An Everest season like no other in Nepal amid a deadly pandemic

Lakpa Sherpa has climbed Everest seven times. But he says this year’s season, which ended this week and was marked by coronavirus, cyclones and misinformation, was the most challenging of his career.

The pandemic forced a complete shutdown of Nepal’s mountaineering industry in 2020, dealing a harsh blow to the tiny Himalayan country’s tourism-dependent economy.

This spring, however, the allure of the highest peak in the world brought climbers rushing back as Nepal issued a record 408 permits to ascend Everest, worth about $4.2m.

Quarantine restrictions were eased to promote the climbing rebound, but there were also no clear plans to test for, isolate or control an outbreak, making the already dangerous climb even riskier.

The warmer spring weather usually signals safer conditions for scaling Everest and other Himalayan peaks, but this year it coincided with a deadly second wave of virus infections engulfing Nepal, reports of more than 9,000 daily cases in May.

Weeks after the peak reopened, a Norwegian climber, Erlend Ness, confirmed that he fell sick at base camp and then tested positive in Kathmandu after he was evacuated. Other cases followed.

“There used to be coughs, common colds and risk of getting into avalanches and crevasses in the past. But this year, the danger was if we got infected from COVID, we would not be able to climb up because it makes breathing difficult and causes fatigue,” said guide Mingma Dorji Sherpa.

Despite the precautions teams tried to take – including masking, sanitising and isolating – virus cases began to spread.