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Climbing During COVID: What to Expect and Where You Can Go

Mt. ShuksanGarrett Madison on Mt. Shuksan
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Think the outdoor travel industry is still stalled due to COVID-19? Think again.

Choosing to summit one of the tallest mountains in the world already comes with a lot of questions. Are borders open? How do I get a permit? Will I make it? But with a worldwide pandemic, those trip questions become more complicated. Luckily, we spoke to an international mountaineering guide to get some answers.

There’s good news on the horizon: Many borders are open, and the number of Western climbers on peaks abroad is rising. Now may be the best time to climb. Madison Mountaineering’s Garrett Madison, a 10-time Everest summiter and guide since 1999, is here to give us some insight on why.

Mountaineering Guide: Climbing Is Open

Madison has climbed Everest, K2, Mt. Rainier, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Aconcagua, Denali, and more. So he knows a thing or two about traveling across borders and high-summit expeditions.

He currently runs Madison Mountaineering, a professional guide service that runs expeditions across all seven continents. And his team has led several international trips abroad — despite COVID.

GearJunkie: The biggest question most have is: Are borders open?

Garrett Madison: Yes, for climbing in Nepal (Everest, Ama Dablam, etc.), Pakistan (K2), and Tanzania (Mt. Kilimanjaro), the countries are open. However, of course, some additional requirements are in place, such as having proof of a negative COVID test.

What can people expect when traveling?

Empty airports and empty planes. Currently, Qatar Airways is the only carrier still operating its international routes, so we all flew on Qatar. The airline issues passengers a face shield to be worn while traveling. Otherwise, it’s all pretty “normal.”

Now, our operating capacity is around 15% for international operations. For domestic operations, we were at near-full capacity as the mountains opened in Washington state. [The numbers] are roughly the same for the industry.

Aside from the typical gear list, anything else travelers should expect to pack?

Bring extra cash, as most businesses prefer cash over credit cards.

Mt. Shushkan
Photo credit: Garrett Madison.

Can you give readers an example of trips you’ve led recently, and if the experience was any different?

We’ve led trips in Washington — to Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and Mount Shuksan — this summer. Then we led a few Kilimanjaro trips in Tanzania and a recent trip to Nepal for Ama Dablam. The changes were mostly that we didn’t see many tourists or other climbers — often we were the only team around.

We have upcoming trips to Chile and Ecuador over the next couple of months. [And] I am very much looking forward to Everest next spring. Last spring nobody was able to go, because Nepal and China closed just before the season began. I didn’t realize how much I would miss it.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for people climbing post-COVID-19?

The biggest challenge right now is that climbers don’t know what to expect when they arrive home after the expedition. Depending on where people live and work, some local governments or employers require self-quarantine for 2 weeks after any international travel. When [you] get home from a trip and have to self-quarantine at home, it’s a different life than what you were living in the mountains.

Climbing in Nepal: Know Before You Go

Follow the old skiing adage: “Know before you go.” Plan ahead. Now is not the time to hop on a plane and wing it. Currently, the only way for a tourist to get into Nepal is to have a visa-on-arrival letter.

“This can only be obtained by the trekking/climbing agency that has processed your permit in advance,” Madison said. “So it’s important to plan in advance, get all of the permits processed and letters issued so that one can enter the country at the time [you choose].”

Additionally, travelers entering Nepal will need COVID travel insurance (which Madison said can be hard to find), hotel confirmations, and proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of arrival. Similar measures are in place in other countries too.

A big difference here pre- and post-pandemic is that you’ll need your climbing permits for Nepal in advance. Other than a bit of extra planning, traveling to Nepal to climb will be similar to before.

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Expeditions 101 (Post-COVID): Why Now Is the Time to Travel

Empty planes and empty mountains, with just more planning and precautions — Madison makes a pretty compelling case for why now may be the time to climb. Here are a few of Madison’s reasons for why American climbers should consider travel:

  1. These iconic mountains are almost totally deserted. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience these magical places with hardly anyone else around.
  2. Traveling internationally is generally very safe, and the airlines are taking the necessary precautions. [That being said, if you have preexisting conditions or health concerns, waiting to travel may be a better idea.]
  3. If we’ve learned anything from COVID-19, it’s that life is uncertain: “Why wait to realize your dreams, goals, and aspirations?” Madison posed.
  4. “In the mountains, it’s generally not necessary to wear a mask, so it’s a refreshing break,” Madison told us. “Indoors we still wear masks, but out in the mountains we get a temporary escape.” Recently, Madison and his group were on Ama Dablam in Nepal, away from crowds, people, and mask mandates for several weeks.
  5. As most places in the U.S. are in lockdown mode, traveling to the mountains can be a much-needed change.

Bottom line: Mt. Everest and others are waiting for you. And the peaks shouldn’t be crowded. Although you could run into an opportunistic guide like Garrett Madison at the top.

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