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Tibetan Side of Everest Closed due to Coronavirus

The China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) has today announced the cancellation of all spring season permits for climbers attempting to summit Everest - or Mount Qomolangma as it is known in Tibetan - from the north due to the ongoing spread of SARS-CoV-2, or novel coronavirus, on the same day that the outbreak of COVID-19 disease was upgraded to pandemic status by the World Health Organisation.

Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse  © Garry Robertson
Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse
G. Robertson, Nov 2017
© Garry Robertson

On the south side in Nepal, no permit or travel bans have been enforced as yet, but Nepali officials have temporarily suspended the visa-on arrival process for visitors from eight coronavirus hotspots - China, Iran, Italy, Korea, Japan, France, Germany and Spain. Travellers must instead collect visas in their home country via embassies and consulates before travelling to Nepal, effective from 10 March. Officials also announced an additional visa step for nationals of the aforementioned countries in the form of acquiring a health certificate proving a negative test for COVID-19, which must be carried out within 7 days prior to arrival.

The Kathmandu Post reports that health experts have warned: 'It's not a question of 'if'' the virus comes to Nepal but 'when'.' The country has reported just one case so far, but with a 'frail' health system, Nepal is preparing for a worst-case scenario.

Everest blogger Alan Arnette expects there to be less queueing and overcrowding on the south side due to these measures, but some climbers might shift their focus from the north to the south as a result of them. 'Assuming Nepal does not act, we can expect the Nepal side to have fewer climbers than in 2019 but still crowded with perhaps 300 to 400 foreigners plus the same number of support climbers,' he wrote in his blog. 'This remains fluid and unknown. There were 876 total summits by all climbers and support on all routes in 2019.'

Expedition companies have responded with mixed opinions on China and Nepal's reactions to the pandemic, Arnette commented in his blog. Director of Alpenglow Expeditions, Adrian Ballinger, wrote in a press release: '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. It is responsible, and the same one Alpenglow Expeditions was inevitably leaning towards in the past days. Climbing a mountain is not currently worth the transmission risk in the Base Camps, nor upon returning home.'

In addition, the high altitude conditions on the world's highest mountain would only compound the effects of the respiratory virus, Ballinger explained. 'The tight-knit base camp communities where climbers assemble before summitting would also be susceptible to a rapid spread of the viral infection,' he added.

Changing plans to the south side is equally out of the question for Ballinger, since his company decided to stop all expeditions on the south side in 2014 due to the dangers of the Khumbu Ice Fall. The virus would complicate matters further: 'The transmission risk combined with the healthcare system in Nepal is a combination that we are not comfortable with,' he said.

Other companies are 'promoting' climbing in Nepal off the back of China's permit clampdown, Arnette says. There are currently around 25 teams with plans to climb from the north, International Mountain Guides co-owner Eric Simonson told Rock and Ice this week.

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