Birds fly above Mount Everest against a blue sky

COVID-19 may impact Nepal’s climbing season, but government denies rising cases

Mountaineers say COVID-19 is rapidly spreading on Mount Everest. “We could have a very, very bad tragedy this year,” said Leo Namen, a climber from Canada.

India’s grave COVID-19 crisis is worsening by the day, and the surge in cases is creating ripple effects throughout South Asia.

Neighboring Nepal, which shares an extensive and porous border with India, has seen a spike in cases this week, with positive tests peaking on Friday at nearly 9,000 infections.

Related: Pressure rises for India lockdown; surge breaks record again

“What is happening in India right now is a horrifying preview of Nepal’s future if we cannot contain this latest COVID[-19] surge that is claiming more lives by the minute,” Nepal Red Cross Chairperson Dr. Netra Prasad Timsina said in a press release this week. “Every effort is being made to save lives right now across Nepal, with increased medical treatment.”

Amid Nepal’s concerns is the troubling situation reported on Everest Base Camp.

“At the moment, they have no antigen tests and no PCR [tests]. So therefore, for the medical staff, it’s quite difficult.”

Dr. Hermann Brugger, president of the  Internaitonal Society for Mountain Medicine

“Well, the conditions are bad,” said Dr. Hermann Brugger, president of the International Society for Mountain Medicine. Brugger is in touch with doctors on Everest now, and said the main problem is not being able to differentiate COVID-19 from common altitude sicknesses. “If they would have testing possibilities, they could say, ‘OK, this is COVID[-19]. This is [high altitude pulmonary edema]. But at the moment, they have no antigen tests and no PCR [tests]. So therefore, for the medical staff, it’s quite difficult.”

Climber Erlend Ness traveled from Norway to Kathmandu, Nepal, at the beginning of April. He said he and his team weren’t worried about COVID-19 at the time.

Related: ‘Married to the mountains’: Arab women mountaineers set records despite social restrictions, pandemic

“We discussed the situation, but the conclusion was that it was a very low infection level there,” Ness said. “We were not worried. And we didn’t see or hear anything about COVID[-19] or infections.”

Ness’s team — which consisted of four US climbers and three Norwegian climbers — set off on the nine-day hike to base camp. During that trek, Ness started feeling weak. His symptoms only got worse the higher he climbed.

Still, Ness said a COVID-19 diagnosis wasn’t really on his radar. But within days, it was clear that Ness would not be able to continue climbing. He was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Kathmandu, where he tested positive for COVID-19 and became the first-known case from Everest Base Camp this season.

When Canadian climber Leo Namen arrived at base camp a few days later, word of Ness’s diagnosis had gotten around. Namen said he knew it wasn’t a good sign.

“If one person gets the flu, basically the entire base camp gets the flu.”

Leo Namen, Canadian climber

“I’ve been in other base camps in the past, and if one person gets the flu, basically the entire base camp gets the flu,” Namen said. “So [there] was a very, very strong concern about it.”

Namen said some COVID-19 safety measures are in place at base camp. Expedition teams have to stay in roped-off areas, and most people comply. He added, though, that he had to tell people on two occasions to keep their masks above their noses.

An official with the Himalayan Rescue Association told the BBC this week that 17 climbers have tested positive for COVID-19 after being evacuated off the mountain. A separate organization, the Nepal Mountaineering Association, confirmed only three cases to The World.

So far, the Nepalese government has denied any positive cases at base camp. The country’s Department of Tourism, which granted a record number of permits for Everest this year, did not reply to The World’s request for comment.

“COVID-19 is rapidly spreading in base camp. We could have a very, very bad tragedy this year.”

Leo Namen, Canadian climber

“It’s one thing, what the government is saying, and it’s a different thing that might be happening,” Namen said. “In reality, COVID-19 is rapidly spreading in base camp. We could have a very, very bad tragedy this year.”

Namen was at basecamp for 10 days before being evacuated with a stomach infection. He said all the Sherpas, who often serve as guides for foreign mountaineers, were talking about being scared of getting sick, but needing the money. The risks that local Sherpas take for international climbers like him, he said, stood out under this year’s worsened conditions.

“I was in tears, for example, when I saw a guide bringing, stumbling with a ping-pong table to base camp. I was honestly in tears,” Namen said. “And I said, ‘I’m crying because I see what we have become.’”

More than 1,000 people are expected to pass through base camp over the next month. But Dr. Brugger doesn’t expect the season to last that long.

Related: As Europe plans to reopen, travelers must read the fine print

I suppose, in a few weeks, Everest Base Camp will be empty,” he said. “Because the risk of getting COVID[-19] is quite high, because there are so many people there. So, therefore, I don’t see any chance to continue.”

Climber Erlend Ness is now back home in Norway, recovered from COVID-19. He said hindsight is 20/20.

“I think it was not right to open Everest,” Ness said. “I think Nepal actually should now cancel the whole season.”

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