Everest Covid outbreak throws climbing season into doubt

Nepal authorities accused of underplaying seriousness of situation as daily cases soar

The coronavirus outbreak at Everest base camp in Nepal, controversially opened to climbers despite the pandemic, has infected “many people” amid continuing evacuations and complaints of lack of transparency over the severity of the situation.

With Nepal reporting a record number of more than 7,000 new cases in a day, its highest total since October, reports from Everest described a number of evacuations of climbers showing symptoms of Covid-19 even as doctors at base camp complained privately they were not being allowed by the country’s ministry of health to undertake PCR testing.

Nepal coronavirus cases

News of the mounting issues came as the government of Nepal announced the suspension all international flights except two a week from Delhi from 6 May until midnight on 14 May.

Commenting over the weekend, the veteran Everest watcher Alan Arnette summed up the complexity of the situation amid mounting speculation over whether the climbing season will be cancelled.

“It’s clear that there is or has been Covid at Everest base camp. Well, at least it clear that people who had it there were taken to Kathmandu where they tested positive and are receiving treatment. It’s also clear that Nepal is seeing a huge spike in new cases and has gone under lockdown once again.

“Nepal tourism officials continue to deny there are any problems at base camp other than one person who had pneumonia. The guides, both foreign and domestic, are posting only climbing updates with no mention of the virus. This includes those who are well-known to have multiple cases within their teams and some who have been evacuated.”

Posts by climbers on social media, however, described the situation at the camp as a “total shitstorm”, with some suggesting up to 30 cases had so far been identified despite the fact that the Nepal Mountaineering Association has admitted only four confirmed Covid cases so far this season – three climbers and one local guide.

“I have taken a helicopter out of EBC [Everest base camp] back to Kathmandu after 1 day,” Gina Marie Han-Lee, a climber from New York, wrote on Facebook on 29 April. “Once I was in the hospital [in Kathmandu] a Covid test confirmed I was positive and had pneumonia. I’ve spent four nights in the ICU.”

“The Covid situation at EBC is a total shitstorm. I had no clue what I was flying into.”

A British climber, Steve Harris, was evacuated on 20 April and diagnosed initially with high-altitude pulmonary edema at Everest base camp before being diagnosed with Covid-19.

“I wasn’t asked about or offered a Covid-19 test. After four days in Namche [Bazaar, where he was initially taken], I was medivaced by helicopter to hospital in Kathmandu,” he told the Daily Mail, “where I was tested and confirmed positive for Covid-19 and pneumonia and spent a week in intensive care.

“I have been released from hospital but am still having to isolate in a hotel as I am still positive for Covid.”

The first identified case at base camp came shortly after climbers began arriving at Everest several weeks ago when Erlend Ness, a Norwegian climber, was diagnosed with coronavirus as well as a Sherpa working on the mountain.

A doctor with the International Society of Mountain Medicine (ISMM) who spoke anonymously to Explorersweb blog over the weekend about the situation in the camp complained about the inability to identify cases of Covid-19 at the temporary medical facility that is set up at Everest base camp each season.

“We have protocols in place at the Himalayan Rescue Association’s clinic for treating patients with suspected Covid,” he said. “We have been denied permission by the ministry of health to do PCR testing.

“Khumbu cough [the nickname for a high-altitude chest complaint] and other respiratory ailments can look like Covid, so we basically treat all cases as if they were Covid.

“Many climbers are isolated in their tents at the moment. Expeditions are also isolating themselves, minimising interactions with other expeditions. In Kathmandu, hospitals are not yet at full capacity, but ICUs are filling up quickly.”

“The government seems determined not to close down the climbing season, but this could change any time. I agree with my colleagues that, for those who are not already here, now would not be a good time to come to Nepal.”

While the camp is outdoors, theoretically making it safer, Everest base camp is one of the most crowded of the temporary camps that springs up around the globe for climbing seasons while the debilitating effects of altitude are suspected of making visiting western climbers more vulnerable to coronavirus.

Nepal’s decision to reopen Everest for climbing this year – issuing a record 408 climbing permits – had always been controversial given the pandemic, with the beginning of the Everest season coinciding with the catastrophic second wave in India, which has spilled over into neighbouring countries.

That has led to a surge in the number of infections in Nepal with the highest number concentrated in the Kathmandu area through which all foreign climbers need to transit.


Peter Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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