The spring climbing season is here, Mount Everest is open and the pandemic looms. Climbers, expedition guides and many others are eager to return to the Himalayan range but without a clear and reliable coronavirus outlook no uniform approach is coming soon.

There will most likely only be half of the normal numbers of climbers on the Nepal side of Everest compared with last season prior to the pandemic onset. The reason is simple: many outfitters remain apprehensive about bringing teams to Mount Everest. They ultimately decided to postpone or cancel until the 2022 season.

Expedition guides choosing this path is certainly understandable. Guide services expect to take on the responsibility associated with the inherent risks and challenges of climbing an 8,000-meter peak. But the additional full, or partial, obligation associated with clients traveling to Nepal in the midst of a pandemic was too much for many. China, the country where the Northeast Ridge route to summit Mount Everest is located, is prohibiting foreigners into Tibet, eliminating all the expedition teams planning on climbing the north side Mount Everest, Cho Oyu and Shishapangma.

Lukas Furtenbach, a Mount Everest guide already in Nepal and set to lead expeditions, agreed the tallest mountain in the world will not be very crowded.

“I expect fewer climbers than normal on the south side in Nepal. China is closed for foreigners. There are still uncertainties about the immigration and quarantine protocol in Nepal but overall situation looks promising,” he said.

Less crowded? Yes. But the mountain will be very busy, according to Dan Stretch, the Global Rescue Operations Manager who is based in Nepal during the Mount Everest climbing seasons.

“There are 289 permits being processed for Mount Everest – the record was 381 in 2019. If all those permit holders travel, and you include all the support staff and climbing guides then you can expect in excess of 700 to 1,000 people potentially on the mountain. It will be quieter than 2019, but still potentially very busy and with risks of overcrowding if the climbing groups are not well managed.”

That is potentially good news for climbers attempting to summit Mount Everest this season. Camps won’t be as crowded, perhaps there will be shorter lines to stand in the icefall, and hopefully fewer crowds going to the summit on the same day. That definitely makes things more enjoyable and safer. But do not be lulled into a false sense of security. There will be a fair number on the mountain, making the potential for a crowded summit day a real possibility.

Furtenbach admitted the pandemic protocols like physical distancing will make climbing Mount Everest this spring very different from the past.

“The social part during the approach and in basecamp will be limited for clients and staff, but it`s necessary. We will stay in our own bubble and we will be testing.”

Gordon Jasnow, an expedition guide with Alpenglow who will lead Mount Everest climbs this year, concurred.

“As our climbing teams move up to Base Camp they will all be in a pod. We are not staying in lodges. We will be tenting along the way and making our own food.”

Climbing Mount Everest is certainly a tremendous challenge. Getting to Nepal to make the attempt to summit the mountain, or trek to Base Camp, will be a challenge, too. The pandemic makes international travel tough for some.

“You will see a higher ratio of U.S., Indian, and Asian climbers able to get to Nepal compared to European mountaineers due to pandemic-related travel restrictions,” Stretch said.

But the playing field levels out once people arrive in Nepal.

“Everyone has to comply with new entry rules that include obtaining $5,000 (USD) in medical insurance including coverage for COVID-19, presenting a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to travel, and 5-10 days quarantine in Kathmandu,” he said.

The Nepalese economy relies heavily on the tourist industry, and Mount Everest expeditions are a major part of the annual business. Nevertheless, some businesses are closed while others are re-opening.

“Hotels, bars, restaurants in Kathmandu have resumed near normal operations with standard precautions for hand washing and face masks requirements. Visitors can be arrested for failure to wear a mask,” Stretch said.

It comes as little surprise to me that people with a desire to climb the tallest mountain in the world are equally as eager to prepare and overcome the pandemic challenges standing in their way.

“Everyone is keen to climb, to get out, to travel again after this long year of lockdowns. But everyone understands the situation and the limitations,” Furtenbach said. “I am not surprised that people are now willing to go through the extra expense and hassle to go ahead with their expeditions. With 2020 cancelled there will be lots of people willing to make the effort and lots of expedition companies keen to resume business,” Stretch said.

Ed Viesturs is a member of the Global Rescue Mountain Advisory Council and the only American to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000+ meter peaks, and the fifth person to do so without using supplemental oxygen.

By Ed Viesturs