It’s been nearly a year since the pandemic changed the world, ending high climbs for nearly every avid mountaineer. But now climber attitudes are peaking and high climb opportunities are looking up 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 summiting 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.

Most of the Seven Summits will be open if travel restrictions permit. All of the big mountains, except Mt. Kilimanjaro, had no season last year, making local economies and expedition companies keen to restart.

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

Registration for the 2021 mountaineering season for the climbs of Denali will open on 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-19-related refunds for canceled climbs.

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 a lack of passengers.

Mt. Everest is the tallest of the Seven Summits, the tallest mountain in the world, and will be open for the 2021 spring climbing season. After months of indecision, conflicting information, and false rumors, Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism issued rules all foreigners must meet as they enter the country, including a seven-day quarantine requirement.

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 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 expeditions to all seven summits and is the director of programs for Alpine Ascents. He points out there are no permits required for ascents up the continent’s highest peak but guide services may have specific requirements for climbers.

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 in 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 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,” said Nick Lewis, mountain operations for Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions. The company is planning the 2021 and Lewis said they have a lot of interest.

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,” he 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 a vaccination requirement.

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.”

They’re both right. 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.

Dan Stretch is a Global Rescue Operations Manager and is based in Nepal during the Mt. Everest climbing seasons. He has coordinated hundreds of evacuations and crisis response operations. He graduated from the University of Hertfordshire with a bachelor’s in paramedic science.

 

Written by: Dan Stretch