A provocative headline, I know, so I won’t bury the lead. In my opinion only a slight chance, so, no, the Nepal officials will not cancel the season as many thought they did in 2014 and 2015 (technically, they never did cancel). However, individual teams may cancel as we see some well-known teams with multiple cases.
Before I get too deep into this, climbing continues with teams throughout the Western Cwm. A collapse of an “ice wall” high in the Icefall almost hit two people but they survived. The route was closed and the Ice Docs will do their magic to open it back up.
Also, if you love Everest and her history and one of the best climbers today, check out my interview with Kenton Cool.
The spike of COVID in nearby India is moving to Nepal who is also seeing a spike. In late March, to attract Everest tourists, the Nepal government relaxed quarantine requirements and instituted a self-enforced approach to testing. There were no rules or guidelines on how teams should manage operations at Everest Base Camp, or if there were any rules, no one enforced them as usual with most Nepali laws in mountaineering.
With so many changes in rules at the last minute, trekkers stayed away, which was one of the few silver linings in this messed up situation, at least for climbers but not for the trekking tourism industry. Climbing teams stayed in mostly empty teahouses and only ate with their teams in empty dining rooms. However, when a teahouse was filled with strangers, some teams moved to another empty one to maintain their “bubble.”
But even with the best testing, bubble models, and intention, some people succumbed to the virus. As reported in the Khaleej Times, Tima Deryan, the youngest Arab woman to climb Everest, was airlifted from Mera Peak after becoming severely ill. She was told it was the stomach flu. This diagnosis is common, along with altitude sickness, since most teams lack COVID test kits. Also, using “flu” as a cover story keeps a team out of scrutiny and poor press.
Tima told the Times, “We did a pre-departure PCR test in Dubai and did a second one after we arrived in Kathmandu. Before I set out on the expedition, I had gone out to buy some things I needed for the trek which is where she may have contracted the virus in Nepal.” Adding of her evacuation a week later, “There were many other medical evacuations that were happening. I wasn’t the only one.”
Is there COVID at Everest Base Camp?
Unequivocally, yes. There have been multiple confirmed cases of climbers evacuated to Kathmandu with symptoms. Once in Kathmandu, they tested positive for COVID-19. Helicopter pilots are reporting taking eight to ten people a day out. People who don’t want their names used, fearing ridicule and retribution, are saying there are teams with four, five, seven, or more cases, and in some cases, 50% of a team’s members infected. Meanwhile, other team leaders indignantly deny any issues and take issue with any adverse reporting.
However, even the highly respected volunteers at EverestER posted for the public, “Some close contacts are isolating in their tents as we’ve had a few confirmed cases of covid with evacuation from EBC.”
And the Nepal Government View?
In a recent article in Climbing Magazine, Rudra Singh Tamang, the Director-General of the Nepal Department of Tourism, said, “We have not seen any reports of Covid-19 cases in base camp. There are similarities between symptoms of high altitude sickness and Covid. But there is no equipment to find out if the sickness is Covid-19. Media reports are not accurate to say that there is Covid-19 in base camp.”
With the virus clearly at base camp, some guides saying their camp is not impacted, and the government denying any issues, let’s take a hard look at some possible outcomes.
0. Not in My Camp
There is no COVID virus at Everest Base Camp. With 408 permits, statistically, there will always be more illnesses and evacuations, so what we are seeing is simple math. There is no problem. Teams are isolated, with no cases, and everyone is acclimatized, healthy, and ready to pursue a successful summit. The Ministry of Tourism is happy with so many summits.
1. Evacuate the Sick, Isolate the healthy, Climb as Usual
This pretty much the current state. Individuals, members, Sherpas, staff show symptoms. Leaders suggest it’s the flu, but they should evacuate the person just in case. The rest of the team continues their acclimatization rotations planning on a summit bid as soon as the ropes reach the summit, the South Col is stocked with oxygen, and the winds stay low. There are summits, but for only two-thirds of the permits issued. But with the summits, the Ministry of Tourism is pleased.
2. New Cases Grow One by One, Mass Denali, Climb as Usual – Until
New cases continue to grow, slowly reaching almost every team. Leaders continue to blame altitude or this nondescript “stomach flu” that looks a lot like COVID except that it’s in the lungs, not the stomach, and they have severe breathing issues. Helicopters remain busy, as do the insurance companies reaching a record payout for an Everest season given record permits and now record illnesses. But climbing continues, even as people are flown out from as high as Camp 2, with “altitude issues.” There are summits, but for only half of the permits that were issued. The Ministry of Tourism declares victory with the summits.
