Will the Fall Himalayan Climbing Season Happen?

We’re now approaching he middle of July and it has become clear that the summer climbing and trekking season in Pakistan was a nonstarter. For weeks leading up to the traditional start of the summer season, we speculated as to whether or not there would be any teams heading to K2, Broad Peak, or any of the other big Karakoram mountains this year. According to most accounts, there hasn’t been a single foreign climbing team arrive in Pakistan thus far, and even local climbers and trekkers are staying close to home it seems. This has of course led to plenty of speculation about what will happen in the Himalaya this fall, where the operators are already planning their expeditions. Right now, there is a lot of optimism that Nepal will reopen for foreign visitors on schedule, but whether or not anyone will come remains to be seen.

Currently, the plan is for Nepal to open its borders on August 1, well ahead of when climbers typically start to arrive. This should provide a bit of a cushion for the travel industry there to start to sort out the challenges of restarting amidst the pandemic, but it remains to be seen what kind of restrictions will be put into place and if the country will accept visitors from anywhere or limit who will be allowed in. While in general, Europe has done a good job of flattening the curve, the U.S. is still struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19, prompting some countries to ban American visitors for the immediate future.

Even if travel is permitted, the number of people who are willing to get on a plane and go to a foreign country at the moment is fairly small. Most seem to be content with staying a little closer to home for now and wait for things to get better. That could certainly impact the Nepal’s trekking industry, which traditionally sees most of its traffic during the post-monsoon fall season, but it will likely impact the expedition organizers too.

Unlike in the spring, climbing on Everest really isn’t an option in the fall. instead, alpinists turn their attention o peaks like Manaslu, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri, and Ama Dablam. This naturally limits the number of mountiaineers that would plan on visiting in the first place, making the autumn a quieter time in general. If the upcoming fall is quieter still, it could mean that expedition teams will once again be practically nonexistent, or few and far between.

Last week, Alan Arnette reached out to some of his contacts amongst the top expedition operators to ask them about their plans for the fall. The responses were wide ranging, with some feeling more optimistic than others. The foreign guides are taking a decidedly “wait and see” approach for the remainder of 2020, while the local Nepali guides are pressing ahead with business as usual. Those organizers are booking trips and making plans, and as you can probably imagine they are looking forward to potentially getting back to work. Reportedly, 90% of Nepalis who are linked to the travel industry are currently out of work, so a much needed influx of cash is expected.

Realistically speaking, it seems likely that the fall climbing season in the Himalaya will be a modest one at best. More likely, we’ll see just a few expeditions here and there, and those will probably be smaller than in years past. The spring 2021 season is where things could potentially get back to something close to normal, although the state of the world could easily still be in flux at that point. Whether or not we have a COVID-19 vaccine by then remains to be seen, although it would certainly boost the confidence of travelers moving forward.

If I were to guess, I’d say the fall season will mostly be a wash, with very few travelers in Nepal. Spring could see a boost, but it all depends on what happens between now and then. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if things are shutdown—or at least greatly restricted—again in 2021. Hopefully I’m wrong, but I’m looking at this virus as being a long term challenge that we may not have solved in another year’s time. Until it is, we should all take a lot of caution regarding where we go and what we do.