New Zealand's most experienced Everest tour operators decided to scrap their mountaineering season amid operational difficulties and concern over a growing Covid 19 outbreak in Nepal.
Guy Cotter of Adventure Consultants says that in spite of demand, the company felt it would be "irresponsible to run an expedition there."
He and partner Suze Kelley decided to put the Wānaka-based company into hibernation last month.
"We are hearing from lots of our clients all over the world that they are vaccinated and ready to go, but this doesn't take into account the impact on local communities."
The costs and difficulty of quarantine on return means that few New Zealand-based mountaineers decided have made the trip.
"As far as the normal Kiwi contingent, there's none of us over there."
Record breaking return
Yet, in spite of the lack of regular Kiwi visitors, a perfect storm of factors have led mountaineers to return to the Himalayas in their largest numbers to date.
The first summit of the season was made earlier this week, in what is already a record-breaking season.
Led by Sherpa Kami Rita, the veteran expedition guide made an unsurpassed 25th summit of Everest on Sunday. As part of the guide team fixing ropes for tourist climbers to follow. 408 international guests have been granted permits this year – the highest number ever in a season.
Last year the mountain was closed to climbers from Nepal 14 March before the spring weather window. This meant there were no ascents in 2020, apart from a lone Chinese surveying team who climbed from Tibet.
Yet this year Tibet is off limits to anyone but Chinese nationals. The Tibetan Sports Bureau, which manage permits say they will be installing a "line of separation" at the summit, to prevent mountaineers from coming into contact with those arriving from Nepal.
While this Covid distancing at the top of the world might be excessive, it is at least symbolic of another pressure on this post-pandemic climbing season.
"We just can't go to Tibet," says Cotter. "A lot of people who would have gone via Tibet are forced to climb via Nepal, which is another reason why there are more people climbing than ever."
From a standstill to Everest's biggest season ever, this year will be a challenge. This was clear even before the Coronavirus pandemic was part of the equation.
Everest's first post-pandemic season
Yesterday expedition officials confirmed the first deaths of the season as Abdul Waraich, 41, of Switzerland and American Puwei Liu, 55. In different parties, both Swiss and American climbers succumbed to "exhaustion" close to the summit, according to Chhang Dawa Sherpa.
South Base Camp has filled to 1000 tents. At Nepal's pop up village at 5,364 metres Covid 19 is a concern. In close quarters, with symptoms of altitude sickness being hard to distinguish from that of the Coronavirus, coughs and fevers are a concern. The virus has made it to the top of the world.
30 climbers have been evacuated from the mountain as suspected Covid 19 cases.
There have been three confirmed cases from returned climbers, though the Himalayan Rescue Association told the BBC there may be as many as 17 positive test results from people recently at camp.
Another Kiwi expedition company HimEx, which is now based out of Europe, also decided to cancel its climbs.
Himalayan Experience which was founded by New Zealand mountaineer Russell Brice took the decision to abandon Spring expeditions over concerns regarding the preparedness for an outbreak of Covid 19.
"When we heard what is happening in Nepal now and also at Everest Base Camp we are happy that we made the right decisions," said a spokesperson for the company.
HimEx is one of the largest inbound operators on Everest taking up to 30 clients a season. Following the closure of Everest to climbers last year, sixty-eight-year-old Brice handed over the reins to partner Stephen Keck.
Since the 2000s Brice was one of the leading voices calling for more control of numbers on the mountain "better communication" between operators.
HimEx's New owner intends to bring clients back to the Himalayas as soon as August, on an expedition to Manaslu "but we are still not yet sure if it is possible."
The New Zealand Alpine Club which keeps a register of Everest climbs said they were "aware that some New Zealanders are among the teams" and the pressures on the "climbing reliant industry of Nepal" to restart ascents this year.
"We expect that all due considerations and precautions will be taken by the teams and their supporting networks," a spokesperson for NZAC told the Herald.
"There's a few of us over there, working as guides. I usually have a few Kiwis in my team," said Cotter.
"There are no more New Zealand operators on the mountain. For us it's a write-off."
Covid cases climb as mountain season starts
Nepal has seen a huge surge in Coronavirus cases since March and the arrival of spring.
However the Himalayan mountaineering community says that a much larger factor in these outbreaks has been the open border with India, which is also in the grips of a huge uptick in cases.
"Just prior to things getting really bad there were a huge numbers of Indians travelling into Nepal," says Cotter.
At the beginning of the month the Indian embassy in Kathmandu advised its citizens to "avoid travel to Nepal for the purposes of onward journeys to third countries".
United Arab of Emirates and Singapore closed such loop holes this week, placing bars on entry to travellers with recent history of being in Nepal.
"They could easily get into Nepal to fly internationally, around travel bans."
On 8 March Nepal's confirmed cases per thousand residents eclipsed that of India.