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COVID-19 travel curbs leave Mount Everest climbers looking for flights home

Climbers returning from Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks are struggling to find a return flight back home after Nepal banned most air travel to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases, mountaineering operators and hikers said on Wednesday.

Nepal's government has defended decision to cut international flights in bid to contain the pandemic

Mountaineer Tsang Yin-hung, left, gestures as she arrives at an airport in Kathmandu on Sunday. (Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

Climbers returning from Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks are struggling to find a return flight back home after Nepal banned most air travel to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases, mountaineering operators and hikers said on Wednesday.

Most regular international flights are closed through June as a deadly second wave of the coronavirus hit the Himalayan nation tucked between China and India.

Nepal issued 742 permits — 408 of those to climbers aspiring to make it to the top of the world's highest peak, Mount Everest — in the April-May climbing season.

And hundreds of climbers are now returning from the mountains before the onset of annual monsoon rains.

Tashi Lakpa Sherpa, a senior official at Kathmandu-based private firm Seven Summit Treks, said climbers were finding it difficult to get home as only five weekly flights — to India, Qatar and Turkey — were operational.

"The situation could worsen as more climbers wind up their expeditions and return to Kathmandu in the next few days," Sherpa told Reuters.

Climbers exploring their options

Andrew Hughes, from the United States, said he had to pay for an expensive seat on a chartered flight to Qatar on Wednesday night due to the shortage of regular flights.

Mount Everest and other peaks of the Himalayan range are seen through an aircraft window during a mountain flight from Kathmandu, Nepal, on Jan. 15, 2020. (Monika Deupala/Reuters)

"We find ourselves in a situation where there is no transparency or rationale for the prohibition of outbound flights for foreign nationals," said Hughes, who returned from Everest last month.

Mexican climber Viridiana Alvarez, who had been stranded in Nepal for nearly three weeks after climbing Mount Annapurna, the world's tenth highest peak at 8,091 metres, said she was lucky to find a seat on a chartered flight.

"There is no reason to be here because there is no climbing — it is a little boring," said Alvarez, 38, who is also flying to Qatar on Wednesday night.

Stranded Spanish mountaineers, trekkers and tourists arrive to board a repatriation flight arranged by their government at Kathmandu airport, Nepal, on Friday, May 21, 2021. (Binaj Gurubacharya/The Associated Press)

The Nepalese government has defended its decision to cut international flights in a bid to contain the pandemic.

"Instead of having no flight at all, I think this is enough for now," Raj Kumar Chettri, a spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) said. "If required, we'll allow more charter flights."

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