This photograph taken on May 31, 2021 shows mountaineers at the summit of Mount Everest (8,848.86-metre), in Nepal. (Photo by…
This photo taken May 31, 2021, shows mountaineers at the summit of Mount Everest, in Nepal. (Lakpa Sherpa)

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

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

This spring, the allure of the highest peak in the world brought climbers rushing back.

As China's side of the mountain remained closed, Nepal issued a record 408 permits to ascend Everest, worth about $4.2 million.

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

Summiting the mountain has always been deadly. This year, it became even more dangerous.

Just 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.

Still, Sherpa decided he had to persevere with the expeditions his Pioneer Adventure had booked for 23 clients.

"This season was very difficult. We were already working under pressure because of COVID, and then the weather also betrayed us," he told AFP.

The warmer window that usually ushers in safer conditions for scaling Everest and other Himalayan peaks coincided with a deadly second wave of virus infections in Nepal, with reports of more than 9,000 daily cases in May.

This photo taken May 17, 2021, shows mountaineer's tents lit up at night at Camp 2 of Mount Everest, in Nepal. (Lakpa Sherpa)

"There used to be coughs, common colds and a 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.

'Very sick'

Despite precautions that teams tried to take, including masking, sanitizing and isolating, virus cases began to spread.

Pilots in PPE suits arrived to evacuate dozens of suspected COVID-19 patients from the area, and at least two companies canceled expeditions after team members tested positive.

Many climbers confirmed their diagnoses on social media and blogs, including some who had reached the summit.

When Icelandic duo Sigurdur Sveinsson and Heimir Hallgrimsson began coughing as they reached around 7,000 meters, they suspected they had caught the virus. Still, they made it to the summit 8,849 meters above sea level.

Their symptoms became stronger as they descended.

"In camp 2, we were both very sick from coughing, headaches and other fatigue. We suspected that not everything was perfect, and we needed to get down as fast as possible," they said in a recent statement.

They said they both tested positive when they reached the base camp and isolated in their tents.

Yet authorities in Nepal have not acknowledged a single case at the mountain.

This photo taken May 12, 2021, shows mountaineers climbing during their ascent to summit Mount Everest, in Nepal. (Pemba Dorje Sherpa)

The stakes were high after last year's shutdown, which cost one of Asia's poorest countries millions in lost revenue. Porters and guides for well-heeled foreign climbers were left without income.

It was the third time in the last decade that Everest's summit sat empty. Climbers abandoned the mountain after a 2015 earthquake triggered an avalanche, killing 18 people.

In 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Nepali guides on the infamous Khumbu icefall, forcing organizers to cancel expeditions.

Lukas Furtenbach, who was the first to call off his expedition because of COVID-19 outbreaks, said the government should extend the validity of the $11,000 license his clients purchased to climb Everest.

"Nepal invited foreign expeditions to come and assured us of COVID safety. … And my clients did not feel safe at the base camp," he said.

Expedition organizers have also self-censored, leaving no way to estimate the actual number of cases among Everest climbers and guides.

"There is no excuse for the blatant lies, denials and cover-ups committed by the [government] this season," mountaineering blogger Alan Arnette wrote Friday. "Do they understand that their actions only undermine the very credibility they need to effectively manage their resources?"

'Coming back'

Those willing to risk coronavirus infections faced a curtailed window to climb. The government put limits on the number of climbers who could scale at any given time to avoid a traffic jam on the peak, and two cyclones that hit India in May further restricted the three-month season.

When the second of those cyclones hit eastern India last week, it caused a huge snowstorm on Everest, burying the tents of the last lot of climbers waiting to summit.

Final numbers have yet to be announced, but the tourism department estimates that 400 climbers reached the summit this year, far fewer than the 644 in 2019 when fewer permits were issued.

German climber Billi Bierling, who manages a database that records summits, said that the events of this year were unlikely to dim interest in Everest: "Maybe we will think about it and reflect on what happened in 2021, but once this is over, expedition operators and climbers will be coming back."

Child Marriage