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Mount Everest closing due to virus a big financial hit for Nepal

A porter carries crates containing oxygen tanks with Mount Lingtren, left, and Mount Khumbutse ahead of him as he works his way toward Everest Base Cam, at Lobuche, Nepal, in April 2015. China shut 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. (AP file photo)

KATHMANDU, Nepal — 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?

Mingma Sherpa, owner of Seven Summit Treks, speaks during a Nov. 8 interview with the Associated Press in Kathmandu, Nepal. (AP file photo)

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 Everest summit when he heard the news nearly two weeks ago. He has already scaled Everest nine times and makes about $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 shut 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 $4 million in permits alone. There are thousands of people who depend on the money spent by climbers in Nepal.

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