Why did a Chinese team climb Everest during the coronavirus pandemic?

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.

Chinese mountaineering guides work on a route to the summit of Everest on 26 May 2020 (Photo: Xinhua / Dorje Tsering)
Chinese mountaineering guides work on a route to the summit of Everest, between the Second and Third Steps, on 26 May 2020 (Photo: Xinhua / Dorje Tsering)

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.

Chinese surveyor Zheng Lin surveys Everest from base camp on 27 May 2020. (Photo: Xinhua / Jigme Dorje)
Chinese surveyor Zheng Lin surveys Everest from base camp on 27 May 2020. (Photo: Xinhua / Jigme Dorje)

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?

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8 thoughts on “Why did a Chinese team climb Everest during the coronavirus pandemic?

  • June 3, 2020 at 6:42 pm
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    Thanks for this information. At this time of the pandemic I believe that Everest should have remained human-free. The surveying of the mountain could have waited until Covid19 had run its course. On a personal note I spent $600 on a ski pass this year and was not able to use it because all the ski resorts had closed. Money down the drain But it’s alright because I know I’ll ski when this is over.

  • June 3, 2020 at 7:21 pm
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    I do not mind if the scientists climb the mountain during the pandemic (easier for them without the tourists, so a good idea), but what about the commercial group? North side was also supposed to be closed. Favouritism? Western operators lost a lot of money this year.

    One thing about the Nepalis working abroad: by far most of them have not been able to return home, but are in a limbo in the Middle East. No work, no pay, no money to return home, no flights.

  • June 3, 2020 at 8:47 pm
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    I understand your point of view Mark, however, if the US had opened Denali only to US citizens, it would have been crowded this year, same for France/Italy for Mont Blanc, or the UK for your beloved Snowdon (I think it was closed?)

    If it matters, all the Chinese climbers spent 14 days in quartine in Lhasa before going to BC, and there were frequent tests, per my understanding.

    Also, this was the 60th anniversary of the first Tibet side summit and it was by a Chinese (I know you know and noted this) so it was also symbolic – national pride. Something almost every country has.

    As for “we are all in this together” I wish that was true.

  • June 3, 2020 at 8:59 pm
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    Good thoughts and questions. Thank you!

  • June 4, 2020 at 12:20 am
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    Respectfully, Mark, its China’s business what they do on their mountain which is in their sovereign territory. Westerners have long felt the Himalayas and what happens in the mountains are their prerogative. Nepal, with its weak economy, might pay more attention to how keeping open their mountains for Western paying clients would be perceived. China with is current economic might would not and I believe they are doing what they feel is right from their perspective. Because the virus originated (allegedly I might add), it does not mean that they should stop doing things that might be looked at unfavorably by other nations in the world. If the English Cricket Board thinks that its perfectly ok to start resuming training for domestic and international cricket, I don’t expect China or Nepal to raise an eyebrow about that. So, why should Western nations worry about what is happening at the Everest as long as it does not cause any direct harm to them?

    I say all of this respectfully to engage in this debate and as an Indian who does not always see the wisdom in China’s ways 🙂

  • June 4, 2020 at 11:40 am
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    I personally don’t see much of a problem with the Chinese expedition this year. They quarantined as a group for 14 days before heading to BC, hence social distancing during the expedition is moot once the incubation period is over and they are not interacting with other humans. While they were climbing, the airports across the UK and Ireland were open with flights happening and no quarantine rules in effect. Two wrongs and all that, but theirs is by far a lesser problem in context of the pandemic and their team was infinitely safer wrt the virus than most parks across London during April and May. If survey and clear-up work is planned (no issue with measuring the latest height – if it was ok for other nations to have done that in the past, should be just as ok for China to do it again, and it has some relevance post the quake), it is better done this year rather than amidst and adding to the crowds next year or thereafter. In fact I’m not sure you could do any of that work anymore in a normal season. So if they went into quarantine beforehand and are alone on the mountain (not in and out of tea houses and villages etc) then there is no practical problem. My concern is that there may be an overarching tactic by the Chinese survey team to somehow claim the mountain peak as theirs rather than shared and attempt to rewrite boundaries. Beyond that the issue becomes, as you say, an “all in it together” one. But let’s face it, that ship sailed a while ago, and it was not a team on a peak in Tibet that undermined it, at least not in this part of the world. #cummings #charles #herdimmunity

  • June 4, 2020 at 2:55 pm
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    I don’t think the “all in this together” ship has sailed by any stretch of the imagination (though I appear to be in the minority among commenters here). If it has then it’s not going to be long before it has to turn around and come back to port.

    Like it or not, we all share a world with a highly infectious disease for which there is currently no vaccine or fully effective treatment. If it turns out to be like AIDS, for example, we will still be waiting for a vaccine 30 years from now. The pandemic is still in the early stages. It is still spreading to developing countries, and as long as it remains, it will spread back again. We are over the first peak, but expect it to continue in waves.

    That being said, I am an optimist. The degree of compliance with social distancing and the need to live our lives differently has been remarkable. This is not just because we are worried for ourselves but because we care for others. If people appear to be coming out of it now, they will go back in again when the second wave comes.

    So don’t be deceived by a few politicians (or their advisers) behaving like idiots. We are in it together and most people know it.

  • June 4, 2020 at 4:58 pm
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    Since this first article https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202005/08/WS5eb4ba02a310a8b241154217.html they been posting quite open progress reports, photos etc on their English language site, which I read regularly. I remember they did pick up trash etc on the way up. Fair is from a climber (as consumer) and gov’t (as revenue and for workers) point of view. But in the world many scientific plus environmental and/charitable activities are mixed, funding by scientists and environmentalists come along, or environmentalists fund and scientists come along. I think this is closer to how they view it, with some revenue for this endeavor from commercial interests.

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