Mt. Everest in Nepal is known as one of the greatest challenges on Earth. The expedition tests the limit of human endurance. Those who attempt to climb it are at risk of hypothermia, frostbite, retinal hemorrhages, starvation, and suffocation as they climb. It was reported that Everest’s summit, which reaches 29,035 feet, has approximately one-third the air pressure that exists at sea level. This significantly reduces a climber's ability to breathe in enough oxygen. Thus, it is only fair to open Mt. Everest only to well-heeled mountaineers.
The risks associated with climbing the Everest have not stopped hundreds of mountaineers from around the world to attempt its slopes each year. Since it was successfully climbed by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in May 1953, the summit has become increasingly congested. More and more climbers are now reaching the summit, thanks to advances in mountaineering equipment. In 2018, the Nepal Ministry of Tourism issued 347 individual climbing permits to foreign climbers.
Statista, a German online portal for statistics, reported that 825 ascents were recorded in May 2019, making it the busiest year in history. However, deaths due to the expedition are expected. The Himalayan Database reported that 295 people are known to have died climbing Everest as of the end of the 2018 season. The overall death rate is approximately 1.2%, eaning if someone tries to climb Everest, they have 1 in a 100 chance of dying along the way.
“Statistically, Everest is becoming safer primarily due to better gear, weather forecasting, and more people climbing with commercial operations. From 1923 to 1999: 170 people died on Everest with 1,169 summits or 14.5%. But the deaths drastically declined from 2000 to 2018 with 7,990 summits and 123 deaths, or 1.5%,” respected Everest chronicler Alan Arnette said.
Tourism in Mt. Everest
The huge crowd that Everest attracts every year is a great help for Nepal’s government and locals. According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, the Ministry of Tourism reported collecting $5.2 million in 2018 permit fees. Usually, a commercial team would have to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 depending on the level of service and the expertise of the outfitter for a spot.
Also, many locals, most being ethnic groups, are hired to carry loads of supplies up the mountain such as tents, stoves, bottled oxygen, and food. They patiently coach their foreign guests up to the summit. Most of them earn between $2,500 and $5,000 for a typical three-to-four-month Everest expedition.
At the same time, at least eight of the world's 14 highest mountains are located in Nepal. All expeditions earn an estimated $4.4 million a year in permit fees from people hoping to scale Mount Everest. These funds not only help the government but also support local sherpas, luggage porters, hiking agencies, and others who guide climbers.
Mt. Everest is Temporarily Closed
In line with the rapid spread of coronavirus, the Nepal government decided to suspend the climbing season on Mt. Everest, following China’s announcement that it will suspend all climbing expeditions from the Tibetan side. "Expeditions to Mount Everest have been closed with immediate effect. Climbing permits are canceled till the end of April," Nepal's Tourism Secretary Kedar Bahadur Adhikari said.
Adrian Ballinger, the founder of Alpenglow Expeditions, said that suspending all expeditions this season is the responsible thing to do because a COVID-19 outbreak at base camp would be dangerous and potentially devastating. But, this isn’t the first time this has happened. According to Business Insider, a fast-growing business site with deep financial, media, tech, and other industry verticals, Nepal was also forced to interrupt its climbing season in 2015 due to an earthquake that struck near the capital of Kathmandu.
The decision shows how the government needs to prioritize everyone’s safety because any respiratory disease can have a dire consequence at base camp. “At high altitude, our respiratory systems are incredibly distressed and challenged. We do know the coronavirus, which affects the respiratory system and can lead to pneumonia, would absolutely be much more serious and lead to potentially serious consequences and fatalities much more quickly at altitude,” Ballinger said.
Ballinger added that climbing Everest is not currently worth the transmission risk in the base camps. "While I am saddened for all the hard work our members, guides, Sherpa, local staff, partners and office have put in, and that they and we won't get to test ourselves on the highest playground in the world this year, I am in agreement with China's decision," he said.
Many experts said that this unforeseen break from intensive tourism would allow Mt. Everest to regenerate and recover. However, this is a major blow for people relying on the expeditions to live. According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the shutdown will not only affect the livelihoods of millions of people but also those who work in shops, restaurants, transportation, hotels, tea houses, B&Bs and other tourism-related businesses.
For instance, Phurba Nyamgal Sherpa and other guides, who are often the sole breadwinners for their families, are some of the most affected. The Everest season from early April to the end of May feeds their families for the whole year - each of them tends to earn between $5,000 and $10,000 during the season. "We don't go to the mountains because we want to, it is our only option for work," Sherpa said.
Damian Benegas, who has guided teams on Everest for nearly two decades, said the porters and kitchen workers who keep expeditions running will be the hardest-hit. "Those people don't have any savings back-up or any contracts that expedition organizers have to keep," Benegas said.
But, with Nepal’s vulnerable population and fragile medical system, the decision of banning tourists and travel is the safest option. "This is disappointing news for both our expedition leaders and our clients who have trained for months for this year's climb. We understand the dire consequences a COVID-19 outbreak at base camp would have. Sadly, we have to agree that this is a responsible call to make right now,” Lukas Furtenbach, the Founder and CEO of a guided expedition company, said.