Himalayan Season Wrapup

8000ers Everest Himalaya
Secrecy and controversy overshadowed the climbing on Everest in 2021. Photo: Everest ER

The spring Himalayan season had ended, with decidedly mixed results. On the positive side, Marek Holecek and Radoslav Groh opened a new route alpine-style on the west face of Baruntse. They especially showed their mettle during the descent. The twosome endured four foodless days in a tiny bivouac tent when Cyclone Yaas hit and they couldn’t move.

Meanwhile, Slovak Peter Hamor and Romanians Horia Colibasanu and Marius Gane attempted a new route on Dhaulagiri’s Northwest Ridge, but retreated after surviving an avalanche that buried their tent as they slept.

The real deal: Marek Holecek and Radoslav Groh, high on Baruntse. Photo: Holecek/Groh

On the other hand, what happened on other mountains wasn’t so much mountaineering as business. It was all about marketing, project management, corporate public relations, and contingency plans.

High-altitude expectations

After a COVID-stricken 2020, recovery was the motto for this spring. Expectations were high. Climbers craved adventure and high-altitude glory. Outfitters, tourism businesses, and Nepali authorities were equally eager to squeeze the country’s rich natural resources, Everest above all.

In high-altitude tourism, higher is better. Luckily, Nepal has Everest. With China closed to foreign expeditions, Nepal’s side of the mountain was going to enjoy the whole tourism enchilada.

Optimizing profits

Big teams and their big money have prompted companies to up their game. They hire the most experienced Sherpa climbers, fly delicacies into base camps and high camps, and supply loads of oxygen.

For other 8,000’ers, the trick was to optimize costs by balancing lots of resources with lots of clients, focusing everything on one mountain at a time, and encouraging double-headers. But it was definitely not two for the price of one.

Out of the eight 8,000’ers in Nepal, climbers divided between Everest (with some also aiming for neighboring Lhotse) and Annapurna plus Dhaulagiri. Companies offered these two latter mountains as back-to-back targets. Big teams used the same fixed ropes and resources, and the same staff that worked Annapurna later moved to Dhaulagiri.

This is why the first climbers who reached Dhaulagiri in mid-April found the mountain quiet, with no fixed ropes or higher camps. The route-fixing team was still on its way there from Annapurna.

Annapurna Base Camp at night. Photo: Kamran on Bike

While Annapurna succeeded spectacularly, Dhaulagiri failed because of tough conditions and a COVID outbreak. Some Sherpa guides and a few clients then switched to Lhotse. Such triple headers have been possible thanks to the massive use of O2 and helicopter airlifts between Base Camps.

The COVID season

We never heard much about trekkers or climbers on lesser peaks. This was not a season for trekkers, anyway. The uncertainty about COVID and Nepal’s unclear, hesitant countermeasures put off nearly everyone with limited time and budgets.

On the other hand, climbers ready to spend a couple of months in the mountains could well afford to quarantine in Kathmandu for a few days. However, even those long quarantine requirements soon eased, under the pressure from outfitters — especially after it became clear that COVID or not, big-money clients were flocking in droves to Nepal.

And why not? Contagion rates in March were relatively low, the outdoors is a safe environment, and climbers could isolate themselves in their own team bubbles. This had worked on winter K2, so why not here?

Large teams such as India’s CAFP gathered in Everest Base Camp. Photo: Seven Summit Treks

Well, for two main reasons. First, a casualness toward the virus and faith in PCRs created a false sense of security. Second, local guides and staff with the expeditions had few or no safety guidelines. They moved freely between Kathmandu and the mountains and often visited friends and relatives downvalley before returning to BC.

Many young Nepalis also work abroad, and the permeable, 1,750km border with India combined to create a devastating COVID wave in Nepal. Soon, the quiet, healthy times of March were a distant memory.

Line of people heading up Annapurna

The long line to the summit of Annapurna. Photo: Pasang Lamu Sherpa Akita

In mid-April, 68 Annapurna summiters and an unknown number of staff celebrated their success in Pokhara for several days. Most of them then traveled to Dhaulagiri. Several carried the virus. Soon, over 50 people tested positive, including a number of climbers who took part in a tentative summit push which actually ended in Camp 2.

Meanwhile at Everest, crew and clients started getting sick. They were all evacuated to a hospital in Kathmandu with a preliminary diagnosis of Acute Mountain Sickness. Doctors at the Himalayan Rescue Association field clinic were not allowed to run COVID tests, although a few international team leaders brought their own diagnostic tools.

Good news only

When the positives started coming in, both in Kathmandu and at BC, Nepal authorities simply denied the facts. Their main effort seemed to be to sustain a policy of secrecy that had started pre-season, with rules meant to deter sharing negative photos (eg. of summit crowds) on social media.