3. Outbreak, Climbing Halts
This scenario is the stuff of movies, and I hope upon hope it doesn’t occur. The propagation speeds up, now hitting every team. One by one, leaders accept reality and cancel the entire expedition. This decision is well within their rights, responsibility, and contractual obligations. Their job is to keep their members safe, not to get to the summit at all costs. But climbing has become immaterial with the outbreak. People are struggling to breathe at 17,500-feet, much less at 26,000-feet on the South Col. The Nepal government insists Everest is open and that no cases have been reported from EBC. The sick have the flu, pneumonia, or the Khumbu Cough. Meanwhile, there are no beds available for climbers as they are full of the severely ill in Kathmandu. Only a handful of people summit in 2021, making the Ministry of Tourism happy with any summits.
Precedent for Closing Everest
Everest has shut down for climbing only twice since Nepal began selling permits. However, technically they never closed climbing, but instead, all support was removed, effectively shutting down the peak. It’s similar to an airport closing the runways, leaving the terminal open, thus claiming the airport was never closed, just the runways.
In 2014, a serac release from the west shoulder of Everest falling onto the Khumbu Icefall, where Sherpas was waiting for a fixed ladder. They were ferrying loads to the higher camps just around dawn. Tons of falling ice took 14 lives that day. The Sherpas seeing this as an opportunity to bargain with the government for better working conditions, pay, and insurance, sent a list of demands to the Ministry of Tourism. A Minister flew to EBC, made big promises, and promptly left. The Sherpa’s feeling thwarted again said they had no choice but to walk off the job, thus ending the season effectively. The Ministry extended all of the member’s $10,000 climbing permits for five years but took no significant action on the list of demands.
In 2015, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal taking over 9,000 lives. The quake triggered an avalanche off the ridgeline between Pumori and Lintgren just above base camp. The snow and ice accelerated as it hurled towards camp, gathering boulders and speed as it closed in on the center of the long line of tents. Close to 100 people were severely injured that April 25, 2015, and 18 lost their lives; some reports say 22, including non-climbers and others nearby. Once again, the authorities said the mountain remained open even though the Icefall Doctors had left base camp to be with their families in their homes. The few climbers that remained lobbied the government to let them continue climbing and received permission. Incredibly in the face of obvious evidence that climbing was no longer an option, the government said otherwise. Tulsi Gautam, chief of the Nepal Department of Tourism, told the press, “The ladders will be repaired in the next two to three days, and climbing will continue. There is no reason for anyone to quit their expedition. There is no scientific reason to expect another quake … and we feel the ground is stable enough for climbing despite aftershocks.” source Once again they extend climbing permits but for three years this time instead of five.
Close Base Camp?
Given the government’s denials in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise in 2014 and 2015, combined with their ongoing denials that there are any problems at EBC in 2021, it seems virtually impossible that they would close the base camp, stop climbing, and evacuate everyone. Also, other Ministries have closed all domestic and international travel plus the border with India this past weekend. So if they evacuated them, where would the foreigners go – to hotels in Kathmandu? I think base camp would be better given that Kathmandu is the epicenter of this most recent spike in new cases. The Sherpas could return home, which would be the best place for them. After all, they have survived in their isolated villages for over a year, mostly unscathed.
However, I’ve been going to Nepal since 1997, almost 25 years; one thing that I’ve learned is never to assume you know how they or any country will react to a crisis. Without a doubt, COVID is a crisis in Nepal, and they want and need to regain control. They want to avoid another lost year like 2020 more than anything. And perhaps for once, they will put public safety as a higher priority than money. They already have collected over $4 million in climbing permits.
So a viable scenario is maybe to let the base camp situation play out. The government gives the operators some modicum of air-cover with a press release about how bad COVID is everywhere including EBC and if operators choose, they can cancel their expeditions. Operators and the government jin forces to take their unused supplemental oxygen tanks and use them in the Kathmandu hospitals. Finally, to ensure future permit revenue streams, not extend climbing permits. And best of all for the Ministers, claim victory for their excellent crisis management.
However, for those who feel safe in their bubble, have the resources, they will go for the summit in a year that will always have an asterisk beside it.
The permits for Everest surpassed the previous record of 382 foreign permits set in 2019. The Nepal Ministry of Tourism posted these foreign permit tally as of April 30.
- Everest: 408 on 43 teams
- Lhotse: 125 on 14 teams
- Nuptse: 38 on 4 teams
- Manaslu: 1 on 1 team (over)
- Annapurna: 44 on 4 teams (Over)
- Dhaulagiri: 33 on 5 teams
- Pumori: 9 on 2 teams
- Makalu: 20 on 2 teams
- Ama Dablam: 27 on 2 teams
- Tukuche: 1 on 1 team
- Tilichho: 8 on 1 team
- Tengkangpoche: 2 on 1 team
- Baruntse: 12 on 1 team
The Tibet side is closed to foreigners, but there are 40 Chinese nationals reported now at base camp.
I am updating my annual team location table and tracking climber’s blogs (see sidebar). If you have a team not listed, please let me know and I will add them if I can track them. If you prefer not to be mentioned, please contact me. Here’s to a safe season for everyone on the Big Hill!
Memories are Everything
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