American alpinist Conrad Anker ducked into the tent, and I followed. There was no mountain scenery outside. It was a tent on exhibit at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Denver, Colorado, where Anker had just taken part in a presentation titled “A Conversation on Equity and the Outdoors.” I could hear the details of a camp-ware sales meeting going on the other side of the tent walls. It was August 2021. I hit the record button, and he began to talk.
“I started going to the Himalaya in 1988. Once a year, every year, until the pandemic hit.” For a man of his renown, Anker spoke modestly. He rarely broke eye contact. When he did, he would thumb through his leather notebook of sketches and chicken-scratch notes.
A day after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Nepal halted on-arrival tourist visas for the majority of foreign visitors and canceled all spring mountaineering expeditions. It was March 12, 2020. The world came to a halt, and the bustling tourism industry of Nepal quieted with it. The trails emptied, and the snowy summits were void of the usual down-jacket crews of mountaineers, porters and guides. The country wouldn’t reopen until August 17, 2020, just in time for the post-monsoon trekking season.
Anker later introduced me to Karsang Sherpa, an esteemed member of the Colorado Sherpa community with roots in the Khumjung village of Nepal’s Khumbu region, near Everest (Chomolungma). By October 2020, the country’s reopened borders had attracted trekkers back. “It brought some money into the region,” Karsang said. “Unfortunately, it also brought COVID.” Vaccines wouldn’t start to be available in Nepal until January 27, 2021. Following the vaccination of health and social sector workers and people over 55 years old in high mountainous districts, everyone 18 years or older became eligible. But mass vaccination of adult residents in Khumbu wouldn’t be complete until after the spring climbing season was over.
Anker himself had flown to Kathmandu on February 23, 2021. He had gotten his first COVID-19 vaccine shot. The government mandate for travelers, then, involved daily PCR tests and a mandatory seven-day quarantine, regardless of vaccination status. Anker was in Nepal for a film project and to organize the logistics for the upcoming spring Everest expedition. That trip would later be postponed when the country experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases. In February, though, Nepal still had low infection rates and the atmosphere seemed like one of invincibility. He arrived to mask-free scenes in Namche Bazaar, a town that many Sherpas who work in tourism are from. On the day of Anker’s arrival, Nepal reported 94 new cases; two months later, that number would rise to 9,238 cases a day. “We were there between the two waves,” Anker said. He returned to Montana on March 12, 2021.
The first confirmed case in Khumbu was identified last October 2020. When I spoke with Anker, there had been four confirmed COVID-19 related deaths in the region and ten others suspected to be from COVID-19. One of the people who died, Anker had personally known.
Meanwhile, during the spring 2021 season, Western media had exploded with conflicting Everest-related news. “Major scandal and a scam, Says Everest Guide of COVID Outbreak,” declared the title of one Climbing magazine article in May 2021. “The COVID Outbreak on Everest Is Getting Worse,” Outside magazine reported in April 2021. Even the New York Times joined in, “2 Climbers Die on Everest as Pandemic Rampages Through Nepal.” Neither climber died of COVID-19. Health officials reported the four confirmed deaths from COVID in the Everest and Khumbu region by June 17, 2021, but hundreds of people had also tested positive for the virus by then.
“Everest is a big word,” said Jiban Ghimire as we talked through a grainy Zoom screen in late summer 2021, a week after Anker and I spoke. Ghimire is the owner of Shangri-La Nepal Trek, a company that has outfitted and supported foreign guide services for more than 22 years. Ghimire sat in front of a stacked wooden bookshelf in his Kathmandu home. He explained that much of Nepal was now open, other than schools, which were held online. There was a mandate discouraging gatherings of more than 25 people, though Ghimire said his friends observed 80 or more frequently crammed into crowded public transport.
Vague, unexplained guidelines from the government were rampant, Ghimire said. He and several of his colleagues in the tourism sector sent a delegation to the Prime Minister’s office, appealing for more vaccine distribution to those who worked with foreigners. They also wanted the authorities to reconsider the ten-day quarantine mandate for visitors, in effect since July 27, 2021. Ghimire believed that if visitors provided proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to arrival, there was no reason for the ten-day quarantine. “No one has ten days to sit in a hotel,” said Ghimire. His clients paid a considerable sum to climb and trek with his company. He was worried the added cost of longer hotel stays and extended trip times would deter visitors and slow the tourism economy even more.
I next corresponded with Erlend Ness, a Norwegian climber, traveling with a different company. Ness was airlifted from Everest Base Camp in mid-April, 2021 to a Kathmandu hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19. “The symptoms I got were low energy levels, lost appetite, and diarrhea,” he wrote in a message. Ness stated that he had trusted his guides to make safe decisions regarding expedition members’ health. No one on his team had suspected COVID-19, instead, they suspected high-altitude sickness–a more usual reason for climbers to experience such symptoms.
