The Everest season started with a whimper, with climbers sneaking in through Covid laden skies.
Then hope sprang eternal, well for a few days at least, as the Sherpas strung the ropes up quickly and the Royal Bahraini team and others rushed to the summit. Off to a good start anyway.
But woe is Everest, there is nothing like climbing in the Himalaya for changing fortunes.
Then Cyclone number 1 struck, pushing climbers into a second round of summit bids. That window quickly became a short break of ideal weather, lasting for little more than a day.
Cyclone 1 was closely followed by Cyclone 2, with its attendant wind and snow, blowing tents here and there, and dropping enough snow to create thundering avalanches and collapsing tents.
Even before climbers got started on Everest this year, rumors, ripostes and regulations were brewing. Teams were forecasting a quiet mountain and the opportunity to avoid the dreaded lines.
Some companies, never-the-less, canceled completely, with either few clients, or with clients, but a firm stance of not introducing additional covid challenges into a country with woefully inadequate health care to start with.
With the Chinese restricting their side of the mountain to one internal all-Chinese team only, the operators who have traditionally gone North and advocated for its advantages, suddenly had to make a decision whether to cut and run for Nepal or batten down the hatches.
The two highest profile north side operators, Alpenglow, under Adrian Ballinger and Furtenbach Expeditions with Lukas Furtenbach, took diverging tacks, with Adrian canceling his Everest season and Lukas moving his to Nepal.
A host of Western guide companies, facing their own internal quarantines, travel challenges and a rapidly developing epidemic sweeping in from India canceled completely, with operators from Adventure Consulants, “We are going into hibernation,” said Guy Cotter, to Jagged Globe, with the U.K. effectively locked down, opting out completely.
Meanwhile, the local Nepali companies, offering prices to lure anyone with a few spare bills in their wallet, offered discounts and teams grew to 50 plus people. The Everest season went from quiet to record setting, with 408 people headed for Base Camp.
Western guiding companies, having faced a long dearth of business, and attempting to dodge the global pandemic, slid into Nepal and a covid light quarantine environment that allowed them easier passage than might be expected to Base Camp, up through a quiet Khumbu.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Nepal was issuing new rules to keep it all under control.
First, there “is no Covid,” and there would be no Covid. So not to worry.
Despite video calls from hospital beds in Kathmandu, with climbers triple-tested all positive, they held onto their story right through the season.
Then to ensure none of those photos, like this one I took in 2010 when I looked back over my shoulder on the descent and shot, were aired, they forbid them.
Nepal had came up with regulations limiting what you could show in your photograph – like lots of people in line, or other people, or people in front or behind you. Best to just take scenics of the ice and the sky.
This is a permitted photo – you may use it if needed.
You can caption it: “High up, on a tall mountain, in the morning.”
Then to finally ensure all was in good shape on Everest, they issued a proclamation that teams should climb in the order they received their permits.
As ever, the rules were not only ignored, but rather flagrantly disobeyed. Those Everest climbers, they are nothing but trouble. We already stand patiently in line, and as Willie Benegas recently texted me, we guides do try to be gentlemanly.
With Kami Sherpa leading the way to the top on his astounding 25th ascent, the path was in by early May.
Or as Reinhold Messner would comment, the piste (groomed ski run) was set to the top of the world.
As if the Nepal regulations weren’t foolish enough, the Chinese then announced a “line of separation.”
This line was to be maintained and policed by Yeti. Shortly afterwards, the Chinese cancelled all climbs from the North. One suspects the Yeti were wisely having none of this?
Close behind, and not unexpectedly given their title and heritage, the Royal Bahranian team marched steadfastly to the summit. One assumes that with a rumored rapid helicopter evacuation from as high as Camp 2 (does the summit really count?), and a plane summoned to Kathmandu, their season was perhaps the least fraught of any?
As if a bit of Covid circling camp wasn’t enough, the Cyclones started swirling up from the south, first building up and coming in from the Arabian Sea, closely followed by a second from the Bay of Bengal.
And while the weather maps showed them far out at sea and swirling up from very far away, all it took was the dregs of them to reach Everest and swirl into blizzards that flattened tents, loaded up the mountain with snow and sent avalanches thundering down from the heights.
Meanwhile (there were a lot of meanwhiles on Everest this year), Lukas Furtenbach was heli-climbing up the valley, acclimatizing from peak to peak as he and his team approached Everest.
They hopped from valley to valley, scenic photos charting their journey, camping low and flying and climbing high – an envious approach as long as you discount your environmental footprint. Arriving in Base Camp, where one climber had already arrived and vocally left the next day stating:
“The Covid situation at EBC is a total shitstorm. I had no clue what I was flying into.” The Guardian
Furtenbach Adventures, flying into camp, were suddenly dropped into a reality that had seemed to be kept at least partially under cover, with Lukas going public soon after with his bold but certainly admirable decision to cancel his expedition.
He cited the rationale around the number of covid cases he saw and heard himself, the safety of both his clients and his staff and the simple fact his Doctor said it was time to leave. As if anyone was in doubt, he stated it was “negligent” to continue. That word alone must have caused a few guides some doubt?
By this time, it was evident, through a mix of guarded press, happy climber selfies, first person covid interviews and the many personal messages direct from Kathmandu and Base Camp (never to be repeated) that the reality of Base Camp was anything but a home for happy campers.
Then a shadow-thin window of weather arrived between cyclones.
The weather forecasters became the gods of Everest as charts and graphs poured out, forecasting to the hour when the summit weather might clear.
It was now that a climbers choice of guiding company came to the fore. Both Madison Mountaineering and Mountain Professionals timed their climbs exquisitely, tossing tradition out the window, departing the South Col to hit the heights when it was both a low traffic time, and great weather.
Now it was time for the final act, the most challenging time on Everest, the moment of truth, for the ones who were waiting, and waiting. Mountain Trip departed as their Sherpa team shrunk to numbers too low to support an ascent. Alpine Ascents followed shortly behind.
Elite Expeditions under the infatiguable Nims Purja was still in residence, and Arnold Costner’s team with Colin O’Brady.
With their high profiles, the lateness of the season, pressure was on to pull off a last dash. Both climbed up through storms, and with very strong Sherpa support, found a final good weather day to call their own and reach the summit. Nims took perhaps a few extra Sherpas to deal with the conditions, undoubtably a good move. And Colin, originally planning to climb without oxygen, decided to use it, and at the last minute, also climbed with his wife Jenna Marie – certainly a better way to summit.
With that, the Everest season curtain goes down and the Ice Fall Doctors can throw a proper end of season party and Everest ER can thankfully shut its doors. They need to write a book about their season.
With the overlay of a global pandemic, double cyclones, myths and rumors perpetuated by byzantine rules, moral calls to actions and the reality of a still worsening covid reality now reaching into the mountains of Nepal, Everest has certainly produced a strange season.
Should you be compelled to celebrate your own high point in life, be it Everest or perhaps anything lower, perhaps you might consider taking up the challenge poised by Sir Edmund Hillary’s son Peter and donate an amount equal to the elevation you have attained on this earth.
For those Everest climbers traveling home, best of luck – with word on the ground that as ever in Nepal, a healthy bank balance will get you home. Just be careful – the U.K. now reporting the “Nepal Variant” is on the move.
*For those who have an appreciation for the Grateful Dead, you will have immediately recognized the adapted, but very suitable title taken from their second compilation album, “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been.”