Is It Time to Climb?

December 16, 2020
Categories: Travel Tips

It’s been nearly a year since the pandemic changed the world, and ended high climbs for nearly every avid mountaineer. But now climber attitudes are peaking and high climb opportunities are encouraging with most of the tallest mountains on each of the continents – the Seven Summits – open or expected to be open in 2021.

Reaching the top of the Seven Summits is considered a mountaineering challenge. In 1985, Richard Bass and his climbing partner Frank Wells successfully completed their goal of summitting the highest mountain on each continent, specifically Aconcagua for South America, Denali in North America, Mt. Kilimanjaro located in Africa, Mt. Elbrus in Europe, Vinson for Antarctica, Mt. Kosciuszko for Australia, and finally Mt. Everest for Asia.

Dan Stretch, Global Rescue operations manager, is based in Nepal during the Mt. Everest climbing season and expects most of the Seven Summits to be open if travel restrictions permit. “All of the big mountains, except Mt. Kilimanjaro, had no season last year. Local economies and expedition companies are keen to restart,” he said.

Currently, five of the seven mountains making up the Seven Summits are open.

Denali: Registration for the 2021 mountaineering season for climbs of Denali will open January 1, 2021.  “We are proceeding cautiously with a normal climbing season, with a few important caveats,” said Maureen Gualtieri, the mountaineering public information officer for Denali National Park and Preserve.

Gualtieri explained the mountaineering ranger staff are planning on a different approach to climber orientations in order to maintain social distancing and reduce or eliminate indoor interactions.

“On the mountain, there will undoubtedly be some protocol changes and the rangers are putting together those plans now,” she said while cautioning there will be no COVID-related refunds for cancelled climbs.

Mt. Kilimanjaro: Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro is open. Tanzania President John Magufuli lifted international flight bans in November and removed the 14-day quarantine for foreigners. Ascents to the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain are ongoing. However, international flights into the Kilimanjaro airport may be canceled due to lack of passengers, according to some reports.

Mt. Everest: Mt. Everest sits on the border of China and Nepal. It is the tallest of the Seven Summits, the tallest mountain in the world, and – as of mid-December – it is officially three feet taller now reaching 29,032 ft (8,848.86 m) following a joint agreement between Chinese and Nepalese official surveyors.

But is it open for climbing? Yes. A 2021 spring climbing season is expected to take place. After months of indecision, conflicting information and false rumors, Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism issued rules, including a seven-day quarantine requirement, all foreigners must meet as they enter the country.

Climbing expert and Mt. Everest chronicler Alan Arnette is predicting record crowds for the 2021 spring season prompted by the pent-up demand from 2020, deep discounts and heavy publicity the pandemic is under control or over. “With the deep discounts, this will encourage another 2019 with inexperienced clients, unqualified guides and overcrowding. I suggest waiting another year and let this environment settle,” he said.

Mt. Kosciuszko: Mt. Kosciuszko is open, provided you can get to Australia. Access to the mountain is relatively easy since it is an operational ski resort. “It’s a drive, a ski lift and a hike for a few hours and you’re there,” said Gordon Janow, who has led expedition to all seven summits and is the director of programs for Alpine Ascents. He points out that there are no permits required for ascents up the continent’s highest peak but guide services may have specific requirements for climbers.

Mt. Elbrus: The ideal climbing season on Mt. Elbrus, located in the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, is during the summer. Mark Gunlogson, president of Mountain Madness, believes it will be open this summer. “Last summer the mountain was open by the end of the season with a lot of Russian climbers on the mountain. Hopefully with the vaccine and improved political relationships the mountain will be open summer 2021.” Gunlogson usually runs a mid-June trip but may push into July “to put more time and space between people being immunized and when we decide to start our season.”

Mt. Vinson: Mt. Vinson in Antarctica never closed, technically. But the company providing access and logistics on the mountain suspended operations for the 2020 season due to the pandemic. “The Mt. Vinson climbing season runs from late November to mid-January. We finished our 2019/20 season and started planning the 2020/21 season when the pandemic changed everything. After extensive research, It became clear to us by late summer that it would be too difficult to operate safely so we unfortunately had to cancel the season,” said Nick Lewis, mountain operations for Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions.

Mt. Vinson is unique among the Seven Summits due to its pristine polar setting, cold temperatures, and lack of crowds. The company is currently planning the 2021 season and Lewis said they have a lot of interest. “Climbers should expect changes for COVID-19 safety and we will continue to develop our protocols based on availability of vaccines and treatments,” he said.

Aconcagua: Officials in the Mendoza Province of Argentina recently announced Aconcagua will remain closed, according to Sebastián Melchor, director of Renewable Natural Resources of the Secretary of Environment and Territorial Planning of Mendoza.

“[T]he opinion of this council recommended that we open the park but without spending the night,” Melchor said. From this decision, it would be forbidden to climb Aconcagua, since an ascent to its summit takes between 12 and 15 days.

Lukas Furtenbach, owner at Furtenbach Adventures in Austria, expects all climbing destinations will require a negative COVID-19 test prior to arrival, but not proof of vaccination. “I don’t see a proof of vaccination requirement before the third quarter of 2021 since the vaccine will not be widely enough available until then,” he said, adding airlines and some countries may implement this requirement earlier.

Arnette forecasts the pandemic will not be over before the prime spring 2021 climbing season in the Himalayas, so climbers must use their judgement to determine if it’s safe to climb. “Guides and governments will tell you that it is safe, but they are hurting for business, so it's incumbent on each individual to make their own risk assessment.”

Furtenbach said climbers will continue to be required to have rescue protection services as a condition for climbs, but travel insurance may be required, too. “Now they also need a proof of travel insurance covering COVID-19 treatment. This became mandatory for Nepal, for example, for a climbing permit application. Other countries will follow for sure,” he said.

Stretch agreed. “It would be highly irresponsible not to have rescue coverage and medical insurance, due to remote location of the mountains and the high-risk nature of the Seven Summits – regardless of the COVID-19 risk factor.”

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