Expeditions in times of corona? Between hoping, fearing and waiting

Tibetan north side of Mount Everest

Normally the base camps at the eight-thousanders in Nepal and Tibet would be occupied by now, and the acclimatization phase would be underway. And for those teams that want to make their way to the eight-thousanders in Pakistan this summer, the final preparations would be made. But what is normal in these times of the corona crisis? Nothing is happening at the highest mountains in Nepal. At the weekend the Nepalese government extended the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic until at least 7 May. In Tibet, only one Chinese expedition with 21 members has received permission to climb Mount Everest. According to reports, the Tibetan mountaineers preparing the route are in the Advanced Base Camp. How high they have climbed on the mountain in the meantime has not yet been communicated. 

Great uncertainty

And whether expeditions will really set up their tents on the mountain giants in Pakistan this summer remains open. “There is a lot of uncertainty, but some hope too,” Mirza Ali, head of the Pakistani operator Karakorum Expeditions, writes to me. The restrictions that were imposed to limit the infections have been eased somewhat in northern Pakistan. But even if the Pakistani government should allow expeditions to climb K2, Nanga Parbat and Co. this summer – will the foreign climbers really come? Expedition operator in German-speaking countries are still keeping all options open, but a certain skepticism is unmistakable.

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Chris Bonington: “Coronavirus is a kind nature’s wake-up call”

Chris Bonington

He’s a humble knight. Actually, Sir Chris Bonington could stick his nose up. After all, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1996 for his great services to British mountaineering. But Chris does not stick up his nose or carry his title in front of him. Bonington has remained true to himself and has proven his down-to-earth attitude – despite his many successes as a climber (including the first ascents of Ogre (7,285 m) in Pakistan, Kongur (7,649) in China and Changabang (6,864 metres) in India) and as an expedition leader (including the first ascents of the Annapurna South Face in 1970 and the Everest South West Face in 1975).

I wondered how the 85-year-old would be in times of the Corona lockdown. I reached him at his home in Caldbeck in the county of Cumbria in north-west England.

Chris, like to everyone else in these strange days of the corona crisis, the first question is: How are you?

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Climbing legend Joe Brown is dead

Joe Brown (1930-2020)

The mountaineering scene mourns the loss of one of their greats. Joe Brown passed away peacefully at the age of 89 in his home in the village of Llanberis, Wales. In his eventful climbing career Brown opened more than 1,000 new rock climbing routes. Joe became known worldwide when he and George Band (1929-2011) made the first ascent of the 8,586-meter-high Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain on earth, on 25 May 1955.

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And suddenly there are mountains

The people of Jalandhar could not believe their eyes. For the first time in decades, the inhabitants of the city in the northern Indian state of Punjab were able to see the mountains of the Dhauladhar Range in the Himalayas, which are more than 100 kilometers away and up to almost 6,000 meters high. Barely two weeks earlier, the Indian government had ordered one of the world’s strictest curfews due to the corona pandemic. Public and economic life in India has been largely at a standstill since 24 March. And the quality of the air has improved.

In the capital New Delhi, the particulate matter pollution has fallen by about half in the past three weeks. The otherwise omnipresent pall of smog has disappeared, as in many other Indian cities. And so the people of Jalandhar could suddenly see the Himalayas. 

Good visibility also in Kathmandu

Also in the Kathmandu Valley many people might have rubbed their eyes in amazement at the moment. There, too, the nationwide lockdown due to the corona pandemic is leading to unusually clear, blue skies and an unobstructed view of the Himalayan mountains, which can usually only be enjoyed after leaving the valley in which the Nepalese capital is located. 

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Corona crisis in the Everest region: “As if the right hands had been cut”

In the Khumbu region

In Nepal too, life continues to stand still because of the Corona pandemic. The government extended the two-weeks-lasting “lockdown” in the Himalayan state until at least 15 April. Airplanes with “stranded” tourists continue to leave Nepal. Thus, the fourth and for the time being last return flight for German citizens is scheduled for Wednesday. The German embassy in Kathmandu appealed to German tourists and persons with health risks still in the country to take advantage of this opportunity. In case of illness or emergency, “only extremely limited help from the Nepalese health system” can be expected, the embassy wrote on Facebook

So far (as of 7 April, 4 pm CEST), only nine infections with the coronavirus have been registered in Nepal. However, this should not tempt one to underestimate the danger. After all, until yesterday, Monday, only 1,700 people were tested for the virus in the country. 

No alternative to lockdown

Ang Dorjee Sherpa in his lodge (in 2016)

“In my point of view, the conora lockdown is very good as here in the Khumbu region there is no proper hospital if anyone is infected,” Ang Dorjee Sherpa writes to me. “I feel that everyone’s health is wealth.” The 51-year-old runs the “AD Friendship Lodge” in Namche Bazaar, the district capital of the Everest region: “Everyone here depends on tourism. Many families are upset due to no earnings and tense where their children are in (the) city (of Kathmandu) for education.”

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Chinese team in Everest ABC

Everest ABC on the Tibetan north side (in spring 2015)

What some critics of commercial mountaineering on Mount Everest have demanded in the past is now being brought about by the corona crisis: only one team will be allowed to attempt the highest mountain on earth this spring. The Chinese-Tibetan authorities had closed Everest to foreign expeditions because of the Corona pandemic, but the ban does not apply to domestic expeditions. And so there will probably be a Chinese attempt this spring over the Tibetan north side of the mountain.