In 2021, Nepal’s Department of Tourism tried to issue as many climbing permits as possible while avoiding damaging news or images that could further taint the Everest brand.

Ultimately, they issued a record 408 permits, estimated at $4.2 million. That was a success. But silencing bad news proved impossible and even created a backlash.

An Icefall Doctor at Camp 2. Photo: SPCC

Nepal’s Department of Tourism launched an awkward set of rules, forbidding climbers to use drones and take pictures of anyone except their own team members. It also outlawed helicopter flights from BC to Kathmandu except in medical emergencies.

These rules were neither strictly enforced nor respected. So officials backed it up by threatening expedition leaders. Keep your troops in order, they said, or you might have trouble obtaining climbing permits in the future.

Ensued nothing but sunny, inspirational, Instagrammy reports notable for their absolute lack of information. This led to a fever-pitch of rumors and bitter, off-the-record comments that I’ve never experienced in more than 20 years of mountain journalism.

Furtenbach Adventures performed COVID tests in Base Camp. Photo: Furtenbach Adventures

COVID beyond Base Camp

The main controversy this season was less about crowds and deaths (although both occurred) than COVID. More and more climbers ended up in the hospital in Kathmandu, and some eventually admitted to positive tests.

Some expedition groups, deeply concerned about the outbreak, abandoned their climb entirely. Later, they spoke freely about the real situation. It would have been almost laughable, if not for the tragedy the rest of the country was undergoing.

Further testimonies confirmed that several climbers went up to higher camps while sick. Sigurdur Sveinsson and Heimir Hallgrimsson showed symptoms on the way up but they still reached the top — and became seriously sick on the way down, according to the Voice of America.

Briton Simone Ferrier-May, after some confusing posts which suggested that he had summited with COVID, later explained that his symptoms transpired earlier in the month, and he wasn’t sure that they signaled COVID or not.

“It was highly likely to be COVID…[because] the two people I sat next to in the dining tent at Base Camp (who were also sick around the same dates) later flew to Lukla and tested positive,” he said.

Two weeks later, by which time he would presumably have recovered in any case, he summited Everest.

Scott Simper, climbing with Elia Saikaly’s film crew, did summit with COVID.

Erlend Ness, the first Everest climber to admit from his hospital bed in Kathmandu that he had COVID. Photo: Erlend Ness

While some teams did everything to avoid the virus by fencing in their camps, avoiding outside interactions, and being as cautious as possible, others sloppily tried to convey an image of normalcy by holding inter-team parties, despite the angry reaction when they shared the videos of Base Camp fun.

In particular, the increasingly powerful Nepali companies were keen to show their lack of concern for COVID, resorting to personal attacks on the journalists who reported it! Like Nepal itself, they wanted controlled-only news — in other words, pr — permitted on the mountain.

Chopper & O2 tactics

In addition to expanded Sherpa assistance and fixed ropes along the entire route, tactics included abundant oxygen cylinders and limitless use of helicopters. When the rope-fixing team on Annapurna discovered that they were short of rope, a helicopter bought a fresh supply, plus O2, right to Camp 4. The extra oxygen allowed clients to linger for two days in their tents at 7,000m while Sherpas put the additional ropes in place.

A helicopter evacuates more climbers from Everest Base Camp. Photo: SummitClimb

At its peak, between 1,500 and 2,000 people transformed Everest Base Camp into a small town. This included foreign climbers for Everest and Lhotse, plus friends, BC staff, porters, rope-fixing teams, and guides.

An army of helicopters flew up and down the Khumbu constantly to resupply this population. They went up to Camp 2, performed rescues, carried gear and supplies, and even shuttled some climbers not to keen to tackle the Khumbu Icefall.

Sherpas carry O2 canisters down the mountain.

When two cyclones in a row hit the Indian subcontinent and its winds and moisture reached Everest, climbers continued to wait confidently in Camp 2, knowing that plenty of oxygen was available, even if they wanted to begin using it that low down, from 6,400m to the summit.

Breathing easier

New O2 systems now permit a stronger flow, multiplying summit options. The greatest challenge of Everest is its altitude. More oxygen decreases the virtual altitude and the mountain shrinks to within the abilities of a growing number of lightly prepared clients. Added to this, this year’s ramped-up Sherpa/client ratio, about two Sherpas for each paying client. Alan Arnette points that in addition to the “personal Sherpa guide”, helping or short-roping the climber, they needed an extra man per person simply to carry oxygen bottles.

