Covid outbreak feared among Everest climbers

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<p>Tents of mountaineers at Everest base camp earlier this week</p> (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images)

Tents of mountaineers at Everest base camp earlier this week

(Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP via Getty Images)

The Nepalese government has been accused of underplaying the number of positive Covid-19 cases recorded at the Everest base camp.

Officials at the camp have received reports of at least 17 positive cases in climbers, leading to fears among mountaineers that the climbing season might be cut short.

Nepal opened Mount Everest to climbers despite the pandemic raging across the country, inviting ridicule from several quarters.

Alan Arnette, a veteran Everest watcher, said on Sunday: “It’s clear that there is, or has been, Covid at Everest base camp. Well, at least it is clear that people who had it there were taken to Kathmandu where they tested positive and are receiving treatment. It’s also clear that Nepal is seeing a huge spike in new cases and has gone under lockdown once again.”

Nepal registered 8,659 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday – a record daily number for the country.

A number of climbers have been evacuated from the Everest base camp after showing symptoms of Covid-19. Doctors at the base camp told The Guardian that they were not allowed to undertake polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing.

Mr Arnette said: “Nepal tourism officials continue to deny there are any problems at base camp other than one person who had pneumonia. The guides, both foreign and domestic, are posting only climbing updates with no mention of the virus. This includes those who are well-known to have multiple cases within their teams and some who have been evacuated.”

Meanwhile, staff at a private Kathmandu hospital told the BBC that they had received Covid-19 patients from the base camp.

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The Nepal government has meanwhile denied that there might be an outbreak at the Everest base camp.

Critics have speculated that this might be due to fear that the news of an outbreak might force the authorities to shut the mountain expeditions. The foreign climbers are a major source of revenue for the Nepalese government.

Climbers, however, have been worried about the situation at the base camp.

One climber described the situation there as a “total s***storm”, with some suggesting that at least 30 cases have been identified so far. But the Nepal Mountaineering Association has said that it has admitted only four Covid cases so far this season.

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The Guardian quoted Gina Marie Han-Lee, a climber from New York, who wrote on Facebook on 29 April: “I have taken a helicopter out of Everest base camp [EBC] back to Kathmandu after one day. Once I was in the hospital [in Kathmandu] a Covid test confirmed I was positive and had pneumonia. I’ve spent four nights in the ICU.”

She added: “The Covid situation at EBC is a total s***storm. I had no clue what I was flying into.”

But Prem Subedi, under-secretary at Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, told the BBC: “None of the Covid cases at Everest base camp have been reported so far to the Ministry of Tourism.”

Steve Harris, a climber from the UK, was evacuated from Everest base camp after being initially diagnosed on 20 April with high-altitude pulmonary edema.

He told the Daily Mail: “I wasn’t asked about or offered a Covid-19 test.”

After four days in Namche Bazaar, he was taken to hospital in Kathmandu where he was “tested and confirmed positive for Covid-19 and pneumonia and spent a week in intensive care”. He added: “I have been released from hospital but am still having to isolate in a hotel as I am still positive for Covid.”

Mr Harris said that social distancing and masks weren’t really being enforced.

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Pawel Michalski, a Polish climber, told the Daily Mail that more than 30 people have already been evacuated from Mount Everest to Kathmandu.

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An unidentified doctor with the International Society of Mountain Medicine (ISMM) who spoke to the Explorersweb blog said: “We have protocols in place at the Himalayan Rescue Association’s clinic for treating patients with suspected Covid.”

“We have been denied permission by the Ministry of Health to do PCR testing.”

He said: “Many climbers are isolated in their tents at the moment. Expeditions are also isolating themselves, minimising interactions with other expeditions. In Kathmandu, hospitals are not yet at full capacity, but ICUs are filling up quickly.”

The doctor said the government seems “determined not to close down the climbing season”.

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