose agency is taking 19 climbers to Everest this spring, referring to the South Asian greeting.

Mr. Pattison’s expedition group and others will set off this week toward base camp. The climbing season has drawn some high-profile mountaineers, including a Bahraini prince with a large entourage and a Qatari who wants to be the first woman from her nation to make the climb.

Nepalese officials have set new pandemic-era requirements for them. At the airport in Kathmandu, the capital, incoming travelers must show negative RT-PCR test results or provide vaccination certificates. Climbers initially had to get additional insurance, adding to the average $50,000 price tag to climb Everest, though the government has loosened that requirement.

Still, tourism ministry officials and expedition agencies acknowledge that Nepal has no clear plan to test or isolate climbers if one tests positive for the virus.

“We have no other options,” said Rudra Singh Tamang, the head of Nepal’s tourism department. “We need to save the mountaineering economy.”

Waiting for customers in Kathmandu last year.Credit…Rebecca Conway for The New York Times

Expedition companies have been advised to isolate anyone with symptoms and to ensure that paying climbers and staff members are tested before setting out, said Mr. Tamang.

Among those heading to base camp this week is Adriana Brownlee, a British national who dropped out of Bath University to pursue a career climbing the world’s toughest peaks. She said Nepal appeared safe compared to her home country, but also that the risk was worth it for the Nepalis and for climbers.

“They need that support from the climbing community,” she said. “It’s good for the climbers as well, just for the sake of their mental health. They depend on this and I also do.”

Ms. Brownlee, 20, said she was “going absolutely nuts” during lockdown with her parents last year in London. She trained for Everest by running up and down the stairs with a heavy backpack for two hours daily.

“If I couldn’t climb this year,” she said, “I’d probably be depressed at home.”

Nepal, one of the poorest countries in Asia, is taking a calculated risk. In 2019, tourism brought in $2 billion in revenue and employed about a million people. For tens of thousands of Nepalis, the three-month climbing season is the only opportunity for paid work.

Lakpa Sherpa, managing director of Pioneer Adventure, checking oxygen masks and cylinders before sending them to Everest Base Camp for this year’s expedition.Credit…Uma Bista for The New York Times

The damage from last year’s closure was immense. At least 1.5 million people in the country of 30 million lost jobs or substantial income during the pandemic, according to Nepal’s National Planning Commission.

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