Kathmandu: Apa Sherpa knows firsthand all the risks of climbing Mount Everest. He's been to the summit 21 times.
The potential for a COVID-19 outbreak at base camp had him just as fearful as a blizzard or cracking ice.
The 60-year-old mountaineer from Nepal who now lives in Salt Lake City applauded the decision to shut down the routes to the top of the famed Himalayan mountain over concerns about the new coronavirus.
That meant Sherpa didn't have to worry about the health of anyone on the mountain, including his niece, nephew and cousin as they follow in his Everest-climbing footsteps.
Now, he has another fear: How will those who work in the shadow of Everest make ends meet? The closure has significant financial ramifications for the local Sherpas, cooks, porters and others who make their living during the short climbing window.
"I just feel bad," said Apa Sherpa, who established a foundation to help Nepalese students with their education. For everyone. Phurba Ongel was all set for spring work guiding western climbers to the 29,035-foot (8,850-meter) Everest summit when he heard the news nearly two weeks ago. He has already scaled Everest nine times and makes about USD 7,000 per season.
That was money he desperately needs for his two sons' school, rent and groceries.
Now," Ongel said, "I don't have much.
Also losing money are clients, who dole out anywhere between $35,000 to $85,000 to be led up the mountain, and expedition operators who have expenses to pay despite the closure.
"It is devastating for the tourism industry in Nepal and abroad," said Lukas Furtenbach, a mountaineering guide and founder of Furtenbach Adventures. Many businesses will not survive this. China s hut down the northern route through Tibet due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12. A day later, expeditions to the Nepal side were closed, too. Everest straddles the border between Nepal and China and can be climbed from both sides.
By shutting down the passage through the south route of Everest, the Nepal government stands to lose some USD 4 million in permits alone. There are thousands of people who depend on the money spent by climbers in Nepal.
"They have no income right now. Nothing," Apa Sherpa said. But the government made the right decision. The lives are more important. According to Ang Tshering, a mountaineering expert in Nepal, the mountaineering industry brings in about USD 300,000 annually and most of it during the spring climbing season that begins in March and ends in May.
The closure of the mountains has made thousands of people jobless in the mountaineering community," Tshering said.
It's setting up a potentially risky proposition in 2021 overcrowding on the mountain. There will be a backlog of clients eager to make the trek, along with a new batch of climbers.
Last May, a climber snapped a memorable photo from a line with dozens of hikers in colorful winter gear that snaked into the sky. Climbers were crammed along a sharp-edged ridge above South Col, with a 7,000-foot (2,133-meter) drop on either side, all clipped onto a single line of rope, trudging toward the top of the world.
It would be very important that Nepal puts reasonable regulations in place for operators and climbers," said Furtenbach, who resides in Austria and spends time at Lake Tahoe. "Otherwise, I see that risk for a total mess next year. For the Sherpas, it's about finding a way to hang on after their source of income was halted. They're the backbone of an expedition the first to reach Everest each climbing season and the last to leave.
They set up the camps, carry the equipment and cook the food for climbing parties. They fix the ropes and ladders over the crevasses and ice-falls that enable mountaineers to scale the peak.
Generally, a Sherpa can earn USD 10,000 or more should they summit. Porters or cooks at the mountaineers' camps average between USD 3,000 and USD 5,000 during their three months of work. That's a significant amount compared with Nepal's USD 1,035 annual per capita income.
But it's treacherous work.
That's why Apa Sherpa started his foundation -- to give young kids another route.