Note: This post touches on sensitive issues. It is not intended to be divisive, but merely raise questions that need to be asked and promote discussion. Please read the commenting guidelines and think carefully before posting a comment. Any comments that I consider to be inflammatory will be quickly deleted.
Some obscure records have been claimed on Everest over the years, from the first person to sing the Nepalese national anthem to the first person to urinate on the summit, but the record announced widely last week may well have provoked the most bemusement of all.
‘A team of Chinese surveyors have scaled Mount Everest, becoming the only climbers to summit the world’s highest peak during the coronavirus pandemic,’ announced the BBC last Wednesday.
You may well be wondering: they summited Everest during the coronavirus pandemic – but aren’t we all supposed to be in lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus? Is climbing Everest during a global pandemic something to be proud of, and what were they doing up there anyway?
It’s a complicated story, so let’s have a look and try to make sense of it all.
On 20 March, Nepal suspended all flights into the country to help contain the COVID-19 outbreak. On the same day, the Nepal Tourism Board stopped issuing trekking permits, effectively suspending all trekking in Nepal, including foreign mountaineering expeditions. On 22 March, the country went into complete lockdown. Nobody has been allowed out, except to buy essential food and medical supplies. The lockdown remains in force, and is being extended every two weeks.
These restrictions mean that there have been no expeditions on the south (Nepalese) side of Everest this year, in contrast to the record season in 2019, when there were 607 summits from the south side.
The situation on the north (China-Tibet) side has been a little different. Despite the fact that the COVID-19 virus originated in the city of Wuhan, China’s strict lockdown (which came into force on 22 January) started to be eased from 21 March. As early as 18 March, The Himalayan Times reported that a Chinese operator called Yarla Shampo Expeditions had been granted exclusive permission to run a commercial expedition on the north side of Everest. This would be a large team with 26 members plus staff.
A month later, the telecoms company China Mobile announced that 5G connectivity was now available at Everest Base Camp on the north side of the mountain.
Then at the end of April, Xinhua, the Chinese state media agency, announced that to mark the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest from the north side (an expedition I’ve previously written about here), a 53-member scientific survey team would also be climbing Everest to collect data on weather, plate motion and natural resources, and calculate Everest’s exact height.
The last of these reasons attracted the most publicity. When the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India measured Everest in 1856, they calculated its height at 29,0002ft (or 8,840m). This was updated to 29,029ft (or its most commonly cited height of 8,848m) by an Indian survey team in 1955, and this height was confirmed by a Chinese survey team in 1975. It was further complicated by a team of US scientists, who measured it to be 8,850m in 1999, and a team of Chinese scientists, who measured it to be 8,844m in 2005.
How many people really care? We know that Everest is continuing to rise by a few centimetres every year as the Indian tectonic plate moves underneath the Eurasian plate. But given that the next highest mountain K2 is only 8,611m high, Everest’s place as the highest mountain on earth may well outlast our (by which I mean humanity’s) place on it. So why the need to measure Everest yet again? There are rumours that in addition to remoulding the Hillary Step, the 2015 earthquake might also have knocked a little bit off the top. But is this really urgent if it’s only a couple of metres?
With all of these things going on, you can be forgiven for thinking that the north side of Everest was as busy as ever this year. In fact, 51 people reached the summit last week: a team of 6 Tibetan rope fixers on Tuesday (26 May), followed by 10 scientists on Wednesday (27 May), and finally 35 commercial clients and their staff on Thursday (28 May). This compares with 212 summits from the north side last year, including 141 on 23 May alone.
But the question is, should they have been climbing at all this year, while most of the world is convulsed in COVID-19 lockdown?
Some people have argued that the scientific research alone justifies the expedition, and that it’s been much easier to do it this year, without so many people on the mountain. There are reports that they also carried 3.78 tons of rubbish off the mountain. Some people have also pointed to the fact that Tibetan guides were given employment. But all of these things are possible any other year.
