The trails and tribulations of planning mountaineering expeditions during a pandemic…
The Covid -19 pandemic has dealt a hard blow to the global economy. Tourism, hospitality, and the aviation sectors have been the hardest hit. In Nepal, the repeated lockdowns and the government’s decision to halt international flights have taken a huge toll on the country’s tourism industry.
As per a report released by the Central Bureau of Statistics, tourism is the fourth largest industry in Nepal by employment. While businesses have suffered during the pandemic, it is the people at the grassroots level (the porters, guides, or Sherpas) who have suffered the most. But things are looking up as Nepal is slowly starting to ease restrictions.
British climber Philip (a.k.a. Phil) Crampton has been leading mountaineering expeditions to the Nepal Himalaya for several years. His was one of the lucky groups which could conduct expeditions to Mount Everest and other mountains during the ongoing pandemic. Phil shares with us the trials and tribulations of having to travel to Nepal during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Who is Phil Crampton?
Noted British climber Phil Crampton is no stranger to the Himalayas. With over 50 expeditions to 8000-metre peaks, his is a name to be reckoned with in mountaineering circles. He has climbed Mount Everest sixteen times and has made notable ascents of Cho Oyu, Lhotse, Manaslu, Makalu, Dhaulagiri, Broad peak, Shisapangma, and Gasherbrum.
Inside Himalayas (IH): Which peaks have you climbed this year?
Phil Crampton (PC): This year I’ve been on Everest and Lhotse in the spring. Unfortunately, our Pakistan’s season of K2 was cancelled at the last minute because the Pakistan government told us while we were on Everest that we were unable to take any Nepalese staff into Pakistan. This rule got changed very last minute and they allowed some Nepalese sherpas to enter but at this point, a lot of the groups myself included had cancelled their trips due to the uncertainty.
Then we came in the Autumn for a couple of mountains in the Annapurna Region – Singu Chuli and Tharpu Chuli and then we headed over to the Makalu Region for Baruntse. We have just finished Ama Dablam in the Solu Khumbu Region. So not as busy as usual, but it’s good to do at least a few trips for our local Nepalese economy and the Nepalese Sherpas.
IH: Which one did you enjoy?
PC: I enjoyed them all. Everest this year was my sixteenth time. I haven’t been to Baruntse for 25 years. So that was after 25 years. Ama Dablam is always enjoyable because we get to visit the people in the Solu Khumbu. It was my first real trip to the Annapurna Sanctuary in all these years. It has been enjoyable and we have been in Nepal for about six months this year. Not as long as usual but I’ve enjoyed it and it has been an enjoyable experience.
IH: How was it like to travel to Nepal during a pandemic?
PC: In the spring when I arrived in March that was the first time I travelled on an aircraft for over a year. I was a little apprehensive because we had read all these things about the protocol and all the PCR tests we needed. But it was smoother than I expected.
I was quite nervous at the start of the journey, but once I had been on the aircraft and reached Nepal, I realized you can travel safely if you wear a mask and keep washing your hands. Also aircraft is a very safe place to travel because most people have to take a PCR test before you get on a plane. So you know everybody within that aircraft has tested negative at least three days before the start of the journey.
They have just introduced a new rule for the US. You have to have a PCR test less than 24 hours before the flight. So the chance of somebody may have been infected is even less than 72 hours before. But the problem with that is many of the places do not have the facility to get a PCR test result so quickly. So I think tourism to the US is gonna be reduced significantly due to this new rule.
Nepal now is actually very good. It is one of the better countries to get a rapid PCR test. I can’t get a rapid test in New York and it’s very hard to get it in the UK. Switzerland is virtually impossible.
Traveling to Nepal in the pandemic I avoided restaurants in March. If I did go anywhere out to eat it was to an outdoor public space. I was a little cautious about very busy restaurants. I know the infection rate is very low in Nepal at the moment. But I don’t know how many people have been testing.
IH: How are things in the mountains?
PC: You would not know there’s a pandemic. In the spring the lodge owners were wearing masks and a few guests were. But this autumn I think I was the only person with a mask.
In the Khumbu region, several people have been vaccinated. They are all confident and I think they realize that most of the foreign guests who come have tested negative to get into Nepal. And they are very cautious in Kathmandu. But as we know the vaccine isn’t gonna be hundred percent stopping you from getting Covid-19.
I think now with the new strain coming out of South Africa people may stop to change the ways in Khumbu a little bit. But I have been very impressed in Kathmandu. You see virtually everybody on the street wearing a mask in Kathmandu.
I am quite impressed with the way things have been handled so far in Nepal. Nepal is a poor country and it’s not the first on the list to get a vaccine. But all of our staff have received a vaccine and I think if you want to receive a vaccine here in Nepal you can get it. So I am quite impressed with that. I think in the US only 60% of the population have been vaccinated which is very low for such a developed country.
IH: Which route or side of Mount Everest do you prefer?
PC: We last climbed from the North (Tibet) side eight times and the South(Nepal) side eight times. So half and half. It’s very hard to say. Historically the Tibet side is very significant because the early expeditions were from the North side during the 20s.
I like to be on the Nepalese side because my Nepalese sherpas get to be closer to their families. If they want to they can run down to their village during the quiet time of an expedition to be with their family.
I also like the fact that we hire a lot of Nepalese staff this side of the mountain which helps the Nepalese economy. So it’s a tradeoff. There’s pros and cons to both. You have the crowds on the south side and the climbing route is difficult from Tibet, the north side.
