Some climbers have now reported testing positive, although the Nepalese government has said there is no infection on Everest.
Erland Ness, a Norwegian mountaineer evacuated from Everest base camp in late April, confirmed to CNN that he tested positive upon arrival at a hospital in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
“When I tested positive it was a shock. And then I realized the expedition was over for me,” Ness said. “My dream was to reach the top and see the view.”
Nepalese government rules preventing climbers from sharing photos of other climbers without their consent have restricted information from the mountain, but rumors are spreading of more cases – and not just on Everest.
At least 19 people have been evacuated from climbing camps on the world’s seventh highest peak – Dhaulagiri – 345 kilometers (214 miles) west of Everest, according to Mingma Sherpa, chairman of tour operator Seven Summits Trek.
Seven tested positive and 12 more were scheduled to be tested after showing symptoms, he added.
Nepalese Army spokesperson Brig. General Santosh Ballave Paudel said three cleaners at Dhaulagiri base camp tested positive. One was evacuated on Wednesday and two will be evacuated once the weather clears.
Lukas Furtenbach, an expedition leader, said climbers fear Nepal will close Everest and popular trails.
“I guess there will be more cases,” Furtenbach told CNN from his camp at Mera Peak, south of Everest. “Everyone is concerned about a message from the Ministry of Tourism: ‘You must all go home. “”
Everest patient zero
Many Nepalese depend on tourism – and rock climbing – for their livelihood. In 2018, the Nepalese tourism industry supported over one million jobs directly and indirectly.
After canceling last year’s climbing season due to the pandemic, Nepal’s tourism department granted 408 permits to Mount Everest climbers this year – up from 393 in 2019 when overcrowding, multiple deaths and a Viral photo of mountaineers queuing to reach the summit has attracted international attention.
“The base camp is really a small town,” said Veteran Everest Watcher Alan Arnette, who peaked in 2011 and now runs a climbing website. Furtenbach estimated that there were around 1,200 people at the camp this year.
These conditions make social distancing difficult. “Normally there is a lot of socializing, events, base camp parties and teams are visiting other teams and making new friends,” Furtenbach said.
Now most operators are trying to stay in bubbles, with some Sherpas and local staff having to forgo their usual routine of going home on off days. And many teams have gone to great lengths to spend as little time as possible on Everest.
Tents at Everest Base Camp Monday.
Prakash Mathema / AFP / Getty Images
“We’ve all used hypoxic tents at home, sent them to customers and they simulate the oxygen level at a higher altitude,” said Furtenbach, who hopes to climb up and down Everest in less than four weeks. .
The virus can strike quickly. Ness – who became the first case of Covid-19 on Everest to publicly identify himself – said he started to feel weak after his team’s five-day march to base camp.
“I felt weak, (and) I used to feel strong … (I had) a headache in the mountains, maybe a little fever, I’m not sure, but my oxygen level was very low. “
“At base camp, I was getting worse by the day,” Ness said, adding that the medics eventually requested that he be taken to hospital, where he tested positive.
The positive result sabotaged three years of training for Ness, but he felt lucky for a quick recovery.
“I think if I had had Covid in Kathmandu I wouldn’t be very sick – because I recovered so quickly after leaving the mountain,” he said. “But it’s obviously worse to get Covid at 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) [above sea level] than in Kathmandu. “
‘Straying to the side of panic’
Reports of Covid-19 cases have led to a tense atmosphere at Everest base camp.
“We are getting emails from people on other teams trying to decide whether to get home because it seems clear things are getting pretty serious,” said Adrian Ballinger, an expedition leader who has retired from Everest’s climbing season on Covid- 19 concerns.
“I hear guides, sherpas and one of the helicopter companies say how many Covid rescues they are doing,” he said. “Another major operator wrote to me saying, ‘You are so glad you didn’t go.'”
As rumors swirl, concerns are also growing about the lack of on-site testing. “We would expect the government (would be) confirming these cases, keeping everything transparent, maybe even sending a team to base camp to do a mass test that would find super-spreaders,” Furtenbach said. , the leader of the expedition.
“I think every operator would be happy to pay for it – it would probably save the season, because there is a risk if there are more and more cases that (there) could end this season prematurely.”
Everest ER, an aid service run by the nonprofit Himalayan Rescue Association, wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday that persistent cough was their main complaint this season.
“This year is particularly difficult in light of the Covid pandemic,” they said. “We don’t have the capacity to perform rapid point-of-care testing at this time.”
Speaking of a Seven Summit Treks expedition to Everest, Mingma Sherpa said her team had started from Camp 2 and expected to reach Camp 4 on Thursday. “If we do tests for Covid-19 among climbers, some of them may test positive for the virus. But none of them so far have shown serious health complications except colds and coughs, ”he said.
Lukas Furtenbach as he begins his ascent of Everest.
Courtesy of Lukas Furtenbach
Seven Summit Treks has 130 clients climbing Mount Everest this spring. The first company-led summit bid is scheduled for Sunday.
Several Everest climbers have told CNN their teams are reluctant to speak to reporters about the Covid-19 situation for fear of being rejected for climbing permits in coming seasons – making it more difficult yet to estimate the number of infected climbers and guarantee the rumor. the mill is in overdrive, even with climbers.
“I know people who have had it, who have been infected, have gone to Kathmandu and now they are recovering, and I know other people who have not had a single case in their camps,” Arnette said, characterizing his conversations with mountaineers in recent years. weeks. “It’s very, very irregular and situational.”
“We’re all trying to figure out what’s going on, we’re on the side of panic,” he added.
The moral question
Of all the places in the world to catch Covid-19, Mount Everest is perhaps the worst.
“Every person’s respiratory system is struggling and functioning in overdrive, and they are all the more vulnerable to diseases of the upper respiratory tract,” said Ballinger, the expedition leader. He said climbers face an intense physical battle with every step of the mountain.
“You can’t sleep at altitude, so you have that deep tiredness from days without sleep. You can’t eat, because your digestive system is considered nonessential – whatever you put in your stomach, you get incredibly nauseous. , ” he said.
Persistent coughs are so common on Everest that they have a name – Khumbu’s cough, after the valley leading to Everest – which makes detection of Covid-19 particularly difficult.
“Your whole body is already working on its limits, so catching Covid would be a real threat to your health and even your life,” said expedition leader Furtenbach.
And evacuations can become perilous once teams leave base camp and begin their ascent. “If the weather is bad and someone’s problems develop, the evacuation without a helicopter would take days and it is very dangerous,” Furtenbach said.
“So it would be a big problem if an infected person developed symptoms higher up the mountain.”
For now, however, morale is intact.
“Everyone is excited,” Furtenbach said. “We have clients who have been waiting for two years now, and it is their dream of a lifetime.”
Furtenbach’s team have brought their own Covid-19 tests to Everest and regularly test team members.
Courtesy of Lukas Furtenbach
But as Nepal and neighboring India grapple with a catastrophic second wave of Covid-19 infections – Nepal reported its highest daily count of new coronavirus infections on Wednesday – some climbers are also counting with a mental obstacle .
“I think we’re going to start to see climbers leaving because they feel they are on the wrong side of the moral issue, with the Kathmandu epidemic being so strong,” Ballinger predicted. “They’re sitting there with thousands of oxygen cylinders.”
“If there are more and more cases arriving (at the base camp), the Nepalese authorities will have to do something,” Furtenbach added, again suggesting that an early end to the climbing season is possible. .
“I think they tried to do the right thing, they tried to save the season. But maybe it’s not the right thing.”
CNN’s Bex Wright contributed reporting. Journalists Kosh Raj Koirala and Asha Thapa reported from Kathmandu.