Mountaineer and author Mark Horrell tackles the complicated situation on Mount Everest, where expedition teams are battling more than just altitude sickness as Nepal and India struggle to control a particularly violent COVID-19 wave.
Last Friday, 7 May, Everest saw its first summits of 2021 when 12 Sherpas reached the top, including Kami Rita Sherpa, who made headlines by climbing Everest for a record 25th time. So far, Everest 2021 has not seen a single death, which is a remarkable thing in modern times. With ropes fixed, teams poised for summit bids and a favourable weather forecast, things are shaping up for a promising climbing season.
But in the background lurks a dark shadow that has been stalking us all for the last year. Here in the UK, things are starting to get back to normal after a successful vaccine rollout, but that's our bubble. Worldwide, COVID-19 is still on the rise.
Countries such as India, Brazil and Colombia are now suffering the devastating outbreaks that we experienced for most of the last year. These countries are far less able to cope with a severe outbreak, both in terms of health infrastructure and ability to support the economy through lockdowns.
In India, the infection rate has become alarming. Over 400,000 new cases are being reported daily. This wave has swept north into Nepal, where 9,000 new daily cases represent an even higher concentration.
CNN has reported that in Nepal there are only 1,595 intensive care beds and 480 ventilators for around 30 million people. In Kathmandu, the situation has become dire. Government hospitals have already run out of beds and patients who need oxygen are being placed in chairs and treated in corridors. Even private hospitals are running out of oxygen and cylinders.
We know that climbers have been flown out of Everest Base Camp and tested positive with COVID-19. We don't know the extent of the outbreak. Most operators have kept quiet about it, and the government of Nepal continues to actively deny its existence.
The BBC has reported 17 confirmed cases, including one climber from the UK. But this figure is almost certainly an underestimate. Doctors of the Himalayan Rescue Association, who run a medical facility at base camp known as "Everest ER", have been denied permission to carry out PCR tests. Over at the much smaller Dhaulagiri base camp (33 permits issued vs. 408 on Everest), the Nepal Army has been carrying out testing and found 20 cases of COVID-19. Today, multiple teams are reported to have ended their summit attempts on Dhaulagiri due to the COVID-19 situation.
Denied the ability to test, medics at base camp have treated more common cases of altitude sickness as though they are COVID-19. Climbers have either been asked to isolate or put in a helicopter back to Kathmandu.
There have been many helicopter evacuations, some reports say up to 10 climbers a day. Not all of these will be COVID-19. It's also very likely that, faced with the high chance of catching a serious form of COVID-19 at high altitude and knowing that hospitals in Nepal are under serious strain, many climbers have simply decided to end their expeditions early.
These problems were entirely predictable. Operators, all of whom have contacts in Kathmandu, should have known that in Nepal there was widespread complacency towards COVID-19 restrictions. In early April, the Kathmandu Post reported that only 1 in 10 people in Nepal with COVID symptoms were taking a test, no contact tracing was in place, vaccination had been halted, and people were no longer wearing masks or social distancing.
It was not a good time for hundreds of climbers to descend from all corners of the earth. Despite the pandemic, it has turned out to be a record Everest season, with permits issued to 408 climbers, beating the all-time record of 382 issued in 2019 when Nirmal Purja took that photo of queues of climbers on the Hillary Step.
Knowing what we know about how COVID-19 has been controlled in the rest of the world, it would have been possible for operators to see the difficulties of keeping their teams and the community safe.
Here in the UK, if you have COVID-19 symptoms, you take a PCR test and isolate until you get your test result. If you test positive, you must isolate for 10 days. Everyone you live with must also take a PCR test and isolate until they get their test results. This last step is necessary because a high proportion of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic. Although they appear to be suffering no ill effects, these people can still transmit the virus to others if they continue about their business.
In the interests of safety, let's project the same process onto Everest, however impractical it may seem. In the case of clients who dine together in the same tent, a positive test would mean that the whole team must take PCR tests and isolate. In the case of Sherpas, who also share a mess/kitchen tent, it means the whole Sherpa team must take tests and isolate.
On a typical trek to Everest Base Camp, most climbers get the Khumbu cough or some sort of flu-like symptoms. Operators would need to carry a lot of PCR testing kits to ensure the safety of their team. On average, each person who gets COVID-19 infects three more people, so expeditions would more or less grind to a halt for a week if anyone tested positive.
