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“Major scandal and a scam,” Says Everest Guide of Covid Outbreak

Physician Brian Irwin reports on the dangerous situation that continues to brew at Everest Base Camp in Nepal. “This is a major scandal and a scam,” Everest guide and operator Lukas Furtenbach said.

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As India’s Covid outbreak rages like a forest fire, and already having spread into Nepal, ravishing its resources, including oxygen tanks, logic would hold that Nepal would attempt to control the Covid outbreak at Everest Base Camp (EBC). Instead the government remains silent.

Reports of Covid at EBC are fluttering across social media like prayer flags in the wind. Yet the Department of Tourism for Nepal continues to fail to acknowledge the outbreak. They failed to respond to multiple requests for information from Climbing, but the Director General of the Department of Tourism told Outside magazine, “There are media reports about Covid cases at Base Camp, which we don’t believe. We approve only official information, which only liaison officers (LOs) or expedition leaders provide.” These statements have been reiterated to NPR, The New York Times, and many other media outlets.  But now, for weeks, they’ve retracted into a shell of denial and silence.

The expedition leaders aren’t talking. And the LOs aren’t around. According to Lukas Furtenbach, an Austrian expedition leader who has pulled his team from the hill, the LOs are absent.

“We have two Everest, two Lhotse and many other peak permits. The LOs are paid to accompany us for our six-week expedition.  They only once dropped in for lunch,” Furtenbach said. “They’ve been otherwise absent.”

Rumors are that Nepal will withdraw or refuse to renew permits for expeditions whose leaders speak of the outbreak. This isn’t official, but has laid fear into teams, snuffing them into silence about the outbreak. Most teams are staying and attempting their climbs, but not Furtenbach’s. When asked why, he stated the severity of the Nepalese-denied outbreak.

“Every team has positive cases. When walking through Base Camp you can hear the coughing everywhere. It’s mostly Sherpas, as they’re largely unvaccinated. It’s not the Khumbu cough. It’s a major outbreak here.”

In recent weeks the outbreak has been reported to be fairly well contained. Garrett Madison, a veteran Everest guide, reported his team was “cautiously optimistic.”

“We have had no issues. But we’re staying in our bubble. Less social, Base Camp. We keep to ourselves, but it makes it like you’re on a true expedition. Every team for themselves. It’s like the Wild West,” Madison said.

Despite the optimism, the Himalayan Rescue Association clinic at EBC has reported over 20 cases of Covid, and that was weeks ago. Most of those indivuals were evacuated via helicopter. But there’s no government-supported Covid testing at EBC. There are rumors of test kits being supplied to down-valley Lukla, but according to Furtenbach, these are mostly to test and evacuate trekkers, not climbers. Testing hasn’t made it up to EBC, other than the few test kits brought in by expeditions.

Madison’s team brought their own kits. They’re lending them to teams to aid in the crisis. To date, Nepal has not implemented a testing program, nor Covid guidance.  It seems that they may be attempting to limp through the last weeks of the climbing season without addressing the issue.

This flies in the face of the May 15 closure of the Chinese side of Everest in an attempt to “stop the importation of Covid from Nepal.” Furtenbach’s approach was similar to Madison’s. He is testing all climbers before and after a summit rotation. And this has saved at least one life—his guide’s.

Nepal’s statements say that no one with Covid would feel well enough to attempt the summit. This stance is insensible. I am a physician and have treated many Covid patients who have incubated for a week without symptoms, only to rapidly deteriorate.  Clearly an incubating climber could ascend in the “death zone,” only to fall ill shortly after. This happened to Futenbach’s guide after return to EBC.

“After a summit rotation one of our veteran guides had a runny nose, no other symptoms. He tested positive, and we repeated that test. He quickly spiked a fever of 40-degrees Celsius and within a couple of hours was short of breath and in a helicopter. He almost died. If this had happened one day earlier he’d have been on the summit or camp three. So yes, obviously it can catch you high on the mountain.”

Nepal’s Department of Tourism’s Director Mira Acharya has apparently not responded to the problem. She would be responsible for levying punishment upon teams willing to reveal the issue. Furtenbach seemed angered at the non-response, calling it “totally irresponsible.”

“This is a major scandal and a scam,” he exclaimed.

When asked if he’s been threatened by the DOT for his openness, he stated that this hasn’t happened. 

“I’m not sure what will happen when I arrive in Katmandu tomorrow,” he said during a May 19 interview. “But I’ve saved all our positive test kits. And when I get back there, I’m placing them firmly on Mira’s desk. Up there you can almost smell the death.  Maybe she will too.”