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Corona virus casts shadows on Everest

A general view shows an almost deserted street with closed shops and restaurants during a government-wide government closure as a preventive measure against COVID-19 Coronavirus, in Lukla, the main gateway to the Everest region, about 140 km northeast of Kathmandu on March 28, 2020. (Photo by PRAKASH MATHEMA / AFP)

The Himalayan mountain town of Khumjung was supposed to be busy before the Everest climbing season, but the corona virus forced the closure of the world's tallest mountain and threatened the livelihood of the famous local sherpas.

While there are no cases in the city that is home to many of the ethnic sherpas that dominate industry and help climbers, the Himalayas have been closed by the worldwide closure of borders and air travel.

Phurba Nyamgal Sherpa, who has climbed Everest and other mountains since he was seventeen, is now worried about his future like hundreds of other leaders and expedition workers.

Ropes and picks are still hanging in the Khumjung houses with their green stone roofs. The hostels and tea shops in the region, which are used by hikers and climbers who have acclimatized to the start of the 8,848-meter ascent, are empty.

On March 12, Nepal suspended the permit for all mountain expeditions and closed its peaks.

That cost at least $ 4 million in lost revenue from climbing permits. Everest approval alone costs $ 11,000.

But Sherpa and other leaders, who are often the only breadwinners of their families, say that they face a more desperate problem.

The Everest season from early April to late May feeds his family for the whole year.

Guides earn between $ 5,000 and $ 10,000 during the season.

Ghost Town of the Base Camp

"We don't go to the mountains because we want it is our only option for work," Sherpa told AFP at his home in Khumjung, where he lives with his wife and six-year-old son.

The 31-year-old son of a yak shepherd, Sherpa, has been to the summit of Everest eight times and helped dozens of climbers to reach the summit.

"I think everyone has the same problem," he said.

Sherpa would normally now be at Everest Base Camp and settle there while hundreds of mountain climbing glory seekers go there to wait for a window with good weather to trigger an onslaught.

In the spring season of last year, a record 885 people on Everest, 644 from the Nepalese side, were reached.

But the corona virus has left the base camp.

The Namche Bazaar, the last city before it, is also empty.

The guides, porters, cooks and other auxiliary staff had to go home down the slopes empty-handed.

“If the season is canceled, nobody gets a job. There is no work from flights to shops to porters.

"Everyone is going home," said Pemba Galzen Sherpa, who has been to Everest Summit 14 times.

Damian Benegas, who has led teams on Everest for almost two decades, said the porters and kitchen workers who keep the expeditions going will be hardest hit.

"These people have no savings or contracts that expedition organizers must adhere to," said Benegas.

Right decision

It is not only the Sherpas who are injured. Tourism contributes almost eight percent to Nepal's gross domestic product and, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, creates more than a million jobs.

Nepal, which was still recovering from a severe earthquake in 2015, hoped to attract a record two million tourists in 2020. These ambitious plans were now shattered.

However, residents of the Everest region agree with the government's decision. The risk of infection is real. In the spring season, hundreds of foreign climbers and hikers meander through their villages. In the base camp, climbers and Nepalese aid workers have to live in a confined space.

When the air becomes thinner, breathing at higher altitudes is difficult – which increases the medical risks if an outbreak of any kind occurs.

Renowned climber Phurba Tashi Sherpa, who has climbed Everest 21 times, said the corona virus would wreak havoc if it invaded Himalayan villages.

"It cost us our jobs, but it's the right decision," he said.

"We have a small hospital in Khumjung and not enough resources. Imagine people get sick here," said the mountain veteran.

"When the disease comes, money can't do anything. Even in industrialized countries, people are dying. What will happen to us in Nepal?" Said Phurba Nyamgal Sherpa.

There are still unanswered demands on the government to provide an economic aid package.

"The government needs to find a way to support those who could not only work in mountaineering but also in other sectors," said Santa Bir Lama, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

More news about the new corona virus can be found here.

What You Need to Know About Corona Virus.

Further information on COVID-19 is available from the DOH hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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