Large amounts of O2 have caused debate for years, but this season, the issue went beyond Everest. Stricken with COVID, Nepal’s hospitals begged for supplies of oxygen to deal with their alarming shortage. Everest climbers, focused on their own goals, agreed at best to donate the empty canisters for refilling and use at hospitals. One team leader even posted a plea for the UK government to donate oxygen and aid material, before he led his own totally O2-assisted team up the mountain.

Huge line of climbers in shadow on Everest

From Camp 3, a wave of climbers troop toward the summit of Everest. Photo: Mingma Dorchi Sherpa

400 summits

In the end, there were nearly 400 summits, none of them without oxygen. The few climbers intending to climb without it announced that they had given up that harder goal, except Colin O’Brady, who kept silent on the issue while he was on his summit push. After he returned, he claimed that he had used oxygen because his wife had decided to go for the summit as well.

There were some route records, but their relevance gets diluted in the huge numbers, the motivations, and the unaccounted use of external resources. Kami Rita Sherpa, a professional guide and route-setter for decades, bagged his 25th Everest summit. Norwegian Kristin Harila — with Phurba Sherpa, Pasdawa Sherpa and Kami Rita Sherpa — summited Lhotse 13 hours after Everest earlier in May, before the cyclones. Hong Kong’s Ada Tsang Yin-hung summited in 25h 50minutes, on full oxygen and supported by six Sherpas.

Oleg Ivanchenko of Ukraine breaks trail on Lhotse last week. Conditions prevented big teams from trying and small teams from succeeding. The Ukrainians retreated after covering only 200m in five hours, without oxygen.  Photo: Petro Shamborovskyy

Diminished bragging rights

While summit pictures were tightly cropped, other photos soon showed that long lines and crowds had hardly disappeared.

After the scandals, the secrecy, and the lack of any remarkable ascent, audiences were far from impressed. Some climbers have begun to complain about the negative comments they are getting in response to their summit pictures. Again, their knee-jerk response is mainly to blame the media.

The government of Pakistan was equally unimpressed. Pakistan’s own climbing season begins shortly and officials are determined to avoid such COVID outbreaks in their own base camps, where helicopters are not easily available. That may mean cutting the number of expeditions, especially those coming directly from Nepal.

They have also banned Nepali citizens from entering the country. This includes the many Sherpa climbers who work for international outfitters. Only fully vaccinated people may enter the country.

In the end, the Nepalis shoulder the burden of a reality that some of them tried so hard to hide. As for the future of Everest expeditions, it is likely that even more support, more oxygen, more helicopters, more business will supplant what most of us consider mountaineering. Yet the real value of summiting Everest remains the individual, personal experience — a few moments to cherish forever.

Photo: Madison Mountaineering

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About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!

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MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
4 months ago

Excellent summary, Angela! What is next? Now that climbers have almost limitless O2 and an extra Sherpa to carry those bottles, why should a climbing client have to carry even the O2 bottle they are using? Someone is probably developing a long-line umbilical system that tethers client to Sherpa, so the climb is even more enjoyable and no pesky bottle to lug. If it works for astronauts on spacewalks, why not for VVIP tourists on Everest? Now if only they could pressurize climbing wear like space suits you could book a “last 100 feet to the summit” expedition and claim… Read more »

Give me some oxygen!
Give me some oxygen!
4 months ago
Reply to  MuddyBoots

I agree. Here’s a good business idea for someone who can be bothered (I’ll take 50% commission, thank you very much) – develop a long-line oxygen flow tube (which will be rugged and hard-wearing to sustain exposure to the elements) which could be utilized by the tourists to tether their oxygen masks into the oxygen line instead of carrying canisters up and down the mountain. The long-line system can have oxygen inflow from either end of the line at a continuous rate to ensure that there is always oxygen in the system. For example, between C4 and the summit, the… Read more »

MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
4 months ago

Yes, it’s so important to make this climb not only safer, but also easier. Why should the highest mountain be off-limits to the inexperienced? Strike that pejorative term, we should call them ‘pre-experienced’. The pre-experienced market is much larger! And they haven’t depleted their travel budgets and holiday time by climbing other 8k or even 7k peaks!

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Don Paul
Don Paul
4 months ago
Reply to  MuddyBoots

What’s next? Buildings and roads.

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Chris Shaw
Chris Shaw
4 months ago
Reply to  Don Paul

Escalators!

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Apy
Apy
4 months ago
Reply to  MuddyBoots

At least one European outfitter had a VVIP Express Everest package. Pre-acclimatation at home in oxygen tents. Trekking from Namche. 2 Western guides. 4 sherpas. 7 cylinders oxygen from C2 at 4l. Return by heli. 32 days home-summit-home. Name withheld but all details on outfitter’s page, and name can be easily found on Internet.

