Virus in the HimalayaWithout testing, there is no way to rule out coronavirus transmission on Everest.
On April 15, a Norwegian mountaineer who complained of cough and fever at Everest base camp was airlifted to a hospital in Kathmandu. He was later diagnosed with Covid-19. More than two dozen high-altitude rescues have been conducted since then, “all related to” severe high-altitude illness, according to the Himalayan Rescue Association and helicopter companies. As a precautionary measure, authorities had issued circulars two weeks ago asking expedition groups to stay within their bubble, but the evacuations have rung alarm bells loud and clear.
There have been a dozen other suspected cases, but government officials and the Nepal Mountaineering Association have simply dismissed them. But things could change. On Tuesday, four sherpas were evacuated from Dhaulagiri base camp after developing Covid-19-like symptoms. They all tested positive on Wednesday, leaving the expedition agency no choice but to evacuate nine other climbers. The fresh incident has stoked fears of infection at Everest base camp, where expedition groups have installed boundary ropes to separate one tent from another, and people’s movement has been restricted.
On Thursday, Nepal reported yet another record single-day new infections with 8,970 cases and 54 deaths. While the government and mountaineering officials continue to dismiss coronavirus cases at base camp, at least two dozens climbers are said to be suffering from “serious coughing”, and it is unclear whether the cough is due to a combination of high-altitude and low relative humidity or Covid-19. Without testing, which is not available at base camp, there is no way to rule out coronavirus on Everest, but doctors stationed at the camp say there have been many altitude cases this season, which have symptoms similar to Covid-19, and climbers should be evacuated should illness last for five days.
Earlier in January, the local administration in Nepal’s Everest region lifted all Covid-19 restrictions in an attempt to woo back trekkers to its popular trails. Tourists were no longer required to submit a 72-hour negative PCR test report or meet quarantine provisions. The municipality decision had followed a drop in new infections and the lifting of restrictions at large as the government prepared to launch the first phase of the vaccination drive. As a Plan B, local officials told this paper that antigen tests would be arranged if travellers were suspected of developing Covid-19 symptoms.
All this followed the government decision in September last year to allow tourists into Nepal for trekking and mountaineering, nearly seven months after imposing a nationwide lockdown. Last month when the Department of Tourism issued a directive introducing a quota system in a desperate measure to prevent overcrowding on the world’s tallest peak amid the second wave of the pandemic, the department had already issued 377 climbing permits. A record 408 mountaineers have been granted permission this year. This is an all-time high number of permits issued in a season, and expedition members have all assembled at Everest base camp at an altitude of 5,500 metres.
As the window to begin the ascent starts on Sunday, concerns are now growing that the coronavirus has made it to base camp, where some 2,000 expedition members have gathered. While expedition agencies claim that their clients are all isolated and safe, and health safety measures are being enforced in the respective camps, it is important to note that although the mountaineers were required to submit a negative PCR report before hitting the trails, it wasn’t mandatory for Nepalis and high-altitude climbing guides. This is a huge margin of error, one that risks lives and a lost opportunity to ensure a safe bubble for the Everest season.