The Loneliest Everest Expedition
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, three Chinese teams reached the top of the world
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No energy-bar wrappers litter base camp. No climbers clog the Hillary Step. Thanks to the pandemic, Mount Everest is taking a much needed break after last year’s record crowding.
But the coronavirus-hit climbing season has not been entirely quiet. Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, this week three Chinese teams scaled the world’s highest peak.
On May 26, at around 5:30 P.M. local time, six mountaineers fixed the ropes on the Northeast Ridge leading to the top and made the first successful ascent of the season. On May 27, eight surveyors spent two and a half hours on the summit, attempting to get the most accurate measurement to date of the mountain.
On the morning of May 28, 14 Chinese clients and 21 guides topped out. With no other teams waiting their turn atop the 29,029-foot peak, the climbers took their time to enjoy the summit, snapping selfies with Tibetan prayer flags.
“I feel more than lucky,” said Ru Zhigang, a native of central China’s Anhui Province, who climbed Everest last year from the Nepalese side. “In February, I didn’t think it was possible, because of the coronavirus.”
On March 11, China closed the north side of the peak due to the global spread of COVID-19. The next day, Nepal canceled all spring Everest expeditions on its side. But as China appeared to contain the COVID-19 outbreak within its borders, a glimmer of hope appeared. On March 17, Chinese outfitter Yarlha Shampo, the only Everest operator authorized to work on the north side, informed its high-paying clients that the country’s sports authority had given its expedition the green light.
“China has gone through the quarantine hardship and won the war. They taught us that everything could resume after containing the coronavirus, and even Everest adventures will return.”
Under arguably the world’s strictest quarantine orders, climbers prepared themselves as best they could. In addition to jogging in his residential complex, Ru carried a weighted pack up and down the stairs of his apartment building almost every day, sometimes up to 257 floors in a single go. Talking to me from his tent at 21,300 feet beside the sprawling Rongbuk Glacier in the days leading up to the summit push, he said he felt more “physically ready” and “mentally relaxed” than last year.
Ru was one of the climbers caught in the middle of the infamous traffic jam on the Hillary Step. “I wanted to cut my legs due to their numbness after squatting against the icy ridge at 28,800 feet for hours,” Ru told The Paper, a Chinese online publication, “And suddenly, a huge black shadow, which I initially thought was a rock, rolled down. I jumped to dodge subliminally, and ‘the rock’ glided past me. That’s when I realized it was a climber.”
Having survived the queue, he became a wang hong—an internet celebrity—in China. Dubbed Beardy Henry by his three million followers on Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese-sister app, Ru shared short videos and photos during his expedition. Thanks to Everest’s newly installed 5G network, he was also able to livestream Q and A’s with his fans.
In total, 49 people summited Everest this year, compared with 876 summits in 2019. There was seldom any traffic on the road to Everest’s northern base camp. But the team’s ascent to the top was bumpier than expected—Cyclone Amphan delayed its summit by more than a week.
“This year’s weather is noticeably different. No flights across the Himalayas means less air pollution and global warming,” said Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, a Nepali climbing guide who has frequented the peak from both sides since 2006. As Nepal started a countrywide lockdown on March 24, Mingma followed China’s progress from his home in Kathmandu. “China has gone through the quarantine hardship and won the war. They taught us that everything could resume after containing the coronavirus,” he said, “and even Everest adventures will return.”