How Covid-19 scaled Mt Everest
There’s a storm brewing in the Himalayas, and it’s not the usual kind.
After nearly a year of no climbs, just a few in early winter, and now a return of climbers from around the world, three things have started to happen. Nepal’s Department of Tourism has given out hundreds of permits, eager for a return to business as usual. Cases of Covid-19 have begun to dot the trails, including the first recorded cases on Mt Everest. And climbers, who have paid upwards of ₹25 lakh for their chance to summit, are waiting it out despite the risk, because there’s been no announcement that permits will be honoured at a later date if they leave.
The final touch: The only Covid testing being done at the base camps is informal, conducted by doctors accompanying larger expeditions, and almost all these tests are of the relatively unreliable rapid antigen variety.
While international climbers are required to take the more reliable RT-PCR test on arrival in Kathmandu, this protocol isn’t followed uniformly. And there is no protocol for the testing of the Nepali staff who accompany climbing teams. This means that Covid-positive climbers and staff are mingling with others at the base camps, as well as making their way from camp to camp, kitchen to kitchen, and from one mountain to another.
Among those caught in this perfect storm were Keval Kakka from Mumbai and Bhagwan Chawale from Pune. They arrived in the mountains in March and watched as things grew steadily worse. In April, they were among 70 climbers to summit Annapurna I, the first mountain to be attempted in the spring season (and incidentally the tenth-highest in the world).
The plan had been to attempt multiple summits but amid the rising cases and bad weather, Kakka, a 30-year-old professional mountaineer and trekking guide, gave up and returned home, saying it felt unsafe. Chawale, a 38-year-old officer with the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC), waits on.
In Kathmandu, meanwhile, lockdown was enforced once again earlier this month, with about 8,000 new cases reported every day. In the mountains, Covid-positive climbers and Sherpas have had to be airlifted mid-climb and put on ventilators. And the climbing community is abuzz with the news of what’s being called an “outbreak” on Everest. (Again, there are no numbers available to quantify the spread because there is no organised testing at the base camps).
“Only the teams that had come with their own doctor and testing kits are able to conduct tests,” says Harshvardhan Joshi, 25, a mountaineer from Mumbai, who finally summited Everest on May 23. “Anxiety was rife. It felt like we were sitting on a Covid time-bomb.”
He remained on the mountain nonetheless, he adds, because he’d invested years of training and ₹55 lakh in the expedition, and the government showed no signs of extending existing permits.
The lack of testing has taken climbers from around the world by surprise. Kakka and Chawale say they first became concerned when no tests were conducted as they and about 15 others made their way from Annapurna to the Dhaulagiri base camp in April end.
The first symptoms of Covid-19 at Dhaulagiri surfaced in a team of Sherpas who had spent time together at Tatopani, a village en route the Annapurna I base camp, adds Kakka. (The two mountains are in close proximity; Dhaulagiri is the seventh-highest mountain in the world; incidentally, the Himalayas are home to 9 of the world’s 14 highest peaks).
Spanish mountaineer Carlos Soria Fontan’s team had brought a few rapid antigen kits, and it was they who started testing people at the Dhaulagiri base camp. “About 50 people tested positive, of the 80 present. They were short on kits but more were made available by their agency,” says Kakka.
Worse, he adds, there were no precautions being taken. “Four or five Sherpas were sharing tents, when there’s no need to do so at base camp. Those who had tested positive were walking around and touching things in the kitchen. Supplies coming in by helicopter were not sanitised or sterilised. And while evacuating people from base camp, they were putting the healthy ones with those who had tested positive, saying the latter had mild symptoms.”
Between the shortage of manpower after key members of the rope-fixing team tested positive, and heavy snow dumps and avalanche conditions, most abandoned their climb on Dhaulagiri. Kakka, who was to also climb Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, decided to drop all plans and return to Mumbai.
He is fortunate that he could — there is still a weekly flight operating from Kathmandu to Delhi. All other international flights have been cancelled until May 31. Some mountaineers are trying to charter private planes instead. “It’s not worth risking your life there. I just didn’t feel safe,” Kakka says. “They gave out so many permits just to run businesses and forgot about what could happen.”
A red zone on Everest
Everest, meanwhile, looks set to become a red zone for Covid-19. Nepal’s Department of Tourism (DoT) has issued a record 408 permits for Everest this season; another 125 permits have been issued for neighbouring Lhotse, which uses the same base camp and follows most of the same route (a number of climbers will be attempting both; among those attempting Lhotse is Chawale from Pune). Add in the support staff, and that’s more than 1,500 people at base camp since April.
“Even the big expeditions that have their own doctors and kits have only rapid antigen tests,” says Dr Hemant Leuva, 48, a climber and general surgeon from Ahmedabad who is attempting Everest this season.
When he realised the Everest ER team from the non-profit Himalayan Rescue Association had no provisions for testing (WhatsApp messages to an ER official at base camp have gone unanswered), he asked his wife Surbhi, also a doctor and mountaineer, to bring rapid antigen test kits with her when she arrived in early May.
Surbhi arrived with 25 kits and so far, five of the staff and one climbing member have tested positive and been evacuated. “But there won’t be any official record of how many tests have been conducted, how many have tested positive or how many were evacuated,” Dr Leuva points out.
Climbers are known to descend from base camp to villages lower down to rest, before returning for the summit push. That poses an added risk to both sides. Those who have the facility have been testing members on return. The rest simply continue up the mountain.
Citing Covid-linked safety concerns, a number of teams have called off their Everest expeditions and left. On May 10, Spanish mountaineer Alex Txikon in a statement said he and his teammates Sendoa Elejalde and Inaki Makazaga were abandoning their climb “out of a feeling of responsibility” after “assessing the health situation.”
Another agency, Mountain Trip, suspended its expedition on May 22, saying in a statement that their Sherpa team was “hit hard with Covid” and they saw “no opportunity to summit within safety margins”.
China has called off all expeditions on Everest from the north side in Tibet. Pakistan has announced that Nepali citizens won’t be allowed in for the start of the climbing season that begins there in June, adding that any climbers who have been in Nepal in the three weeks prior won’t be allowed into Pakistan either.
After calling off his Everest expedition, Austrian guide Lukas Furtenbach, who runs Furtenbach Adventures, painted a grim picture in a social media post on May 16. “We tried to do everything right... We were even more careful when the Covid outbreak in basecamp started, when we heard from the first teams with Covid cases, the government denying these cases... I was calling for a mass test in base camp. The call was ignored,” Furtenbach wrote.
The Nepal authorities have continued to deny a Covid-19 outbreak in the Himalayas since reports of the first case there emerged in mid-April. Mira Acharya, director of the DoT, visited the Everest base camp and told Reuters: “Doctors at the base camp said the situation was not as serious as it was reported. I did not see any terrible situation there.”
A press release dated May 7, posted on the website of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, refutes news of Covid-19 cases at base camp, calling them “rumours”. There has been no word from the government on this since.
The lack of acknowledgement has a lot to do with the revenues and livelihoods linked to climbing in Nepal. A permit to climb Everest costs each climber $11,000 (about ₹8 lakh); the most affordable price for an entire climb would be about $35,000 (about ₹25.5 lakh). The tourism industry overall suffered losses of $330 million last year, according to Nepal government estimates.
“So many of the staff didn’t announce any symptoms of Covid because they didn’t want to lose their income,” Joshi says. “But there are choppers flying in each day and they could easily carry samples back to Kathmandu.”
While Joshi’s expedition is done, the wait continues for many others, with now no hope that permits will be extended as they’ve been in the past. The climbing season ends on May 29.
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