Effects of COVID-19 on high altitude mountaineers
Apr 1, 2020
Covid-19’s impact on overall sport
The impact of COVID-19 pandemic on sport likely to be more adverse on developing countries due to limited sponsorship opportunities. On 24th March 2020, Japan announced that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were postponed to 2021.
This announcement comes two weeks after several high altitude mountain administration offices responsible for issuing all travel and climbing permits started to close their respective mountains for climbing. The China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) led the way on 11th March when they wisely announced that Mount Everest from the China- controlled Tibetan North side of the mountain will be closed for the spring season. Nepal Tourism made a similar announcement shortly after for the South side. The National Park Services in the USA also announced their suspension of climbing on MtDenali and Mt Foraker until further notice.
Mt Everest has been scaled by 35 South Africans since 1996: only 5 or them are women.
Mt Denali has been scaled by 54 South Africans: only 7 of them are women.
The explorers’ grand slam is has been completed by 5 South Africans: none of them are women.
Personal impact on mountaineers
High altitude mountaineers typically pursue their sport in remote locations away from civilisation, but they couldn’t escape the fallout of COVID-19 pandemic that has caused travel restrictions and spurred quarantines around the world. Today, AFC had a chat with one of our club members, Tumi Mphahlele, who was part of the first all women team from South Africa due to attempt Mount Everest during the cancelled 2020 spring season.
Please tell us a little about yourself and how you became involved in mountaineering sport.
I have been a fairly active adult and would jump at any opportunity to try something new, take on a new challenge and just be out there. I also used to love travel and I found planning to visit places I have never been to very exciting, especially places that were less travelled. Many years ago I decided to visit Malawi with the intention to tour the whole country independently, and one of the places I explored was Mount Mulanje, which I consider my first climb at 3002m. It turned out to be much harder than I thought, and I never imagined that it could be so involved considering my experiences from the Drakensberg. I was not well prepared but under very difficult circumstances I made it to the summit. After that I knew I wanted to do more climbing.
What has been the biggest challenge about participating in this sport?
The biggest challenge about participating in the sport is the expense. High altitude mountaineering requires participants to be particularly fit and to have advanced technical skills in rope, ice, rescue, etc. To gain these skills means time and financial investment. Many decision makers, however, do not believe that mountaineering is a sport – and so while they are prepared to back up mainstream sport through sponsorship and marketing, they shift mountaineering into social responsibility basket and as mountaineers, it gets harder to compete with programmes to build schools and to deliver food parcels. So mountaineers have to commit to raising a lot of money for charities in order to secure money to support the sport. While the number of participants in hiking is fairly large, the numbers get smaller when looking at high altitude purely because of the investment that is needed for participants.
At AFC, we often say that the achievements that are reached by mountaineers compare very favourably with the greatest sporting achievements reached by other athletes and with due respect, overshadows most other sports by the extreme levels of achievement that it demands in terms of discipline, fitness, endurance, mental strength required and the like. Can you tell our readers about your own process and preparation efforts?
Preparation for climbs is very intense. To build and maintain my cardiovascular fitness I run a minimum of 70km a week, including a long run of at least 2,5 hours (mostly more). In between the runs, I build strength in the gym, with about 3 to 4 hours a week dedicated to strength training and then some stretch/yoga for flexibility. I replace some of the runs with the stepper and biking and as far as possible the training also involves weekends of rock climbing and hiking. Then there are many hours spent reading about the expeditions, talking to people that have done it before, looking for gear if necessary and in many instances looking for local logistics and vetting them (which is how I got to find AFC). If the objective is to attempt high altitude summits, then the planning may also involve raising funds which also takes up a lot of time. Basically, a lot of time goes into planning.
Are there any areas that you can share that are perhaps not easily quantifiable about this process?
It helps a lot to have a partner who is very supportive and who can take some of the load off. Sometimes even assisting in your training or even as far as participating too for emotional support and motivation. I
have found it very encouraging to have a partner that is that much involved in the process. If you need to raise funds, I would suggest you probably find someone who can also drive this process. I have learned that raising funds is nearly a full-time job and to have someone to share the load with may help a lot. A lot of time is spent debriefing about the disappointments, bounce ideas, review of proposals, etc.
During 2016, the South African Department of Sport publicly announced its plans to support South African women in their attempt of Mount Everest during their budget speech. AFC had suggested your name to the Department. While nothing came out of this, we have observed your dedication to maintaining a certain fitness level since. It is now 2020, do you think that training at that level is sustainable without external funding?
Even without funding I am still able to maintain some level of fitness. I find it is easy to stay on track if I build race milestones into my annual calendar. I run Comrades Marathon and have completed 8 runs so far so that alone takes care of my training for about half a year. The remaining half a year is filled up with other milestones, including mountain biking and trail running races. I keep races to a minimum because they can be fairly expensive, especially the multi-day multi-stage events.
How has this 2020 cancellation personally impacted you, and are the plans to try again next year?
Disappointments are really part of life and in high altitude mountaineering, this is particularly true. Expeditions can be cancelled as early as hours before you leave for the mountain or can be abandoned as late as hours before summit. It is always painful but after every is disappointment we try again. The bigger issue is having to fund another year of training. So no doubt I am looking ahead to trying again once more.
How are you currently training now during the national lockdown?
Very difficult to maintain training under these circumstances. I do mostly indoor training – I have found a few useful youtube videos and I make use of a spinning bike at home. Not ideal, but certainly better than doing absolutely nothing. Hopefully post-lockdown, I do not need to start from scratch.
How do you foresee the travel bans’ impact on your high altitude training expeditions if COVID-19 is not contained on time?
I see that climbs will come to a stand-still for a while and that when they resume, climbers will probably be subjected to additional health requirements before climbing permits are issued to make it less risky.
Lastly, you are an inspiration to many of our members here - do you have any message for them?
We need to stay the course and always do our best in what is within our span of control. I believe that luck tends to favour those that are also prepared!