As India’s massive coronavirus wave spreads, neighboring Nepal is also quickly becoming overwhelmed. An average of 6,700 cases are now reported a day as of May 5, an increase from 1,100 just two weeks earlier. Even as the country faces its steepest coronavirus wave yet, it has kept its main tourist attraction, the Nepali side of Mount Everest, open to foreigners seeking to climb the world’s tallest mountain.
After the 2020 climbing season was canceled, this year a record number of 408 expedition permits have been issued for the peak, leaving climbers to work out rules to contain the spread of the virus. Now growing concerns of a coronavirus outbreak at the mountain cast doubt on the safety of climbers and locals after multiple people were evacuated from base camp and later tested positive for the virus.
Nepal’s Department of Tourism requires a negative coronavirus test 72 hours before entering the country. But in late March the government removed a seven-day quarantine requirement, in an attempt to revive the country’s $2 billion tourism industry that contributes roughly 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Everest expeditions alone contributed more than $300 million to the economy in 2019.
Once on the mountain, climbers have no way to access tests unless they bring their own. “We don’t have tests,” said Prakash Karel, a doctor who treats patients at the Everest base camp, explaining that the clinic he works at doesn’t have laboratory permission to test for the virus. “And high altitude makes it difficult to identify covid from cough and HAPE [high-altitude pulmonary edema], which is common here.”
Some guide companies are taking their own precautions. To reduce exposure to the virus, Furtenbach Adventures is running “flash expeditions” that last three to four weeks instead of the classic nine-week trip. They provide climbers with hypoxic tents, used at home to help them get acclimated with high altitudes, a process that usually requires a four-week stay at base camp.
During the expeditions, teams that range from two to 29 members are taking other precautions.
Despite all the precautions, the first case of coronavirus at the base camp was confirmed in late April, followed by reports of multiple people testing positive.
Erlend Ness, the first climber at the Everest base camp to test positive, said he started feeling ill two days before reaching base camp but thought he had mountain sickness due to the high altitude, which can lead to the covid-19-like symptoms. He wasn’t aware of his diagnosis until he was tested three days later at a hospital in Kathmandu.
The Nepal Mountaineering Association has confirmed only four coronavirus cases at base camp — three climbers and one local guide. But mountaineers are telling different stories. Polish climber Pawel Michalski wrote last week that “more than 30 people have already been evacuated to Kathmandu in helicopters with suspected pulmonary edema — later found to be positive for the coronavirus.”
“I have taken a helicopter out of EBC [Everest base camp] back to Kathmandu after 1 day,” Gina Marie Han-Lee, another climber who was evacuated from base camp, posted on Facebook on April 29.
“The Covid situation at EBC is a total s---storm. I had no clue what I was flying into,” Han-Lee wrote.
Rojita Adhikari, who tested positive a few days after she left the base camp April 19, said there are several unreported cases. “The Nepal Government is still denying there is a COVID outbreak at Everest base camp, despite emerging evidence,” she posted on Twitter last week. “Why is the government hiding the truth?”
“At camp I saw many sick people,” Adhikari told The Washington Post. “At a gorakshep [a small village that is the last stop on most treks to base camp] hotel, there were [a] few sick climbers isolating, as well. I found covid is so common around the camp people. They took it so easily. One Sherpa told me, ‘Covid is just like the flu.’”
Karel, the doctor, said there is a “dilemma” about whether to cancel the season. “Unventilated camps and camps close [to one another] make it easier to spread here,” he said.
One of the physicians working at the same clinic spoke anonymously to the Explorersweb blog last weekend about the situation at base camp, saying that “many people” have been evacuated from the camp with coronavirus symptoms and later tested positive at the hospital in Kathmandu. “Many climbers are isolated in their tents at the moment. In Kathmandu, hospitals are not yet at full capacity, but ICUs are filling up quickly.”
On Tuesday, the base camp clinic Everest ER said that doctors held a meeting with expedition leaders to discuss protocols for managing respiratory illnesses, including “encouraging all to maintain their bubble/discouraging visits between camps, wearing masks even within their camps, sending any members with respiratory illness to see the doctors at Everest ER for further evaluation, and a discussion about how to properly isolate and monitor ill camp members.” The clinic said they “have cared for 35 patients requiring evacuation,” though it’s unclear how many evacuations were coronavirus-related.
A controversial season
Even with the extra safety measures, some companies have decided to call off their expeditions for the second year in a row. California-based Alpenglow Expeditions was one of them. “We don’t have confidence in Tibet opening for the spring, we don’t believe we can safely run an Everest climb in the current circumstances from the Nepal side,” founder Adrian Ballinger wrote on Instagram.
“We will not confirm participation on an expedition until we know the trip can operate successfully without travel disruption or risk to staff, guests or local communities,” New Zealand company Adventure Consultants announced in a statement in April.
Lukas Furtenbach, the owner of Furtenbach Adventures, said he knows guiding companies are being criticized for running expeditions during a pandemic. “It is high risk. But the other side is that our local staff here needs the money to feed their families.”
“Now we try to run it as responsibly as possible in this part of the world,” he said.