The coronavirus snuck into Nepal from China just when Nepal’s tourism authorities were holding a series of consultations around reducing the number of Everest hopefuls for 2020’s spring season. The previous year’s spring–one of the deadliest seasons for Everest, on account of the massive traffic on the mountain–had made media headlines across the world. But the Department of Tourism had received a record number of pre-confirmation requests for Everest expeditions, and the tourism authorities were weighing various options to limit the flow of climbers to the world’s highest mountain.
At around the same time, a Nepali student completing his doctorate degree tested positive for the virus upon his return home from Wuhan, China. And more imported cases of the virus emerged when Nepalis started to return home from India and the Gulf nations.
The deepening of the Covid-19 crisis, which is now considered one of the deadliest global health crises of the 21st century, stalled the tourism authorities’ discussions on limiting the number of Everest hopefuls. By then the virus was rapidly spreading across the country. So Nepal cancelled all trekking and mountaineering activities for the 2019 spring season. The cancellations eventually ravaged the entire tourism industry, shattered the dreams of many expedition agencies, rendered jobless thousands of people relying on the industry–those working in the mountaineering, trekking, hotel, airline, and handcraft sectors, among others–and confined climbers and backpackers indoors.
But in the midst of these grim times, a team of high-profile mountaineers from Bahrain has arrived in Nepal on a princely mission. Not surprisingly, Sherpa guides and expedition operators are elated, and readying to organize expeditions for this group of high-profile climbers who are led by Bahraini prince Mohamed Hamad Mohamed Al Khalifa.
The prince’s 18-member expedition team arrived in Nepal on Sept 16 on a special chartered flight–at a time when flights to Nepal and other South Asian countries remained suspended. After a week-long quarantine in Gokarna Forest Resort, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the team headed to Lukla, the gateway to Mount Everest, to climb Lobuche peak, and later, Mount Manaslu, the eighth-highest mountain in the world.
The royal team is now acclimatizing before they begin climbing Mount Manaslu. “The expedition is going to be exciting. If all goes as planned and the weather supports us, we are planning to summit the mountain by mid-October,” says the renowned Lakpa Dendi Sherpa, who is working to make the royal Bahrain expedition a success.
The prince, who unfurled the Bahraini flag atop Lobuche peak, wants to do the same at the top of Mount Everest in the spring of 2021. Tourism officials and expedition operators view his recent expedition as part of a rehearsal for an Everest ascent next year.
“It’s all in preparation of next year’s Everest summit plan,” said Mira Acharya, director at the Department of Tourism.
Apart from Lakpa, record holder Sherpa guides Kami Rita Sherpa, Mingma Sherpa, Tashi Lakpa Sherpa, Sanu Sherpa and Chhang Dawa Sherpa have assembled at Makalu Base Camp to make the rare climbing mission a success. They are currently praying for a successful summit and the betterment of the entire planet.
It’s not surprising that the mountaineering sector has welcomed the prince with such open arms. In Nepal’s tourism history no upheaval has affected the tourism sector as badly as the Covid-19 pandemic. In mid-September, to help the sector get back up on its feet, the government–six months after it stopped issuing tourist visas–decided to reopen the sector and allow tourism operators to start doing business again (on the condition that they abide by all health and safety protocols). Under the new mountaineering rules, tourists coming to Nepal should first obtain PCR negative reports (that are not more than 72 hours old) and then remain confined in quarantine for a week after their landing in Nepal. (As we were going to press, government representatives were meeting to address the quarantine issue and were leaning towards lifting the quarantine requirement).
Some operators, however, are not happy with the provisions. According to them, the provisions are making many climbers and trekkers hesitant about coming to Nepal.
“I’m struggling to pay my office rent and the salaries of my staffers,” says Lakpa Sherpa, founder of Pioneer Adventure, an expedition agency. “I don’t understand why the government wants to quarantine trekkers and climbers who have tested negative for Covid-19. The protocols are having a huge impact on tourism.”
The government remains stuck in a bind. The only way it can save the next climbing season is if more climbers start coming to Nepal. But these climbers will obviously need to be Covid-free–meaning, they will have to abide by the protocols the government has designed, or at least tweaked from its current format. For prospective mountaineers, the main draw of scaling Nepal’s peaks this year is that the slopes have close to zero traffic. The Sherpas and others in the climbing sector would love to get back to work too. That can only happen if the government better manages its task of allowing in more climbers while also strictly ensuring that they are Covid-free.