From a cursory glance at social media, we can see that teams have been continuing to go up and down the mountain. This means that even when they've had infections, many teams must be allowing those without symptoms to continue without isolating.
We know that some operators have had the forethought to take testing kits with them. In theory, these operators could run their expeditions safely, as long as they don't come into contact with those who haven't taken COVID-19 quite as seriously. But here's the rub. There were over a thousand people at base camp and not all of them were taking these precautions.
If a single positive test means pausing an expedition for a week, many operators may feel that there is no incentive for them to test. It may seem easier just to put their clients or Sherpas in a helicopter and send them back to Kathmandu, none the wiser about whether they have COVID-19.
Expedition teams are also reliant on hundreds of porters to transport their equipment up the Khumbu trail to base camp. To run a safe expedition, the operator would need to test their porters in the same way and stop them mingling in teahouses along the trail.
It seems almost certain that climbers arriving from all over the world have brought one of their COVID-19 variants with them or picked one up on their way through Kathmandu. It's also likely they have carried the virus to rural villages on the 9-day hike to Everest Base Camp. Simon Lowe of UK mountaineering company Jagged Globe, who cancelled their Everest expedition this year, has said "the risk of COVID in base camp was obvious to anyone who had been paying attention".
Clearly, in the light of a severe resurgence of COVID-19 across Nepal, it was an unwise decision for expeditions to return to Everest this year. It was not a good time, and the mountain will still be there next year. But we are where we are. What now?
Nepal's government has temporarily banned flights out of the country, and from Tuesday onwards, Nepal will be placed on the UK's red list, which means that when they're eventually allowed to leave, the half dozen UK-based climbers will need pay for 10 days of hotel quarantine on arrival back in the UK.
There have been calls for the season to be cancelled, and for expeditions to donate their oxygen to hospitals in Kathmandu where it is badly needed. Understandably, many clients who have paid $60,000 USD for an expedition do not want their operators to do that.
There has been a parallel, much higher profile story occurring across the border in India, where the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament was suspended after players from three teams tested positive for COVID-19. The suspension followed weeks of outrage that the tournament was taking place at all during India's devastating second wave.
Eleven England players, including one-day captain Eoin Morgan, are facing hotel quarantine. Meanwhile thirty Australian players, coaches and staff are stuck in India after their government controversially banned them from returning.
The situation was expressed succinctly by Indian cricket commentator Sharda Ugra: "There was a complete disconnect between what was happening inside the IPL and going out on their world feed, and what was happening outside the stadiums across India. There was no acknowledgement of the growing numbers of dead."
Feeling uncomfortable with the situation, one of the Australian players, Andrew Tye, flew back early like some of those on Everest. He has since been critical of the tournament organisers. "Looking at it from an Indian view, how are these companies and franchises, and the government, spending so much money on the IPL when there are people not being able to get accepted into hospital?" he told Australian media.
With their much lower profile, climbers and operators on Everest are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and accountability as those involved in the IPL and are climbing on regardless of the developing situation in Nepal. We are therefore seeing the same disconnect described by Sharda Ugra, with operators pushing PR that doesn't reflect what we are seeing elsewhere.
For example, a client of the US mountaineering operator Madison Mountaineering posted a series of videos of their base camp puja, a traditional ceremony to appease the mountain gods before a climb. Although the original purpose of a puja is religious and sombre, they have become a great excuse for a party. In one video 20-30 people cluster tightly together like clubbers on a dance floor. In another, 30 people stand shoulder to shoulder with their arms linked, swaying drunkenly. In a third video, climbers drink shots of whisky out of a shared bottle top. There is zero sign of social distancing and hardly any of them are wearing masks. In any normal year, this is harmless stuff; but during the pandemic? Well…
Garrett Madison, the lead guide and owner, has stated publicly by live interview that he is not aware of any cases of COVID-19 in his team, and that his team has been staying in its bubble. Leaving aside the enormous size of the bubble on display at his puja, the evidence on Instagram of his team helicoptering down to the village of Namche for hot showers, a bed and heated blankets, gives the lie to his statement that they are staying in their bubble.