You could argue that it’s possible to climb the mountain safely. If everybody arrives at base camp healthy, avoids travelling through other communities on the way (such as Shigatse, Shegar and Tingri), and maintains social distancing throughout the expedition, then the risks of contracting and spreading the virus are small.
None of the reports I’ve read so far have tackled the issue of social distancing (if you know of any then please post them in the comments). Given that social distancing is likely to be a key part of mountaineering expeditions for the foreseeable future, it would be interesting to know how it was handled this time. Were tents pitched 2m apart? Was shared equipment such as ropes, masks and oxygen sanitised? Were any symptoms reported? If so, how were they dealt with – was anyone sent home? What medical equipment was available in the event of an outbreak?
China is ahead of the rest of the world in tackling the virus, but there is no doubt the expedition went ahead at considerable risk. I’m sure there would have been medical professionals at base camp and on the mountain ensuring the necessary precautions were taken, so it would be helpful to others if more information could be shared.
But there is another reason why it might have been better to delay this expedition until next year: it has shattered the sense that we are all in this together. The virus originated in China this time around, but there is a widespread belief that intensive factory farming throughout the world means there is an increasing risk of more new diseases spreading to humans. The Chinese authorities should have been particularly sensitive to this, because the expedition could have a knock-on effect. To see how, we only have to look across the border into Nepal.
In terms of the medical stats, Nepal appears to be coping with COVID-19 remarkably well. As of 1 June, there were 84,147 confirmed cases and 4,638 confirmed deaths in China versus 1,572 confirmed cases and only 8 confirmed deaths in Nepal. [Source: Our World in Data – cases and deaths.]
But this is only part of the story. While China is fast becoming the world’s leading superpower, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. Everest plays an insignificant part in the Chinese economy. But in Nepal, Everest is central to a tourism industry that brought in 1.17 million foreign tourists last year. The Himalayan Times reported that the Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN) has closed 1,300 tourist-standard hotels. HAN estimates that this means hotels are losing nearly Rs 1.8 billion Nepal Rupees (around $15m USD) every month. In addition to this, 3,500 travel and 2,600 trekking agencies have closed.
Nepal also receives $8.1 billion USD a year (around a third of its foreign income) in remittances. This is income from Nepalis working overseas in places like Malaysia, India and the Middle East who send their wages home. The suspension of international travel has meant that all of these workers have returned to Nepal and are no longer bringing in foreign income.
The success of the Chinese Everest expedition is bound to raise questions in Nepal. Some people, including Nepal’s own Kami Rita Sherpa, who has climbed Everest 24 times, suggested that Nepal should have taken advantage of lockdown to send out a clean-up expedition to retrieve trash and dead bodies from the mountain.
‘The Everest cleanup campaign can employ… 3,000 climbing guides and porters, who have now lost their jobs,’ he said in an interview with the Kathmandu Post.
Unsurprisingly, his plea was turned down, for it somewhat undermines the purpose of lockdown. Nepal has a fragile infrastructure. Even with social distancing, our medical systems in Europe have struggled to cope with the outbreak. Heaven knows what would happen if Nepal were to suffer the same rate of infection.
Kami’s reference to trash and dead bodies hints at another issue: Everest’s tarnished reputation. Although there are trash and dead bodies on Everest, it’s something that is exaggerated by the media and it distracts from bigger issues. There is no doubt that every year, Everest is becoming more of a circus in ever greater need of regulation. I say this as someone who has climbed Everest, fulfilled a dream, had an amazing time and wishes others could do the same.
Many of us will remember that photo by Nirmal Purja. Last year the problems became so acute that I even suggested we should consider boycotting the south side until things improve. Little did I imagine it would happen in quite this way.
We have all been affected by lockdown in a multitude of ways. I’m one of the lucky ones. All I’ve had to do is cancel my big travel plans. Others haven’t been so lucky. Some have been stuck indoors, unable to take exercise. Some have contracted the virus and remained in isolation with large families. Some have lost their jobs. Most tragic of all are those who lost their loved ones and were unable to say goodbye.
You can forgive these people their bemusement if they saw the headlines last week and thought, ‘what, they climbed Everest during a global pandemic – WTF?’