The first cases of Covid-19 have been identified at Everest base camp, renewing the controversy over the decision by Nepal to open the world’s highest mountain to climbers.
With access from the Chinese side of Everest closed to outside climbers, and some expedition operators on the Nepalese side increasing prices, the Nepalese decision in the midst of a global pandemic has come under scrutiny.
The Norwegian climber Erlend Ness was originally thought to be suffering from pulmonary edema – a condition associated with altitude sickness – and was evacuated by helicopter to Kathmandu, where he tested positive for Covid.
“My diagnosis is Covid-19,” said Ness. “I’m doing OK now … The hospital is taking care (of me).”
Ness was evacuated from the slopes by helicopter and taken to a hospital in Kathmandu after spending time at Everest base camp. The Norwegian broadcaster NRK reported that a Sherpa in his party has also tested positive.
“I really hope that none of the others get infected … high up in the mountains. It is impossible to evacuate people with a helicopter when they’re above 8,000 metres,” Ness told the Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
“Breathing is already difficult at high altitudes, so any outbreak of disease among climbers presents urgent health risks.”
Ness added that he had tested negative before leaving Norway and while in quarantine in Kathmandhu and had headed to base camp quickly to avoid the risk of contracting coronavirus en route to the mountain.
“The plan was to get fast high up in the mountains to make sure that we wouldn’t get infected … I’ve been unlucky and I could have done more by myself when it comes to sanitary precautions,” Ness added.
While some western commercial climbing companies had cancelled their itineraries for this year over concerns about coronavirus, other companies, including a number based in Kathmandhu, have pushed ahead with plans for the season.
While Nepal is insisting visiting climbers quarantine before proceeding to Everest base camp, concern had been voiced by some observers over the vagueness of the regulations, not least because symptoms of Covid-19 can easily be mistaken for altitude sickness – as occurred with Ness – and fears over the impact of an infection high on the mountain.
Earlier this week, Alan Arnette, who chronicles Everest efforts for his blog, wrote about increased activity at base camp.
“Everest base camp is quickly filling up. Sherpas are busy establishing and stocking camps 1 and 2. Thus far the fixed ropes have been set to the Yellow Band around 24,000-feet. As previously noted, there are few trekkers this spring so the teahouses and trails feel empty to those I’ve spoken with.”
The news of the first coronavirus cases was first broken by Outside magazine earlier this week, which interviewed Sangeeta Poudel, a volunteer at the Himalayan Rescue Association.
“Of course we are worried … it would be an earthquake-like situation,” Poudel said.
Dawa Steven Sherpa, of Asian Trekking, said everyone at base camp was concerned. Nepal has issued 377 permits this year to climb the mountain, and the final number is expected to exceed the 381 handed out in 2019.