Peak season on Everest during Nepal's Covid peak

Mt Everest Base Camp last month. Photo: Monika Deupala

With a ferocious second Covid-19 wave raging and a closing weather window lapping at their feet, expeditions on Mt Everest this spring have rushed to make a series of successful early attempts to climb the world’s highest mountain.

All in all, at least 130 climbers reached the summit in the past week. There are a record 407 foreign mountaineers and 43 expeditions on Mt Everest alone this spring, despite the second wave and an outbreak of Covid-19 among some expeditions.

Everest Base Camp itself is more crowded than it has ever been, with at least 2,000 climbers, Nepali guides and support staff in a tent city more than 1km long on the Khumbu Glacier.

There were reports of at least 41 more climbers making it to the summit on Wednesday morning just as a stormy westerly front closed in over Nepal. Among them was the first ascent of Mt Everest by three sisters — Nima Jangbu, Tshering Namgya, and Dawa Futi Sherpa from Nepal who also completed the ascent of all seven peaks in seven continents.

There were 12 Nepali climbers from a rope fixing team on top on the morning of 9 May, including Kami Rita Sherpa, who summited for a record 25th time. Then Tuesday, taking advantage of low winds and fixed ropes, 80 more climbers got to the top, together with 12 members of a team from Bahrain Royal Guard that included Prince Sheikh Mohammed Hamad Mohammed Al Khalifa and three Britons.

Also on top on Tuesday was British climber Kenton Cool, who became the first from his country to summit Everest 15 times. Cool then went on to climb nearby Lhotse on Wednesday morning with his guide Dorjee Gyalzen Sherpa, both climbing two of the world’s highest mountains within 29 hours.

As the jet stream and storm systems move over the mountain, climbers are said to be descending to make their summit push for the next weather window expected after 19 May.

Those on the summit this week have not seen any climbers from the north side of the mountain, which means the directive by the Chinese authorities that mountaineers on the peak should maintain a ‘line of separation’ so as to prevent being infected with Covid-19, has not been tested yet. Most commentators have called the rule ‘laughable’, unenforceable and unnecessary.

The summit of Mt Everest on Tuesday morning. Photo: Mingma G

Meanwhile, climbing authorities in Nepal have requested expeditions to bring down to Kathmandu empty oxygen canisters that would otherwise leave behind on the mountain so that they can be refilled and provided to Covid-19 patients. Nepal’s major hospitals have run out of oxygen supply and ICU beds, with patients sleeping on the floor in corridors and in parking lots.

There are said to be at least 3,000 oxygen cylinders on Mt Everest this season, and when refilled, each of them could supply oxygen for three hours to a patient in a Nepali hospital.

Doctors at Everest Base Camp have been quoted as saying that there have been about 30 people evacuated by helicopter so far from the mountain with suspected Covid-19 symptoms. At least one expedition has abandoned its Everest climb due to the possibility of infections.

Covid-19 has also reached Dhaulagiri, nearly 400km to west of Everest, where there were 35 climbers from five expeditions attempting the world’s seventh highest mountain. Six members of a Nepali women’s expedition that had earlier climbed Annapurna abandoned its climb on Monday after some of them had to be evacuated with Covid-19.

Heavy snowfall and avalanche danger have also forced other climbers to withdraw, even though two expeditions are still attempting the never-before climbed northwest ride of Dhaulagiri. Also on the mountain is Spanish climber 82-year-old Carlos Soria, who is on his 12th attempt to climb Dhaulagiri.

Meanwhile, Andorran climber Stefi Troguet has abandoned her attempt of Dhaulagiri after testing positive. ‘Game Over’ she wrote in a Twitter post. ‘The motivation and strength of everyone is really low due to the current situation,’ she added. Mexican climber Viridiana Álvarez, who had climbed Annapurna last month, also abandoned her climb because of the outbreak, even though she tested negative.

‘This is how this expedition ends, being evacuated from the base camp. Today was peak day, it was not possible. As long as there is life there is opportunity,’ Álvarez posted on social media in Spanish.

The decision by expeditions to go ahead with climbing peaks during Nepal’s Covid-19 peak has been heavily criticised. There are 750 climbers on 13 Himalayan peaks, including six eight-thousanders, in Nepal this season

Nepal’s government has also been accused of trying to censor all news about Covid-19 outbreak on the mountains so the cancellations do not result in climbing fees having to be refunded. Information on Covid-19 is so sensitive that many expedition leaders, doctors and guides at Everest Base Camp have refused to speak to media for fear of retribution.

Mira Acharya of the Mountaineering Division of the Department of Tourism, who is at Base Camp herself, has said she has no information on whether there are confirmed Covid-19 cases. Expedition leaders themselves have also downplayed the extent of the infections in media interviews.

Nepal recorded another 9,486 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 on Tuesday, the fifth day in a row that the cases have been above 9,000. The total number of cases has now crossed the 400,000 mark, and the fatality tally has exceeded 4,000. Public health specialists say Nepal’s second wave has not reached its peak yet.

The number of confirmed cases in Nepal showing the steep rise of the second wave. Source: JHU CSSE COVID-19 Data

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