Ghimire said several staff members of his expedition team also tested positive in the spring of 2021. They were immediately placed in isolation and strictly monitored by the medical team. Twelve days later, all tested negative, and they resumed work. “We didn’t have business for all of 2020,” Ghimire said. Once the borders reopened, many felt they needed to make up for lost time. Tourism is an integral part of the Nepalese economy. According to the annual World Travel and Tourism Council research report in 2019, this sector maintained more than a million jobs directly and indirectly in the country. And before the pandemic struck, the year 2020 was supposed to have been an exceptional year. Major plans had been in place with the “Visit Nepal 2020” campaign that was anticipated to generate $2 billion in revenue. With eight of the ten highest peaks in the world sitting in Nepal or along its border, mountain tourism, in particular, formed a key component of these hopes.
But economic opportunity can come with a cost.
“What those of us watching from the West often fail to recognize,” anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa noted in Alpinist 75 (which went to press in August 2021), “is that for many local people in roadless regions–who are literally carrying the mountaineering tourism industry on their backs–merely getting to health care facilities can be a challenge.” The frequent exposure to foreign travelers heightens the risk of infection, which is compounded by the inaccessibility of on-demand medical treatment. On June 11, 2021, when Saraswati Tamang Karki became sick with COVID in Monju, a village in the Khumbu region, Nepali guides and soldiers had to carry her on a stretcher to the nearest hospital, in Lukla, fifteen kilometers away. By the time they arrived, she was dead.
“Put it this way, how do you think the Government of Nepal measures the loss of life against 4 million dollars in permit fees?” I asked Anker. “What do you think the United States would do if we had Everest, not Nepal? How do you think the United States would have operated in the 2021 spring climbing season? Do you think the United States would issue 408 climbing permits in the middle of a global health crisis?”
Anker looked tired all of a sudden as he considered my question. After a while, he said, “If we had Everest, it would be heavily regulated, like Denali or Mt. Whitney.” Denali National Park suspended and refunded all special mountaineering permits of Denali and Solt’aanh (Mt. Foraker) in March 2020, though other areas in the park remained open to climbing as well as non-mountaineering-related activities with COVID-19 guidelines in place. In the 2021 season, all the mountains in the park had reopened, though government restrictions on international travel remained in place.
Pandemic-related rules varied wildly from state to state, but in large the United States has usually been in a situation where shutting down some travel in an attempt to save human lives is plausible. On April 28, 2020, all non-essential travel was restricted from China, Iran, United Kingdom, Ireland, and most European countries. COVID-19 travel restrictions did not lift for international visitors until November 8, 2021, and only for fully vaccinated travelers. In December 2021, after the discovery of the Omicron variant, a new policy required that even vaccinated air travelers (including US citizens) must test negative for COVID one day before a flight to the US or else provide proof of recovery from the illness within the past 90 days.
The option to decrease tourism is a privilege, Anker believes. “Families [in mountain regions of Nepal] are weighing anxieties about COVID-19 against other survival needs,” wrote anthropologist Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa in Alpinist 75. Mountain tourism is an integral part of the economy for villages like Khumbu or the tea houses along the Annapurna circuit, and residents may have felt that they had no viable options except to continue working. The diminished numbers of visitors during the pandemic has been devastating for many who relied on tourism for their primary income and who found themselves deeply in debt or impoverished, their futures and their children’s futures suddenly in jeopardy.
I stopped recording. Anker and I left the tent. I thanked him, shook his hand, and watched him walk off into the sea of booths at the retailer show, backpack dangling off one shoulder, I wondered if his mind was on his friends in the Himalaya.
Trekkers doing famous routes, such as the Annapurna circuit and the Manaslu circuit, often stay in teahouses run by the local communities along the way. “Resuming these treks at full capacity will bring money into the region,” repeated Karsang, when I spoke with him in September 2021. “But quarantine or not, it will also bring COVID.”
In August, local authorities had announced that they would require travelers into Khumbu to be fully vaccinated or else show proof of a recent negative test and face mandatory isolation. Nepali Administrative officer Sujan Budathoki told Kathmandu-based writer Ben Ayers that enforcement was challenging in 2021, and some visitors had arrived with fake vaccination cards. According to Budathoki, since the start of the pandemic, six people have died from Covid in the Khumbu and four Khumbu residents have died after evacuation to Kathmandu. Those ten deaths are now officially confirmed. Porters and other workers from surrounding regions who work in Khumbu and who became infected brought Covid back with them when they went home, Ayers notes, which means “the overall impact” was greater than those numbers.