Climbing from the Tibet side, we have to face a lot of issues with visas and having certain nationalities approved. The northern side is also pretty expensive for the permit.
On the south side, climbing is easier. There are more people and there’s more cooperation between the teams. But it’s crowded which is not so good. So there are pros and cons to both. I can’t say which my favourite is, as I don’t want to upset the people in Nepal nor do I want to upset the authorities in Tibet.
IH: You have been leading climbing expeditions in the Himalayas for a long time. Which is the mountain you cannot resist returning to?
PC: I think my favourite out of them all is a mountain called Cholatse which is in the Khumbu region. And it’s just 6000 metres. I have been fortunate enough to climb it six times now. It’s a very technical mountain and it does not have too many summits. Some very famous climbers have climbed it and found it very challenging.
Most people would think I would say Everest, but Everest is a nice mountain but it’s not my favourite. Cholatse is probably my favourite in the Solu Khumbu Region. And out of all the high big mountains, I think Makalu has a special place. I have climbed it twice. Makalu is considered one of the harder 8000m peaks and not everybody gets to the top. There are many seasons where there’s nobody on the top, no summits. I have been fortunate enough to have been at the top twice.
IH: Other than the Solu Khumbu Region, how do you think the other trekking regions are faring at the moment?
PC: Everest Region is doing better than the other regions, let’s put it that way. But a lot of that is due to the people going on the expeditions. And Everest region has got Mount Everest which is a major draw for the trekkers.
I was in the Annapurna Region in the autumn and there were very few trekkers, virtually no climbers. But I was only there in September which is a little early for the trekking season. So I am not sure how it was after.
The Mera Peak area was quite busy in October. There were a lot of people on the mountain. We saw a few trekkers. Not a lot but it’s better than not.
Solu Khumbu, I was there during the Ama Dablam season. Ama Dablam is always going to be busy regardless of the pandemic. But we didn’t see many trekkers I must admit. Ama Dablam was busy but not as busy as before. And everybody’s been saying that the numbers are completely down. Because trekkers are the majority of the tourists in Nepal and climbers are a very small percentage.
It takes a lot of planning to come to Nepal and a lot of people were not sure of quarantine rules. Because after the lockdown we were told it’s a 10-day quarantine or 7-day quarantine. We didn’t know, and then all of a sudden there was no quarantine.
It takes people several months to plan a trip. Just because the Nepalese government says “no quarantine”, doesn’t mean it’s like flicking a switch and we all start coming. It takes a lot of planning and it takes a lot of time to travel. Also, the UK had Nepal on its red list. So if you did come here, you had to do a 10-day hotel quarantine which is quite expensive.
Australians and New Zealanders still can’t travel. And even though Nepal says, “no quarantine, you can come,” there’s a lot of countries that are not allowing their citizens to travel. So until every country says “you can go”, the tourism in Nepal is still not gonna be back to hundred percent normal.
IH: Everybody is talking about the negative impact of climate change on the fragile Himalayan mountain ecosystem. As a frequent visitor to the Himalayas what are the changes you have seen?
PC: Climate change is definitely happening. We can see the glaciers receding. We are noticing more avalanches and smaller seracs. For example, the Khumbu Icefall we are noticing is melting a lot quicker. The seracs which are four or five storeys high have melted and become smaller. This has helped the Sherpas get around easily, but it’s a matter of concern.
In Pakistan, the glaciers are growing and they are having long winters.
The temperatures are getting warmer. Less snow means more rockfall. There was a large avalanche recently in the Dhaulagiri region which they say is because of climate change. We were in Ama Dablam in late November and it felt like summer. It was warm, so it’s obviously happening.
It’s a big problem in the Peruvian Andes too because the small glaciers they have are receding. These glaciers are a source of water for the Peruvians. They depend on the glaciers for their drinking water supply. I am not a scientist so I don’t know how do we combat it but we have definitely noticed in the last 7-8 years the changes in the condition of the snow. In the Cholatse for example what used to be a very large pyramid , now it’s slowly receding. And there’s nearly no longer a summit it’s a flat area. So first hand I have seen the change.
IH: Are the governments doing the right thing by restricting the movement of travelers? What do you think?
PC: Unfortunately Covid-19 is something we are gonna have to live with. It’s not gonna go away. The countries would just have to open up their borders and manage the people traveling a little bit better because it’s doing nobody any good.
A country like Australia which does not let people in or out, still have the covid. So regardless of people traveling or not they are gonna get the virus. It would help a lot if the governments allow marginal opening up and let the economy get back to normal; let people lead a normal life.
I love to see as many people possible to come to Nepal because it’s very important for the Nepalese economy. I would like to see the trekkers return because that’s a huge part of the economy.
But I think there has to be a little bit of guidance from the government in advance. They can’t just decide to close the border last minute and keep everybody stranded at the last minute like they did in spring. If you just close the country down and stop the flights people are going to be a little concerned about coming in the future.
The Nepalese government did things for a reason. But stopping all the flights immediately left a lot of people stranded and a lot of people had to pay 3-4 times of what they usually pay for a flight to Nepal. So that’s something that the government has to plan.
IH: What’s next?
PC: Next season we have planned Lhotse, Everest and K2 in Pakistan. Before K2 is the Peruvian Andes. Then in autumn, we will be climbing Dhaulagiri and Ama Dablam. So that’s pretty much what we are thinking at the moment. It all depends on the Covid situation and which countries will allow its citizens to travel.
By Usha Rai
Interview held on December 7, 2021 in Kathmandu
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