It has been a long and difficult climbing season on Mt. Everest. After the mountain was closed last spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2021 season arrived with a great home and promise. And although there was plenty of success to be found this year, the specter of the virus has hung over base camp since the beginning.
As the final summit bids wrap up and the seasonal monsoons arrive, Nepal is left to face an uncertain future as COVID-19 cases, and causalities are on the rise. And with all international flights canceled, many foreign visitors are left wondering how they’ll get home.
When last we checked in on the 2021 climbing season on Mt. Everest, the ropes to the summit had been installed, and the first teams successfully climbed to the highest point on the planet. At the time, it looked like there would be a mad dash for the top, as teams lined up to take advantage of a good weather window. However, that window closed fairly quickly, and when it did, only about a hundred or so climbers have managed to achieve their goal.
After that early summit push, bad weather descended on Everest, shutting down all hopes of reaching the top for more than a week. During that time, teams watched, waited, and debated whether or not the season would or should continue.
Reports of COVID cases in base camp dropped off dramatically, although rumors persist that the virus has run rampant through many teams. As a result, several mountaineers have gone home, while others stayed with the promise of perhaps one more opportunity to complete the climb.
According to most forecasts, a second weather window would open this past weekend, allowing teams to potentially go for the summit again. Those forecasts proved accurate, although conditions were far from perfect. Still, it was enough for another 100-150 people to climb the tallest mountain on the planet.
Braving High Winds
Looking to take advantage of the predicted good weather, several teams left BC last Wednesday and Thursday to head up to the higher camps. The goal was to get into position by Friday or Saturday when conditions were expected to improve.
Heavy snow had fallen high on Everest throughout the week, making for tough going. But by the time the weekend had arrived, the skies had cleared, and temperatures had warmed up some. However, the winds remained fairly high, causing some squads to head back down the mountain while others made a bold push to the top.
Amongst the teams that managed to summit were Madison Mountaineering, Climbing the Seven Summits, and Pioneer Expeditions. They reported the top of the mountain was blustery but manageable, with otherwise good conditions. All of the teams could get up and down the mountain safely, with most returning to BC on Monday.
Another Weather Window?
Following the Sunday summit push, the weather has once again closed off the mountain. The forecast for the coming days remains uncertain, although some meteorologists are predicting one more window opening from May 28-29.
After that, the jet stream is likely to move into place over the summit, with the summer monsoons following soon thereafter. When that happens, Everest will be closed again until autumn.
There are still a handful of teams in base camp who are hoping to take advantage of this later weather window. They have remained patient and avoided earlier summit pushes to stay safe and wait for the proper time. This strategy runs the risk of that window never truly opening, however, meaning the opportunity for a final summit push may never come.
For now, those few remaining teams will wait and watch the sky. If the forecast proves accurate, they’ll begin heading up to Camp 1 and 2 by Tuesday and Wednesday, with summit bids coming on Friday and Saturday.
COVID Sends Another Team Home
Last week we mentioned that Furtenbach Adventures had pulled the plug on its expedition plans due to the rising number of COVID infections in the base camp. This week another team has been forced to make a similar decision when the virus decimated the ranks of its Sherpa support team.
A few days back, Mountain Trip announced that six of its Sherpa guides had taken ill with the coronavirus and had to be evacuated from BC. Those individuals are said to be doing fine and are already recovering back home. But they were not fit to climb higher on the mountain, where the thin air would have likely exasperated their condition.
With so few guides to assist its clients, the Mountain Trip team had no choice but to call it a day. None of the company’s clients seem to have been infected, thankfully. Still, without enough Sherpas to go around, they are now heading back to Kathmandu to prepare for their return home, something else that remains a challenge at the moment.
A Safer Everest?
Despite the COVID outbreak in base camp, it has been a relatively safe year on Everest. So far, we only know of four deaths that are attributable to climbing accidents. That is down substantially from 2019, despite having more climbers on the mountain.
One reason for this is the delayed summit pushes brought on by the staggered weather windows. In 2019, the weather window was narrow, forcing most teams to go up at the same time. This year, the traffic jams are smaller and more spread out thanks to the changing conditions of the jet stream.
As of this writing, we have yet to learn of any deaths directly attributable to a climber contracting COVID while on Everest. That could change over time, but with the Nepali government’s reluctance to even admit that there was a coronavirus outbreak in BC, it seems unlikely that we’ll receive confirmation of such a thing.
Still, as climbers head back to Kathmandu, they face possible lockdowns, quarantines, and infect. The country is currently one of the worst-hit by the virus.
All Flights Cancelled
Avoiding the virus won’t be the only challenge for climbers returning to Nepal’s capital city. The government currently has banned all international and domestic flights, making getting back home extremely challenging.
Some charter flights are allowed to come and go, although not everyone has the money for such a flight. Some foreign governments are arranging for their citizens to be evacuated, although even those flights are difficult to schedule.
Currently, the plan is to lift the ban on flights on May 31. But as the COVID crisis deepens in Nepal, the cancellations could continue. Currently, hospital beds are filled to near capacity, and there is a shortage of oxygen, vaccines, and other supplies. Because of this, the government could elect to extend the ban further.
For the climbers on Everest, things remain “one step at a time,” however. First, they’ll deal with potential summit bids, then trekking back down the Khumbu Valley. From there, they’ll inquire about a flight or bus ride back to Kathmandu, where these other logistical problems await.
With all of that in mind, just staying on the mountain for now just might be the best option for them all.
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