Nepal Grounds All International and Domestic Flights. How will Everest Climbers Get Home Now?

As Covid cases reach record highs in Nepal, the government announced today that all international and domestic flights will be suspended. Domestic flights will be halted on midnight, Monday 3 May, with international flights ending at midnight, Wednesday 5 May. Currently, this is schedule to be in place until 14 May.

While Kathmandu Valley locked down last week, additional restrictions are expected to be implemented, further curtailing movement for both locals and travelers alike. With a number of confirmed cases, and rumors of many more in Everest Base Camp, a personal interview from CNN on departing Norwegian climber Erlend Ness highlights what’s really happening on the ground.

Nepal’s attempts to dodge or ignore Covid, as has been repeatedly seen in the rest of the world, has only exacerbated the situation. Very sadly, for the people of Nepal, this situation is worsening by the day, with hospitals overcrowded, oxygen running out, and as we have seen in India, even the respectful traditions honoring the dead curtailed.

While true numbers surrounding Covid cases and death rates seem to be easily fudged, the reality on the ground, with headlines about the crematoriums running non-stop, are hard to miss.

Covid is sparing no one, with the former King and Queen of Nepal returning from India with Covid, and the Minster of Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister and his wife also infected, as reported in the Nepali Times. One of the appeals of Everest in recent years is a civilized walk up the Khumbu, acclimatizing on close by but arguably safer peaks, using the newer and more efficient oxygen systems, helicoptering back to Kathmandu and having a quick journey home.

Taking this to the extreme are the new “flash” ascents, where for double (or triple) the price, you can Heli-acclimitise, flying and climbing high, sleeping low, and zipping into Base Camp, for a rapid ascent to the summit. Costly, but quick.

For climbers on Everest, looking to summit and return home soon, the airport suspension is just another concern added to the challenge of the climb, that has come at a very bad time.

On the summit of Cho Oyu, with Dawa, Everest on far left horizon.

The last thing you want to be doing on Everest is climbing up, while worrying about getting down and home safely.

With the inevitable rapid exodus of people from Kathmandu over the next few days, sneaking out early will prove problematical and getting out after a climb looks increasingly uncertain. Nepal has a reputation for putting Covid rules in place, and then continually extending them. At the same time, things can also change in Nepal for little or no reason. So hope can spring eternal, all at the same time, part of Nepal’s endless appeal.

If you are on Everest and have an open timetable, perhaps travel and flights aren’t such a concern. But for the many climbers who are on a confirmed schedule, the high emotions of altitude, concerns from family and friends, business commitments and a rather tall mountain looming overhead could prove rather daunting.

Everest (right) and Lhotse, seen from Makalu Camp 2.

The ability to simply charter a helicopter one morning out of Base Camp, lounge beside the Kathmandu hotel pool in the afternoon and get on a flight home the next morning while toasting your success with champagne, is looking less and less likely.

Climbers will have some difficult choices it seems.

They can stay in Base Camp, climb as much as possible per usual and as weather permits – while ignoring the outside world until you have to deal with it. You may climb Everest but as hospitals and Nepalis struggle below without oxygen your memories may not be as pleasant as you’d like.

Or you can hope, really hope, that Covid fades quickly, the airports open and you get out in a reasonable time frame. You may be criticized for dreaming, but Everest climbers often dream or they wouldn’t be there in the first place, so this so may be worth considering? Being in Base Camp may be better than being stuck in Kathmandu right now, looking for the lessor of two evils may be the deciding factor.

The other option is to discretely bring your own or charter a private jet into Kathmandu, offer a few seats to your new Everest climbing friends, and sneak out of town under cover of darkness. While not an option for some, the Everest climber demographic is not your average demographic and certainly this is an option worth considering. Charter flights are still being allowed to operate, and what constitutes a charter can be pretty liberal in definition.

This is all assuming that as a climber, you are still well, haven’t got Covid yourself and end up waiting in line for a hospital bed.

Just to be safe, you may want to take your Everest oxygen along to Kathmandu with you.

Details on all closures and updates are on the U.S. Embassy site in Nepal.