Climbers were ecstatic when Nepal decided to reopen its side of Mount Everest this year, but reports indicate that even the world’s highest peak isn’t immune to the spread of Covid-19.
Despite the Nepali government’s claim that there are no infections on Everest, some climbers there have now tested positive.
Erland Ness, a Norwegian climber who was evacuated from Everest Base Camp in late April, confirmed that he tested positive when he arrived at a hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. “When I tested positive, it was a shock. And then I realized that the expedition was over for me,” Ness said. “My dream was to reach the summit and see the view.”
Since then, Polish climber Pawel Michalski has stated on Facebook that “30 people have already been evacuated” from base camp and have tested positive for the virus. Everest ER, a volunteer organization that provides aid to those on the mountain, has stated that some climbers are isolating themselves in their tents “because we’ve had a few confirmed cases of Covid with evacuation from EBC (Everest Base Camp).”
Nepali government rules prohibiting mountaineers from sharing photos of other climbers without their permission have limited information coming from the mountain, but rumors of more cases are spreading – and not just on Everest. According to Mingma Sherpa, chairman of tour operator Seven Summits Trek, at least 19 people have been evacuated from climbing camps on the world’s seventh-highest peak, Dhaulagiri, which is 345 kilometers (214 miles) west of Everest.
He added that seven people had tested positive and that 12 others were scheduled to take a test after exhibiting symptoms.
Three cleaners at Dhaulagiri Base Camp tested positive, according to Nepal Army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Shantosh Ballave Poudyal. Two people were evacuated on Wednesday, and another two will be evacuated once the weather clears.
Climbers are concerned that Nepal will close Everest and popular trails, according to expedition leader Lukas Furtenbach. “My guess is there will be more cases,” Furtenbach told reporters from his camp at Mera Peak, south of Everest. “Everyone is concerned about a message coming from the Department of Tourism: ‘You all have to go home.'”
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism revenue generated Rs 240.7 billion ($2 billion) in Nepal in 2018. Climbers must first obtain a permit from the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu, which costs approximately $11,000.
Many Nepalis rely on tourism – and climbing – for a living. In 2018, Nepal’s tourism industry directly and indirectly supported over 1 million jobs. Following the cancellation of the climbing season last year due to the pandemic, Nepal’s Tourism Department granted 408 permits to Everest climbers this year, up from 393 in 2019, when overcrowding, several deaths, and a viral photo of mountaineers lining up to reach the summit drew international attention.
“Base camp is really a small city,” said Alan Arnette, a veteran Everest watcher who summited the peak in 2011 and now runs a climbing website. This year’s camp attendance is expected to be around 1,200 people, according to Furtenbach. These circumstances make social distancing difficult. “There’s usually a lot of socializing, events, base camp parties, and teams visit other teams and make new friends,” Furtenbach explained.
Most operators are now attempting to remain in bubbles, with some sherpas and local staff having to forego their usual rest day routine of returning home. And many teams have gone to great lengths to spend as little time as possible on Everest.
Everest ER, a non-profit Himalayan Rescue Association aid service, said in a Facebook post Tuesday that persistent coughs have been their most common complaint this season.
Mingma Sherpa, a member of a Seven Summit Treks expedition on Everest, said his team had left Camp 2 and expected to arrive at Camp 4 on Thursday. “If we test the climbers for Covid-19, some of them may test positive for the virus. However, with the exception of common colds and coughs, none of them have shown any serious health complications thus far” he stated. Persistent coughs are so common on Everest they have a name — the Khumbu cough, after the valley that leads to Everest — making detecting Covid-19 particularly difficult.
But, with Nepal and neighboring India gripped by a devastating second wave of Covid-19 infections – Nepal reported its highest daily number of new coronavirus infections on Wednesday – some climbers are also bracing for a mental challenge.