China shuts down Mount Everest to climbers amid coronavirus outbreak: Sources

(BEIJING) — China is not giving permits to climbers hoping to summit Mount Everest this season, multiple mountaineering sources confirmed to ABC News.

The reports that climbers won’t be able to make attempts from the northern, Chinese-controlled Tibet side of the mountain comes as the world combats the novel coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China.

Permits are given by the official China Tibet Mountaineering Association — an official confirmation from the Chinese government is not yet available.

“While canceling a climb is never an outcome we want, this time, it’s the responsible thing to do,” Adrian Ballinger, CEO of Alpenglow Expeditions, said in a statement Wednesday. “A COVID-19 outbreak at base camp would be dangerous and potentially devastating.”

Speaking to ABC News last week, Ballinger said that an outbreak at base camp — on either side of the mountain — would be “quite dangerous.”

Although noting that people who attempt Everest are typically healthy, putting them less at risk of more fatal cases of the coronavirus, Ballinger said, “We’d be combining coronavirus, an upper respiratory infection that sometimes goes to the lungs, with an already dramatically reduced effectiveness upper respiratory system due to the altitude.”

Outside of questions tied to health, travel restrictions already have dramatically altered Everest’s environment for this climbing season, typically from April to May, with peak times for summiting in mid- to late-May.

While 2019 was an especially deadly Everest season due to overcrowding and inexperienced climbers, 2020 was looking to be “very special,” Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures told ABC News last week.

Many would-be Everest climbers have already canceled their trips, either because they’re from countries like China, South Korea and Italy, which have been hard-hit and are facing travel restrictions, or because they’re fearful of travel. There may just be around 150 people on the south, Nepal side of the mountain this year, Furtenbach said.

“For the next decades, there will not be a mountain with so few people like we will see this season,” said Furtenbach, who is based in Austria.

The north side of Everest is seen as safer because climbers avoid several difficult south-side features like the Khumbu Icefall, but also because China has stricter controls than Nepal does over who can get on the mountain. This year, only 300 permits were to be given out, and, Ballinger said, permit prices nearly doubled from $9,500 to $18,500.

For those reasons, Furtenbach prefers climbing the north side, but he moved his expedition this year to the Nepal side, citing logistical challenges and the possibility of a trip having to be extended due to quarantines. He could do this because Furtenbach Adventures stores gear in Kathmandu, but other north-side companies may not be as conveniently staged and have to cancel. Ballinger, an ardent supporter of climbing from the Tibet side for safety reasons, has canceled his company’s expedition.

But for other companies, it’s full steam ahead.

“I see no reason why we shouldn’t go and climb Everest,” Garrett Madison, of Madison Mountaineering, told ABC News, “as long as Nepal’s open and there’s no serious outbreak there.”

Madison is going forward for an expedition without “any reservations about it.” He said Nepal put out a press release Tuesday noting visa restrictions for hard-hit countries, and it appears to be following WHO guidelines.

Everest is a fairly secluded place, he noted, and should someone with coronavirus make it to base camp, they can request a helicopter evacuation.

“[People] think summiting Everest comes down to whether they climb well at altitude or not on summit day,” Ballinger said. “But what I’ve learned over all these years is actually being successful on Everest has to do with so much more than just walking uphill on summit day, it’s the politics and health and random failures of equipment because the environment is just so harsh on us. And I kind of love that. Everest is still not easy.”

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