According to reports, the team of the operator Yarlo Shampo Expeditions consists of 26 members, including six women. According to sources in Tibet, the climbers were to reach the Advanced Base Camp at about 6,400 meters, below the North Col, today. It has snowed more than in previous years, it said.

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On the last plane out of Nepal

Kathmandu International Airport

It sounded like it was now or never. “For Australians in Nepal, this is a final call to anyone who wants to return to Australia,” Pete Budd, the Australian Ambassador Pete Budd in the Himalayan state, wrote on Twitter yesterday. “If you want to leave you must decide immediately, within next few hours. There will not be another flight to Australia.” Today the plane took off from Kathmandu Airport in the direction of Down Under.

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Simone Moro: “The coronavirus is like Russian roulette“

Simone Moro

Sometimes he attacks his victims, sometimes he creeps up on them – death has many faces. In January, Italian climber Simone Moro barely managed to get away from him. On Gasherbrum I, the 52-year-old fell 20 meters deep into a crevasse. His partner Tamara Lunger from South Tyrol was able to break the fall with a rope. After two hours Simone crawled back over the edge of the crevasse. Both suffered minor injuries, ended their winter expedition and returned to Italy.

What Moro would experience in his hometown Bergamo in this March, he could not yet guess. Bergamo currently represents the deadly danger from the corona virus worldwide: In the province around the northern Italian city currently between 100 and 120 people die every day of the Covid-19 virus. Simone is in South Tyrol, where he answered my questions.

Simone, the most important question in these days of the corona virus first: How are you?

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Coronavirus at high altitude – a “blank spot“

The stupa of Boudhanath in Kathmandu

Nepal is also sealing itself off because of the Corona crisis. Freedom of movement was restricted throughout the country for an initial week. As of today, only those who absolutely have to go to work, shop or see a doctor are allowed to move outside the door. The borders to India and China remain closed, only goods transports are allowed to pass through. The airspace over Nepal is closed for international and domestic flights. An exception is made for aircraft of the security forces.

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Will corona pandemic also stop Karakoram climbing season?

K2 in Pakistan

The Himalayan mountains in Nepal and Tibet are closed to foreign mountaineers this spring due to the corona pandemic. For the same reason no expedition permits will be issued for Denali in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America (6,190 m), and the nearby Mount Foraker (5,304 m) in 2020. This was announced last Friday by the Denali National Park Service. The season there usually lasts from the end of April to mid-July. 

Lockdown imposed

Whether expeditions to the 8,611-meter-high K2, the second highest mountain on earth, and the four other eight-thousanders in Pakistan will be possible next summer is currently uncertain. As of today, due to the corona crisis a lockdown is in force until further notice in the northern Pakistani province of Gilgit-Baltistan, where the country’s highest mountains are located. Paramilitary forces have been asked to check whether the regulations are being observed, a member of the provincial government announced. Passenger traffic between the province’s cities has also been suspended. 

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Coronavirus infection: Hang in there, Cala!

Cala Cimenti (l.) with his wife Erika Siffredi

Actually, the ski mountaineer Carlalberto, called “Cala” Cimenti had wanted to travel to Nepal this spring. Together with expedition leader Felix Berg from the operator “Summit Climb” and two other German mountaineers, the 44-year-old Italian had planned a summit trilogy in the region around Makalu: first up to Mera Peak (6,476 m), then to Baruntse (7,129 m), and finally to Makalu, (8,485 m), the fifth highest mountain on earth. Now Cala lies sick in his bed at home. He is one of currently more than 41,000 Italians (status quo 19 March, 8 pm CET) who have tested positive for the corona virus. The doctors diagnosed Cimenti with pneumonia, but sent him home from the hospital – with medication and the advice to call if things got worse.

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Chinese expedition to Everest?

North side of Mount Everest

Despite the restrictions resulting from the corona pandemic, Mount Everest will apparently not remain completely deserted this spring. There is growing evidence that a Chinese expedition will approach the highest mountain on earth from the Tibetan north side. According to the Kathmandu-based newspaper „The Himalayan Times“, at least 26 mountaineers from China, including six women, will attempt to climb Everest.

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Mingma Gyalje Sherpa: “All in Nepal’s tourism business will suffer”

Namche Bazaar in the Everest region lives from tourism

I just went shopping at a supermarket. I wanted to buy a kilo of flour. There was a sign on the pallet saying that each customer could only take a maximum of four packages.  But not a single one was left there. Three checkouts were open, long lines formed in front of them. Most of the customers had filled their shopping trolleys to the top. Panic in Germany in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. As I stood in line at the checkout, I thought of Nepal. Many people there already lack the most necessary things. How will they survive the corona crisis?

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Coronavirus crisis: No permits for expeditions to Everest and Co. in Nepal

Nepalese south side of Everest
Nepalese south side of Mount Everest

The spring climbing season in the Himalayas is over before it has begun. After the Chinese-Tibetan authorities announced that they would not issue permits for the Tibetan north side of Mount Everest and other mountains to foreign expedition teams this spring, the Nepalese government has now pulled the rip cord too. Due to the global spread of the coronavirus, no permits will be issued for expeditions to Everest and the other high mountains of Nepal from March 14 to April 30, the government in Kathmandu announced. The already issued climbing permits are invalid. It is understood that the regulation also applies to trekking tours.

Even if the decree was withdrawn at the beginning of May, the remaining time for expeditions would be too short. The season finishes at the end of May due to the start of the monsoon season.

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