As of January 21, 2022, all tourists entering Nepal must provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test (quarantine for them is no longer required), and Budathoki thinks these new rules will help. The Omicron wave reached its peak around the end of January, and the Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality reports no current cases in Khumbu.
By autumn 2021, Ghimire said the Khumbu region had a 90 percent or higher vaccinated population. While this number seemed high, with the United States only at around 65 percent vaccinated at the time (now around 66 percent), both Karsang and Ghimire pointed out that there wasn’t the same kind of vaccine hesitancy in Khumbu. Dr. Kami Temba Sherpa, who runs the Kunde Hospital in Khumbu, confirmed this number. “Ninety-eight percent of the population above 18 have gotten their second dose,” he said in September 2021. The Khumbu region had a higher vaccination rate than Nepal’s national average, which was 37.5 percent in December, 2021 and currently sits at around 66 percent. Dr. Kami Temba Sherpa reminded me that children under 18 remained vulnerable, breakthrough infections were still possible, and the potential waning immunity of vaccines continued to concern him. The emergence of new variants, such as Delta and Omicron, heightened the risk of breakthrough infections.
By early April 2022, according to Budathoki, 98 percent of residents in Khumbu over 12 had been vaccinated and received booster shots–a much quicker pace than the rest of the country.
Many have high hopes for the revival of expedition and tourism work. For a long time, Nepali citizens have remitted local employment opportunities with jobs overseas. Anker described watching packed 737s flying out of Tribhuvan airport on a daily basis, carrying young men to Abu Dhabi, Malaysia, and Doha to look for work. Any slowdown of mountain tourism means more and more Nepalis could have to leave their homes and travel overseas to sustain a living. Many could end up in places where their working conditions may be significantly worse. Bishnu Bahadur Khatri, a migrant rights activist said in a January 2021 article with Development Aid that in some cases, “Nepalese migrants are forced to work as modern slavery workers due to the lack of information about work and the destination country, debt burden, and family responsibilities, and defective recruitment process resulting in distress and deaths.”
In an email correspondence with Gordon Janow, the Director of Programs with Alpine Ascents International, I asked him who was responsible for the safety of Nepal’s mountain communities. He wrote, “We all bear some level of thought and responsibility. The first line of decision-making is the country itself.”
Dr. Kami Temba Sherpa believed the virus would stay in the region for years to come. “Herd immunity is difficult to achieve even with the successful vaccination campaign,” he said, “variants appear and reinfect people. We just have to learn to live with this.” Ghimire felt the same when we spoke in September 2021. Advocating for closing borders, then, didn’t make sense for Ghimire. “No international travel until COVID is gone forever?” Ghimire thought aloud and shook his head. He was used to mitigating risks in the mountains. Will COVID-19 infections–or those of possible future pandemics–add to the list? Will all guide company owners be able to keep their staff members safe, each season, as much as their wealthy foreign clients? What about the low-altitude porters who carry loads for many expeditions, including alpine-style ones? Or the people who live in the villages that trekkers and climbers pass through?
“Also, senseless to be having the discussion focused on a single destination,” Janow added. “Eyes on Argentina and Chile right now.”
What happens in the mountains of Nepal raises questions for adventure tourism everywhere when we navigate a world in crisis. Nandini Purandare, the editor of the Himalayan Journal, sees the impacts of COVID on all global mountain communities–and the dilemmas that these issues have raised–as something all visiting climbers should learn from; she urges them to consider how tourism, as it returns, could evolve to create more benefits for local residents and the environments they live in, and to avoid exploiting or harming them. “Expeditions, in a post-pandemic world, should adapt to a form of alpinism that is inclusive, not individualistic,” she wrote in Alpinist 75. “The ongoing pandemic has made much starker the interconnectedness of alpinists with the places they visit….. The future of alpinism can only be a healthy one if we can find a more sustainable relationship with the mountains and with all who abide there.”
Ghimire’s connection began to cut in and out and the Zoom window became pixelated. He asked me if I’d ever visited Nepal. I said no, but desperately wish to. He promised to show me around when I did and began to describe the mountains. With an airy hand, he gestured at the books behind him. I could see volumes of the American Alpine Journal, books with titles in a language I could not read, stacks of neatly folded paper. The internet connection continued to worsen as he describe the mountains of his home country. The Zoom window continued to pixelate into bigger and bigger squares until I could barely hear what he was saying. He described his favorite snow-covered peak, but the Zoom cut out before I could catch the name of the mountain.