Mt. Everest 2021: An Update From the High Himalaya

The Mt. Everest 2021 spring climbing season is off and running, with scores of mountaineers now starting to filter into Base Camp. Most are just now getting settled in at 17,500 feet (5334 meters) as they prepare to spend the better part of a month or more on the mountain. Traditionally a summit push doesn’t come until sometime around mid-May, and in the meantime, they’ll spend their days hiking, climbing, and acclimatizing to the altitude.

As more and more alpinists have arrived in Nepal, we’ve started to receive a steady stream of reports from Kathmandu and the famous Khumbu Valley—home to the world’s highest peak. Those reports have given us a snapshot of how things are proceeding so far and some glimpses of what to expect in the days ahead.

No Quarantines

One of the biggest questions heading into the spring climbing season’s start was whether or not Nepal would require foreign climbers to quarantine before traveling to the Khumbu. Before the country opening its borders to outside visitors, there were conflicting reports. However, government officials had gone on record stating that a 5-day lockdown would be required for all foreigners. This prompted climbing operators and travelers alike to alter their schedules, allowing for extra time in Kathmandu before leaving for the mountain.

Now that climbing teams have begun arriving in the Nepali capital, multiple reports have indicated that a quarantine has not been required. In fact, most climbers have been in and out of the city in just two or three days, flying to the infamous airport in Lukla to begin the 7-10 day trek to Everest Base Camp. This has spared them from spending too much time in the heat and poor air quality in Kathmandu but greatly impacted the climbing season ahead.

Because there has been no quarantine, it is possible that someone could have contracted the coronavirus while in transit, coming and going from Kathmandu, before showing symptoms of COVID. That means they could also spread it to others in their group or introduce it to the Khumbu Valley, which has remained relatively safe throughout the pandemic. An outbreak of the Base Camp virus could also be devastating, send climbers home early, or even endangering their health. Hopefully, this won’t come to pass, but Nepal’s somewhat lackluster attempts to prevent the virus’s spread don’t necessarily instill confidence.

New Climbing Rules for Everest

Near Record Number of Climbers

In 2019—the last time there was a spring climbing season on Everest—more than 380 permits were issued to climbers. This lead to serious traffic jams and a viral photo of dozens of climbers standing in line while waiting to reach the summit. Heading into the Mt. Everest 2021 season, most experts felt that things would be much quieter. Conventional wisdom said that thanks to the ongoing pandemic, potential quarantines, and challenges to travel in general, fewer people would be heading to the Himalayas. That has turned out to be both true and false at the same time.

According to Explorers Web, there have now been more than 222 permits issued to foreign climbers to attempt Everest this spring. That is much lower than what we saw in 2019, of course, but an additional 100 climbers are still expected to arrive in Nepal. Those individuals are spread out across 23 different teams, ensuring that Base Camp will be fairly crowded over the next few weeks. It also means that there will be a steady stream of traffic heading up and down the mountain, with weather dictating schedules that could lead to more traffic jams.

While Everest BC is set to be a busy place, the rest of the Khumbu has remained pretty quiet. The spring is typically a busy season for trekkers, but this year it has been fairly quiet. At the moment, it seems as if most of the hikers in the valley are climbers on their way to the “Big Hill,” with most of the traditional backpacking crowd choosing to stay away right now.

everest icefall route
Photo Credit: Nishan Shrestha/SPCC

Ropes Fixed to Camp 2

Just as the first teams have begun arriving in Base Camp, a major milestone has been achieved for the 2021 season. Reportedly, late last week, the icefall doctors—the special team of Sherpas who fix ropes and ladders through the Khumbu Icefall—managed to install the climbing ropes up to Camp 2. This will ensure that the teams can begin their acclimatization climbs quickly, shuttling gear and supplies higher up the peak.

Widely seen as the most dangerous section of the climb on the South Side of Everest, the icefall is made up of pillars of snow and ice that form at the end of the Khumbu Glacier. Located just above BC, the icefall is highly unstable and features large crevasses that must be crossed using ladders laid horizontally between two solid sections of rock and ice. The teams must cross through this region three or four times over the course of the season as they acclimatize and make their summit push.

Having the route through the icefall in place and the ropes fixed up to Camp 2 means that things are running right on schedule. This will allow for several weeks of preparation before the arrival of a good weather window, which historically has come around May 15, give or take a few days. When that window opens, all of the teams will be on the move. How long the window is open directly impacts whether or not there will be traffic jams below the summit.

Other Notes From Base Camp

Everest’s other items of interest include the confirmation that China is closing the North Side of the mountain once again in 2021. Last year, the North Side—which sits inside Tibet—was only open to Chinese nationals who wanted to climb despite the pandemic. The same holds true this year, with no foreign mountaineers allowed on the route.

ExWeb is reporting that controversial adventurer Colin O’Brady will be back in the Himalayas this spring. The American summited the world’s highest peak in 2016 with the eventual goal of completing the Explorers Grand Slam. This year, O’Brady is looking to summit both Everest and Lhotse without oxygen. To that end, he’ll summit Everest first, then descend to Camp 3 for a rest before heading up to summit Lhotse as well. Doing so without the use of bottled oxygen would certainly bolster its reputation, which has been called into question in the past due to dubious claims.

Finally, Everest isn’t the only Nepali 8000-meter peak to see action this year. Permits have also been issued for Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, and Manaslu for this spring. While Everest gets most of the press year in and year out, these other peaks have unique stories to share as well. For instance, Annapurna tends to be climbed much earlier than Everest due to its dangerous avalanche conditions. To that end, teams are already preparing to launch summit bids on that mountain as soon as the weather permits.

This season clearly marks a transition point for Mt. Everest, which is on course to get even busier in the future. That should lead to some interesting stories to share in the days ahead, but let’s hope this is a less dangerous and deadly spring than what we saw in 2019.

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