Due to spiking Covid-19 cases likely fueled by new variants traveling across the open border with India, the Nepal Government issued an official lockdown in the capital city of Kathmandu and other major urban areas on Thursday. New restrictions include a complete ban on any travel outside of the home except for designated times for purchasing essential items and a 10-day quarantine requirement for anyone entering the city.
But on Mount Everest it’s business as usual. On Wednesday, just before the lockdown, the Department of Tourism issued their 24th Everest Expedition permit for the 2021 season. A record-breaking 408 climbers are now in base camp, preparing to head for the summit. Accompanying them are well over a thousand support staff, cooks, porters, guides, doctors and government officials— all of the gears that make the Everest machine, and the local economy churn.
This year, the most dangerous segment of the Everest climb for many climbers may not be the Khumbu Icefall or the traffic jams in the death zone, but rather the bustling tent city at base camp.
While the number of climbers that are contracting Covid at base camp and evacuating to Kathmandu is impossible to confirm, it appears that numbers are rising sharply. Polish alpinist Pawel Michalski reported on his Facebook feed that over 30 people have already been evacuated to Kathmandu.
American expedition veteran Garrett Madison who runs the high-end outfitter, Madison Mountaineering, told Climbing “Covid is the one big concern this year. We are pretty sure it’s been going around certain teams and taking folks out. Hopefully it won’t be a show-stopper for any of us.”
British climber Steve Davis was evacuated from base camp last week after being diagnosed with HAPE—a common but extreme form of altitude illness. “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.” According to Davis, his expedition did not provide any Covid testing in base camp and basic precautions like wearing masks were not followed. “The flow of people and porters through base camp was pretty much non-stop,” he adds.
The Department of Tourism did not provide expedition operators with any specific rules or regulations to help control the spread of the virus. Instead, they issued a strong directive banning the publication of photographs of any climbers outside of their own team on social media or other platforms, hoping to avoid further embarrassment like the viral photo taken by Nims Purja in 2019 that showed a dangerous crush of climbers all vying for the summit.
According The Nepal Mountaineering Association, there have been four confirmed Covid cases so far this season—three climbers and one local guide.
Despite this, Rudra Singh Tamang, the Director General of the Nepal Department of Tourism told Climbing, “We have not seen any reports of Covid-19 cases in base camp. There are similarities between symptoms of high altitude sickness and Covid. But there is no equipment to find out if the sickness is Covid-19.”
“Media reports are not accurate to say that there is Covid-19 in base camp,” he continues.
As a safety measure the department has requested that expedition operators divide themselves into three separate summit groups based upon when their permit was issued. This tactic has led to extra pressure placed upon the rope fixing teams to open the route early, thus maximizing opportunities and good weather.
“We have asked expedition agencies to limit the number of climbers between 150 or 170 at one time—or 10 to 12 groups in one weather window. Expedition agencies will coordinate among themselves to make sure all of the Everest hopefuls will get a chance to reach the top,” says Tamang.
“I don’t know how they would ever enforce that” says Madison. “It’s just another gesture.”
Spending so much time at extreme altitude can be taxing for even the strongest climbers. Should things go poorly, the danger is now compounded by the fact that nearly all the hospitals in Kathmandu are entirely overwhelmed by Covid patients. If the current surge continues, the demand for ICU beds in Kathmandu is expected to outstrip supply by a factor of forty by June 4th.
But thanks to a rare spell of good weather, the sherpa rope fixing teams are already high on the mountain, and expected to open the route to the top within the next few days—a full two weeks earlier than normal.
Soon, hundreds of climbers will be leaving the confines of base camp and trying their luck with the more immediate dangers on the mountain. “I have much more serious risks [than Covid] in my mind once we are on the mountain,” says Madison. “Like icefall, rockfall, or falling into a crevasse. You know, the things that will kill you instantly.”