The outbreak of the novel coronavirus in China could have a significant impact on the upcoming spring climbing season in the Himalaya. As the virus continues to spread t more countries and claim more lives, the severity of the threat that it poses become more evident. Now, with scores of climbers from around the world preparing to head to the Himalaya in just a month’s time, questions abound as to whether or not China will close down the 8000-meter peaks located inside Tibet, including Everest.
So far, Chinese officials have been mum about their plans for the spring season, but late last week The Himalayan Times published a story examining the current situation. In that article, the Times quotes unnamed sources as indicating that China will close not just Everest, but Shishapangma and Cho Oyu as well. The sources says that those mountains will be shut down for Nepali operators, mountain guides would not be able to take clients to any of those three peaks.
The article also indicates that those same guides have already seen a dramatic drop in the number of climbers planning on visiting Nepal and Tibet this spring anyway. A number of operators are seeing a dramatic number of clients cancel their plans in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Just how much of an impact is the virus having on the climbing scene in Nepal? According to Alan Arnette, Nepali officials are now estimating that the number of permits issued will be about half of what they were last year. In 2019, that number was 382 permits, but for this season fewer than 250 are expected according to Arnette.
Conversely, Alan says that most of the western operators are planning on this season being business as usual and are operating under the assumption that the mountains will be open. That includes those guides that operate not he North Side of Everest in Tibet. Arnette says that he hasn’t found any confirmation that China will close down its 8000-meter peaks as of yet, even though it looks like fewer climbers will be headed in that direction. Such a closure isn’t unprecedented however, and it could still come, even on the eve of the start of the climbing season.
What is most likely happening is that officials are taking their time and aren’t rushing to make a snap judgement. With about a month to go before the start of the spring season, a decision will likely need to be made soon however, as many climbers will be putting the finishing touches on their travel plans. April 1 is usually when Everest teams begin to arrive in Kathmandu, although those crossing over into Tibet often have to wait a little longer.
Even if Tibet stays open for the season, the dramatic drop in climbing permits doesn’t bode well for the economy of Nepal. The country depends on tourism dollars to help bolster its fortunes and without climbers coming in large numbers things could get grim. Local operators already survive on thin margins and a bad season will likely shutter a number of their businesses. The country is already facing some uphill battles, as tourism is down for the year in the early going, despite a massive PR campaign to lure in more travelers. As fears of the coronavirus spread, it could be difficult halt that slide.
As usual, we’ll be watching the Everest climbing season closely once again this year. As any news breaks on this subject, we’ll be sure to post it as soon as possible.