A typical expedition dispatch states that everyone is doing well, they are all healthy and enjoying the climb. There is no mention anywhere of any of his team having problems. But another of his client's posts on Instagram states that by 1 May, five members of the team had left the expedition.
Some people have argued that the situation at Everest Base Camp is not as bad as those of us sitting at home in our comfy armchairs are saying. This may well be true, but the front line of COVID-19 in Nepal is not at Everest Base Camp but the hospitals of Kathmandu where more cases are arriving every day, some of them from Everest. Most of us could argue that, walking to the shops every day along empty streets, or up hills in the Scottish Highlands, Snowdonia or the Lake District, the COVID-19 situation in the UK was never that bad either. But try telling that to the doctors and nurses on the front line when the pandemic was at its peak, many of whom lost colleagues to COVID-19.
There is also an argument that Everest Base Camp has become a safer place than Kathmandu. Everest Base Camp perhaps, but not the South-East Ridge. Even in a normal COVID-free year on Everest, there are people who need hospital treatment after a summit push. With 17 confirmed cases at base camp and heaven knows how many people walking around asymptomatic or untested, there are sure to be more people needing hospital treatment if teams continue with their summit pushes. Each one of them will require a hospital place that would otherwise be taken by a Nepali who may need urgent life-saving treatment.
There have been recent precedents for shutting down an Everest season while it was in full swing. I myself was at Everest Base Camp to climb Lhotse in 2014, when a serac collapse off the West Shoulder killed 16 Nepalis who were carrying loads through the Khumbu Icefall. The tragedy was followed by a labour dispute which controversially closed the mountain for climbing a week later.
There was nothing controversial about the closure in 2015, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake triggered a powerful avalanche on nearby Pumori, which ripped through Everest Base Camp, killing 19 people. The earthquake caused widespread devastation throughout Nepal. Over 9,000 people lost their lives and thousands of homes were destroyed. Meanwhile on Everest, daily aftershocks threatened further avalanches. There was no question of expeditions continuing after that.
For me, Everest 2021 feels much more like 2015 than 2014. Once again, Nepal is in a state of emergency and many people are losing their lives. There is also an ever-present danger both at Everest Base Camp and throughout Nepal. As long as they remain in the country, climbers are putting pressure on Nepal's fragile infrastructure. So why are they remaining and continuing with their expeditions like nothing's happened?
Perhaps it's because it's an unseen danger. Guides can clearly see that climbing through an icefall threatened by earthquakes is dangerous; they do not see the danger of COVID-19 at 8,000m.
The next two weeks will tell us whether these operators have been complacent. They are taking an unknown risk, and clearly they cannot guarantee their clients' safety if anyone gets COVID-19. The virus has an incubation period of anywhere between 2 and 15 days. A typical summit push takes 5 to 6 days. These climbers are in a race to be the first to get COVID-19 above 8,000m.
I'm not among those people who believe that joining a commercial expedition to climb Everest is unethical. Since my first visit to Nepal in 2002 I fell in love with the country. Reaching the summit of Everest will always be one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Over the years I have seen tourism change Nepal for the better and improve people's lives. In 2002, almost all trekkers were foreigners; Nepalis travelling to the mountains for a trek were incredibly rare, but now they are common.
Yet it's also true that mountaineering on the Nepal side of Everest is hurtling in a particular direction unchecked. Much of this is the fault of Nepal's government, who continually fail to introduce the necessary regulation. But some of it is also the responsibility of climbers and operators. If ever there was a line that should not have been crossed, then surely bringing a fatal virus to a fragile country during a global pandemic and climbing a mountain while a tragedy unfolds is it.
Some of you may be thinking, 'Well, Everest climbers are selfish, and this is just the same old story.'
The real story is not about Everest climbers, though. It's about Nepal and India, and any developing country that makes money from tourism. With vaccines in our arms, we may be feeling that the COVID-19 pandemic is reaching a close. We feel safe and many of us are already beginning to think about travelling abroad for our holidays.
But there are places where the pandemic is very much in full swing. Until they too have rolled out vaccines, they remain vulnerable. For the time being, they need financial and medical support – for example, by donating to the Covax Alliance – not large numbers of foreigners arriving and putting more pressure on the system.