Nepalese officials announced a late summer reopening for its climbing and trekking season which was closed nearly four months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Ministry Secretary Kedar Bahadur Adhikari, “The ministry plans to resume all tourism related activities by following health and safety protocols.”

Nepal shut down its climbing and trekking season nearly four months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s unclear when international flights into Nepal will resume, but officials suggest it will be on a phased schedule, starting with flights from locations “less affected” by COVID-19, officials said, adding that all arriving passengers will need to show negative test results for the virus to enter Nepal.

Climbers, trekkers and expedition guides are cautiously optimistic.

“I depart on October 2,” said Xjilien Tan, a Singapore resident, avid climber and Global Rescue member. “Singapore Airlines hasn’t cancelled my flights yet and I’m waiting for the Nepali SOP for safe travel and expedition announcements. Then we shall proceed.”

More than 200,000 people visit Nepal each year to climb or trek the Himalayas, which include eight of the 10 highest peaks in the world. Some look to summit Mount Everest (8,848 m/29,029 ft), the highest peak on earth, or one of the other mountaineering challenges.

Others prefer high-altitude climbing peaks like Island Peak and Lobuche East (each between 6,000 m/21,000 ft), while some prefer circuit treks near Annapurna or out-and-back treks like Upper Mustang which is a limited space excursion to the “Last Forbidden Kingdom.”

Concerns for Climbing During Coronavirus

Whether climbers and trekkers return to Nepal in 2020 depends on several factors.

The pandemic decimated the Nepalese tourism industry which accounts for nearly a tenth of the country’s gross domestic product, providing more than one million jobs. Once officials approve the reopening of climbing and trekking businesses, local expedition companies are expected to begin operating. International operators will need to follow suit or risk losing market share and their repeat customers.

Whether international climbers and trekkers proceed in the autumn with locally available tour operators or international operators is unclear.

“We’re eager to return to Nepal, but not until we are ready and responsibly able to do so,” said Greg Vernovage, program director and Everest expedition leader at International Mountain Guides and a Global Rescue Safe Travel Partner.

Gordon Jasnow of Alpine Ascents is taking a similar stance.

“Our trips in Nepal are canceled until further notice. I need to see how the COVID-19 situation evolves so we have more information to make a decision to go,” he said.

Quarantine Before, After or Both?

Travelers considering a climbing expedition or trek in Nepal will also need to know the self-isolation rules for getting into the country and returning home. It’s unclear whether Nepalese officials will require any period of quarantine for international visitors upon arrival, regardless of the individual’s negative COVID-19 test.

Travelers will need to factor in the self-isolation requirements for a return to their home country as well. For example, United Kingdom residents need to self-isolate for 14-days upon return.

“We do not anticipate quarantine on arrival into Nepal,” said Adrian Ballinger, a high-altitude mountain guide for Alpenglow Expeditions and a Global Rescue Safe Travel Partner. “We’re prepared to travel direct from the international airport arrival terminal to a controlled Alpenglow base camp via private helicopter to minimize exposure.”

“Our requirements include testing staff and members, providing single accommodations, minimizing the use of group lodges, avoiding or minimizing time in potential hotspots like Kathmandu and Lukla, providing private ground transportation, the potential use of helicopters and private and closed basecamp facilities,” he said.

If quarantining is required then every traveler would need to add those days to their planning, potentially increasing a trip duration by two to four weeks.

Jasnow said at least one customer from New York City decided against joining the Mount Rainier (Washington) climb because he’d have to self-isolate for 14 days after returning.

The Difference Between HAPE and COVID-19 Symptoms

COVID-19 and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) affect human respiratory function but must be treated differently. Physician authorities from the American Thoracic Society warn, “the compelling need to quickly identify treatment options [for COVID-19] … have led to erroneous and potentially dangerous comparisons between COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases like high altitude pulmonary edema, or HAPE.”

Mountain conditions for climbing and trekking typically include: cold weather, shared tents for meal time and sleeping and high altitudes that can affect the immune system – each of which is ideal for disease spread unless stringent protocols are enforced. It’s imperative travelers and expedition operators consider these factors before embarking on an excursion.

Medical Infrastructure

“Anyone at high risk should delay travel to Nepal until there is a proven COVID-19 vaccine,” Vernovage said. “All indications are that a vaccine is not that far away and could be well worth the wait.”

“If and when you do go, be mindful that Nepal’s capabilities for managing COVID-19 cases are still unproven. Most trekkers and climbers will venture to very remote areas where – even in the best of times – familiarity with the symptoms common to travel illness in the region and at high altitude is critical, as well as the expertise to diagnose and respond quickly,” he added.

Global Rescue operations manager Daniel Stretch, based in Nepal during climbing seasons, agreed Nepal is not as well-equipped to handle medical emergencies compared to other countries like the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.

“Only a third of Nepal hospitals have ICU units, or about 17 ICU beds per one million people compared to the U.S., which has 20 times the number of ICU beds per million people,” he said.

International Versus Domestic Climbs

Jasnow said customers are weighing all factors and most companies don’t have the bookings right now to warrant going to Nepal.

“It’s just not financially feasible. Customers attitudes are mixed. For some, we’re giving them the opportunity to climb Mount Rainier and they’re happy. Others are sitting back, waiting and hoping,” he said.

Vernovage has a number of climbers and trekkers who want to go to Nepal in 2020 but, for now, he’s not making a commitment.

“We are continuing to monitor the situation. As much as we’d love to get back to work, our job is to evaluate climbing risk on Everest and mitigate it. One form of mitigation is to simply not climb or trek when the risk is unreasonable or unavoidable,” he said.

For Americans, international climbs and treks are off the table for right now, but domestic opportunities are plentiful and filling up.

“My domestic programs are doing well for the ones I can offer,” Jasnow said. “We’re full for Mount Rainier (4,392 m/14,411 ft), which is a three-day climb. We’re full for Mount Baker (3,286 m/10,781 ft) and Denali (6,190 m /20,310 ft) is almost full for next year.”

Know Before You Go

Climbers and trekkers should fully vet their climbing guide or tour operator for coronavirus protocols.

Vernovage said his firm is taking multiple risk mitigation precautions.

“We introduced greater social distancing and health and safety awareness, including a modified itinerary to avoid large groups and stay off the main trekking routes. We increased sanitation protocols and more separated hiking, sleeping and dining configurations,” he said. “Those modifications will likely remain in place for some time.”

A Global Rescue travel services membership can also help climbers and trekkers mitigate risk.

Global Rescue works with thousands of tour operators and travel industry businesses as part of its Safe Travel Partner program providing access to risk assessment services, health care infrastructure data and medical evacuation from the point of injury or illness.

“Global Rescue has risen above its industry peers on that front,” Vernovage said.