Mt Everest at risk of outbreak as Covid-19 sweeps through Mt DhaulagiriGovernment and mountaineering officials have dismissed reports, but a record high surge in infections in Nepal has set off alarm bells.
Four sherpas who were evacuated from the Dhaulagiri base camp to Kathmandu after developing Covid-19 like symptoms on Tuesday tested positive for the virus on Wednesday, raising concerns if it has spread to the Everest base camp too.
“Four have tested positive. Nine other climbers will be evacuated from Dhaulagiri on Thursday for tests in Kathmandu,” said Mingma Sherpa, chairman of Seven Summit Treks, Nepal’s largest expedition outfitter. “There are no reports of Covid-19 infections at the Everest base camp this week, but we can’t say that Everest is virus-free. We don’t know if climbers are hiding the disease.”
The first summit bid on Everest has been planned for Sunday (May 9).
An official at the Himalayan Rescue Association said at least two dozen climbers had been found suffering from “serious coughing” at the Everest base camp. But they don’t know if it is due to “Khumbu cough” or Covid-19, as in both cases the lungs fill with fluid and the sufferers have similar symptoms.
“We are not sure. Tests are not done at the base camp,” Lakpa Norbu Sherpa, who has been coordinating rescue missions on Everest since 2003 as the base camp manager of the Himalayan Rescue Association, told the Post.
Khumbu cough is a high-altitude cough and is caused by a combination of high altitude and low relative humidity. It can be severe enough in some instances to result in broken ribs.
Spanish climber Kilian Jornet said on his Facebook page that “...Even if in the mountains the situation is much better, the base camp has a high concentration of people and has seen some cases.
“It’s important for all to remember to keep the sanitation measures and distance even up there...,” wrote Jornet who is currently acclimatising on the foothills of Everest.
On April 15, a Norwegian climber Erlend Ness reportedly complained of cough and fever, also symptoms of Covid-19, at Everest base camp; and was immediately airlifted to a hospital in Kathmandu. He was later diagnosed with Covid-19. Ness quit the expedition because he could not be exposed to high altitudes again.
Another climber, Steve Davis, a member of the Elite Himalayan team, also tested positive for the virus.
The incident stoked concerns among the mountaineering community if the coronavirus had made it to the Everest base camp, where around 2,000 people have gathered.
But the government and mountaineering officials dismissed reports of a Covid-19 outbreak on Everest.
On Wednesday, Alan Arnette, a prominent Everest chronicler and climber, wrote in his blog that there was “good news” on Everest.
“Again, I can confirm firsthand that several, if not many, of the 44 teams on Everest haven’t had a single case,” he wrote in his blog.
“Good luck or good planning, probably a bit of both. I know of cases where well-intentioned individuals have become infected through no wrongdoing or poor judgment; it happens,” added Arnette. “I have no idea how I got infected since I was following all the rules to the letter. It happens. Of course, some teams have been lax in following protocols, allowing visitors, no masks, poor hygiene, and they have become infected in large ratios compared to others.”
He further wrote, “But the good news is that teams are reacting quickly to isolate individuals and evacuate those showing symptoms to Kathmandu for treatment. In some cases, people are returning to base camp to continue their climb; however, I would go home if it was me!”
This year, 408 climbers, including one from the “other gender” category, have received Everest climbing permits. This is the highest number of permits authorities have issued since the peak was first climbed in 1953.
“As of Wednesday, everything is normal at the base camp,” Mira Acharya, director of the Department of Tourism, told the Post from the Everest base camp.
Nepal on Wednesday reported another highest single-day toll of 58 Covid-19 deaths and a new daily record of 8,605 infections.
The country saw record high daily coronavirus cases and deaths for two consecutive days. This is the first time since the beginning of the pandemic last year that Nepal has recorded over 8,000 new cases. The total death toll now stands at 3,475.
While some rescue officials said that more than two dozen climbers had been evacuated from the Everest base camp as of last week, everything is 'ok' this week.
Pratap Jung Pandey, director of Kailash Air, said they made several evacuation flights from the Everest base camp in the past week, including one on Wednesday.
“But we have not been informed by any hospital for contact tracing,” Pandey told the Post. “Even when hospitals do not tell us about contact tracing, we send our staff for tests if we suspect an infection.”
Nepal Mountaineering Association, the country’s top mountaineering body, ruled out a Covid-19 outbreak on Everest.
“That there is a Covid-19 outbreak on Everest is just a rumour,” said Santa Bir Lama, president of the association. “Some cases of Covid-19 were reported among the climbers evacuated from the base camp three weeks ago. But now, everything is fine. There is nothing to worry about.”
Mingma Sherpa of Seven Summit Treks said they have their 12 camps at the Everest base camp which house altogether 500 people, including 130 Everest aspirants.
“None of my clients has developed Covid-19 symptoms,” he said.
Dawa Steven Sherpa, CEO of Asian Trekking, said his agency was handling 60 groups of Everest and Lhotse climbers, and all were fine.
“Everything is fine in my camp. We have isolated ourselves and have followed all health safety measures,” he told the Post from the Everest base camp.
Two weeks ago, the Department of Tourism had issued a circular to all expedition outfitters asking climbers not to mix with other groups.
Acharya, who is also the head of the mountaineering division at the department, said they had issued orders to fix ropes separating the tents.
It costs $40,000 to $90,000 per person to reach the highest point on earth, depending on the extent of support the climber needs in terms of guides and supplies. This amount includes the climbing permit cost of $11,000.