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Dave
Dave
4 months ago

I’m still amazed by the performance of people like Nirmal Purja. Even in this totally mental climbing season and past year of a pandemic he has summited K2 in winter and led a team up Mt Everest with 100% success rate. Absolutely indomitable

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Paul
Paul
4 months ago
Reply to  Dave

He didn’t have 100% success rate, this is just his PR.
Two of his clients not summited so just 6 of 8 made it to the top – 75% success rate.
And 0% success rate on Lhotse, not so spectacular…

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Apy
Apy
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul

To be fair to Nims, he had 100% success of those who started the climb. One quit coz got fed up waiting and the other caught covid. As for Lhotse, nobody summited on those days. On the other hand there were more than 80 summits on Everest on May 3/Jun 1 where there would have been none if Nims had not taken the lead. But I totally agree on what is being said on his ego (did anybody see his triumphant arrival at Katmandu Marriot..? mindbogling! A real personality cult in Nepal.)

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Adrian
Adrian
4 months ago
Reply to  Dave

His ego is way too huge. He’s got amazing genes but his personality is trash.

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MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
4 months ago
Reply to  Dave

Would like to see a head-to-head between Purja and Holecek. Or just make Purja climb without pre-fixed ropes and his team of ultra-experienced Sherpas. Then it’s a fair comparison.

Look, I have commended Purja for his strengths and acumen in the past. But his greatest advantage may be his attention-getting (if cringe-inducing) PR skills.

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Last edited 4 months ago by MuddyBoots
Apy
Apy
4 months ago
Reply to  MuddyBoots

Totally agree except one point. Nims does rope-fixing himself (see Everest 2017, K2 2019 and K2 2021 winter). So he can climb without ropes.

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Weedrocker
Weedrocker
4 months ago
Reply to  Apy

K2 2021 rope fixing was done by Mingmar G.

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Apy
Apy
4 months ago
Reply to  Weedrocker

Yes in part, but all the members of the 10-man team contributed. In one if his postings, Mingma G. said “and Nims, along with two other Sherpa continued fixing another 300 meters of rope above camp three as well.”

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Daniel
Daniel
4 months ago

It is an interesting discussion re. oxygen used on the mountain vs oxygen shortages in the hospitals. My understanding is that the cylinders are completely different. An oxygen bottle designed for high altitude climbing would not be any use in a hospital – the tanks they use are totally different. It’s an easy comparison to make but I don’t believe it is an accurate one.

Open to correction on this – just noting a few articles I have read

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MuddyBoots
MuddyBoots
4 months ago
Reply to  Daniel

Daniel, While it is true that the cylinders used for climbing cannot be used in hospital ICUs (which use larger cylinders that supply more than 1 patient), they can be used in at-home care, and using O2 earlier in the course of Covid can actually avoid the need for hospitalization, or keep patients alive until a bed in a medical facility is available. The flow rates needed for home care are actually quite low, so the high altitude cylinders would last longer than they do for climbers too. Remember these countries don’t have the same medical infrastructure as Europe/ East… Read more »

Don Paul
Don Paul
4 months ago
Reply to  Daniel

I think 7 Summits has been donating or selling them for medical use for a few weeks now.

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lmontejo
Dr. Leo Montejo
4 months ago
Reply to  Daniel

I’m a medical doctor and anesthesiologist who has spent much time in ICU’s. O2 is O2 however it’s wrapped, and of course it can be used in most critical care settings. What you are referring to is probably the attachment of a mountain O2 bottle to a medical ventilator, which one would need in case the patient is intubated. But even if the fittings are different, there are simple tricks one can use to have O2 fed next to the tip of an endotracheal tube from a mountain cylinder while the patient is on a ventilator. Bottom line is yes,… Read more »

Last edited 4 months ago by lmontejo
Atharva
Atharva
4 months ago

Completely agree good stuff dr. Montejo.

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Don Paul
Don Paul
4 months ago

It seems like the Nepalis think their entire economy depends on Mount Everest tourism. Maybe its true. Or maybe it’s just the main source of kickbacks. They only recently overthrew their king. They had communist guerrillas, but they just charged a $5 toll and were not taken seriously. So now there is this appalling situation with people taking the most expensive vacations possible in the same place where the pandemic is devastating the so-called natives.

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Lenore Jones
Lenore Jones
4 months ago

Nice article, but “short-roping”, really? You know that’s not routine, and only happens in dire emergency rescues. You’re just encouraging people’s prejudices about commercial climbing by mentioning it. Fixed lines and oxygen have made Everest safer and more accessible, but you still have to climb the bloody thing. No one hauls you up.

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Kandy Albertin
Kandy Albertin
4 months ago

This isn’t mountaineering. This is pay-to-play. Like a park and rec league team sport.
True Everest expedition is over. Not to mention other mountains.

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