“(The) Mountains are open for this year’s autumn season,” said Mira Acharya, director of the Tourism Department in the Nepalese government. From this Thursday, permits will again be issued for 414 mountains in Nepal, including Mount Everest, with 75 mountains remaining closed, she said.
On 13 March, the government had announced that it would no longer issue permits for the time being because of the corona pandemic. The spring season in Nepal had been completely canceled, also on the south side of Everest. On the north side of the mountain, the Sino-Tibetan authorities had only issued permits for a single Chinese expedition that reached the world’s highest peak in late May.
It looked like an attempt to cut the Gordian knot. Last week, the government in Kathmandu announced that flights to Nepal and in the country would be resumed from 17 August. Trekking tours and expeditions will then also be permitted again – subject to safety precautions. But many question marks remain. How many flights will be allowed and from which countries? The Ministry of Tourism has so far been rather vague in its statement that tourists whose home countries are not strongly affected by the pandemic may come first. And then, what happens next? Is it enough for tourists to present a current negative COVID-19 test on arrival or will they have to be tested at Kathmandu airport? Will the current 14-day quarantine remain in place? What happens in case of an infection in Nepal? My inquiry to the Ministry of Tourism has not been answered yet.
“I don’t have high hopes for the fall season,” Ang Dorjee Sherpa tells me. “I think only a few trekking tourists will show up. But they are welcome, no problem.” The 51-year-old owns the “AD Friendship Lodge” in Namche Bazaar, the main village of the Khumbu, the region around Mount Everest. “Five days ago, I met a foreign family who was stuck in Lukla for three months because of the corona lockdown,” says the Sherpa. In the days before the lockdown, there had been some flights back to Kathmandu from Lukla. Not all stranded tourists had apparently been given seats.
Corona necessity is the mother of invention. “These days, many climbers are free, so we can use good and experienced climbers to find the route,” Maya Sherpa writes to me. The 42-year-old mountaineer means a new route on the Nepalese south side of the eight-thousander Cho Oyu. One that is suitable not only for top climbers but also for commercial expeditions. Maya Sherpa has already scaled five eight-thousanders: Mount Everest (a total of three times, both from Tibet and Nepal), K2, Kangchenjunga, Manaslu – and Cho Oyu, but not via the Nepalese but the Tibetan side of the mountain.
The adventure gap. This is what the black journalist and author James Edward Mills calls the phenomenon that black mountaineers and climbers are still the exception in the adventure scene. “It’s not a question of whether or not African-Americans can climb high mountains,” Mills wrote in “National Geographic” magazine: “What matters is as group we tend not to. And for a variety of different social and cultural reasons the world of mountaineering has been relegated almost exclusively to white men.”
But something is happening. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is also leading to a rethink in the outdoor industry, writes US climber Meagan Martin to me. The realization that racism is still widespread initially surprised the scene, she says, adding that in the meantime, however, companies have begun to question where they’ve failed to be an ally to the black community and how they can do better moving forward: “Many athletes are also taking this time to reflect, take accountability, and educate themselves to be a better ally.”
She almost forgot the summit picture. When Sophia Danenberg reached the summit of Mount Everest together with the brothers Panuru and Mingma Chhiring Sherpa at 7 a.m. on 19 May 2006, they were alone on the top at 8,850 meters. It was windy, all the surrounding mountains were peeking up from the clouds, Sophia recently recalled in an interview with the US technology portal “GeekWire“: “It’s odd to really be above everything. However, I was mostly focused on getting down. I probably would have forgotten to take a picture if it hadn’t been for Panuru.” The Afro-American was the first black female mountaineer on the highest mountain on earth – which she only learned about on Everest. She climbed the mountain from the Nepalese south side and used bottled oxygen for her ascent.
Danenberg grew up in Chicago. She graduated from the renowned Harvard University in environmental sciences and public policy with honors (Magna Cum Lauda). During her studies, her passion for climbing arose. In November 2005, half a year before she scaled Everest, she reached the summit of the nearby Ama Dablam (6,814 m). In addition to Everest, Sophia summited three more of the Seven Summits, the highest mountains in all continents: Aconcagua (6,962 m, South America), Denali (6,194 m, North America) and Kilimanjaro (5,895 m, Africa).
Today the 48-year-old mountaineer lives in Seattle. She works for the US aviation company Boeing analyzing international environmental policy and maintaining contact with international companies and organizations. I sent Sophia some questions as part of my reports on the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the USA.
Sophia, you summited Mount Everest in 2006. What made you go there that time?
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) once wrote in his famous “Tractatus“. To put it simply: how we say or write something is certainly significant, because language creates reality. In my opinion, this should be taken into account in the discussion about discriminatory names of climbing routes, which has gained considerable momentum in the context of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, especially in the USA.
First-time climbers, who once used the N-word when naming their routes, are therefore not necessarily racists yet – but should be aware that racism starts with the choice of words. What may have been meant funny and flippantly formulated yesterday can be offensive and discriminatory today. Probably it has done so in the past, but it has not been talked about.
He’s back to his passion. In the northwest Italian region of Piedmont and in the Dolomites Carlalberto, called “Cala”, Cimenti, rides his mountain bike again, climbs mountains and flies downhill with his paraglider. In March, the 45-year-old – as reported – was tested positive for the coronavirus. The doctors diagnosed Cimenti with pneumonia, but sent him home from the hospital – with medication and the advice to call if things got worse. For days he lay in bed with a high fever, cared for by his wife Erika Siffredi. “My attention is fixed on the thermometer marks, on every breath that must not be worse than the previous one,” Cimenti wrote on Facebook at the time. He recovered.
First ascent of Gasherbrum VII
In summer 2019, Cala had scaled Nanga Parbat in Pakistan and had skied down from the eight-thousander. He then succeeded in the Karakoram in the first ascent of the 6,955-meter-high Gasherbrum VII – the ascent is on the candidate list for this year’s Piolet d’Or, the “Oscar of climbers”. On the descent from Gasherbrum VII, his team mate Francesco Cassardo fell about 450 meters deep. In a dramatic rescue operation it was managed to get Francesco to safety. Cimenti had previously scaled the eight-thousanders Cho Oyu (in 2006), Manaslu (in 2011) and Dhaulagiri (in 2017).
Cala, how are you currently doing, have you recovered from your corona infection one hundred percent?
The corona crisis is widening the gap between what could be and what actually is. In theory, the mountaineering season in the Karakoram would be in full swing right now. Earlier this year, 25 expedition teams had applied for permits for Pakistan’s five eight-thousanders and other mountains in the north of the country. No one has come.
“Pakistan is completely open, including the airports, but there is no tourism at all,” writes Mirza Ali Baig, head of the operator Karakorum Expeditions to me. “Summer adventure tourism is almost off. There is no possibility for mountaineering, trekking is also not taking place. Not even a single local group.”