Will There Be a 2020 Karakoram Climbing Season?

With the 2020 spring climbing season in the Himalaya already cancelled, leaving Everest, Lhotse, and other big peaks completely empty, the mountaineering community has found itself on lockdown due to the coronavirus. But climbers have already started looking ahead and are asking themselves when it will be safe to return to the mountains. Some believe that the spring is likely to be a total loss, although the summer may still provide some opportunities to return to the mountains. In fact, those who have expeditions planned for the Karakoram in a few months are still holding out hope that those climbs can go off as scheduled. At the moment, that seems a bit overly optimistic, although ExWeb believes that it could very welll happen.

Generally speaking, the Karakoram climbing season takes place from roughly early-June through late-August, depending on which peaks a climber is focusing on. The crown jewels of the region include Broad Peak, Nanga Parbat, and K2, although there are a number of other “lesser” peaks that are outstanding as well. Those mountains all fall within the borders of Pakistan, which is currently on lockdown due to the COVID-19 virus. As of this writing, that country has seen a little more than 7000 infections thus far and suffered 135 deaths. Those are fairly small numbers and the Pakistani government hopes to contain the spread, preventing it from getting further out of hand. If by June it feels that it has a good handle on the situation, it is possible that it will allow climbers to continue with their expeditions as planned.

The problem is, most of those climbers can’t wait until June to decide if they are going to the Karakoram to go climbing this year. Most will have to begin making those decisions within the next few weeks, as booking airfare, scheduling time away from work or home, and physically preparing for a demanding expedition takes time. Still, there is a glimmer of hope that some climbers will get the chance to travel to Pakistan for the 2020 climbing season, which would help bolster the local economy and help both western and Nepali operators who have been hit hard by the closure of the Himalaya.

In putting together this article, ExWeb actually looked at some of the plans for the summer season and found a few things of note. For instance, Imagine Nepal is looking to lead a team to Nanga Parbat, but rather than go in early June, when the mountain is traditionally climbed, they’ll aim for a late-August or early-September expedition instead. At those times, the conditions still remain stable in terms of weather, while also providing two extra months for the pandemic to subside. That said, even if things have improved, international travel will still likely prove to be challenging at that point, with social distancing and only small group gatherings remaining the norm.

The ExWeb story does say that Pakistani officials are considering reopening their borders to foreign visitors as well, with the caveat that they’ll require a proof that they are coronavirus-free via a negative test taken 24 hours before their departure. That seems like a tall order at the moment, when tests are often slow and in short supply. Still, it is a good guideline to have in place and makes a lot of sense for keeping people safe and trying to avoid reintroduction of COVID-19 to a population that is starting to rebound.

While the summer Karakoram season is still a couple of months off, I personally feel that it is overly optimistic to believe that it will happen this year. Health officials have already begun warning us of a potential second wave of infections, but even if things are relatively under control, the risks will remain high until a vaccine is found. Rushing to reopen national borders or pushing to get things back to “normal” too quickly could have disastrous consequences. Perhaps the idea of climbing expeditions arriving later in the summer will prove viable, but June seems too early right now. Even the fall climbing season in the Himalaya is a big question mark at this point, as the rest of 2020 will likely to remain strange and uncharted territory.

That said, I’m as eager as anyone to follow along with these expeditions once again. I’m missing the Everest coverage greatly right now. But staying healthy and safe takes precedent over everything else, not just for ourselves, but those around us. Let’s stay patient a bit longer. The mountains will still be there.