If you watched Alan Arnette’s interview with the well-known British climber and mountain guide Kenton Cool on Sunday, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a good year to be climbing Everest.
These two legends of the contemporary Everest scene waxed lyrical about the history of Everest, Nepal and the Sherpa people, then went on to talk about the prospects for the current season, now in full swing. A more central route has been set through the Khumbu Icefall, it’s been a dry year without much snow, and there is no sign of the fearsome jetstream winds that dictate when climbers make their ascent. It looks like there is going to be a big weather window.
It’s a fascinating interview, and if you dropped it into any normal period in human history, you might think that Everest Base Camp is a great place to be and everything is hunky-dory.
The trouble is, this is not a normal period and almost everybody on the planet knows it. Unless you’ve been living on a tropical island in the Pacific Ocean, with no internet connection, and a dustbin over your head to stop you overhearing anyone shouting, you will know that the whole world is currently in the grip of a global COVID-19 pandemic.
You may also have heard that in India the infection rate has become alarming, with nearly 380,000 new cases reported in a single day. This wave has swept north into Nepal, where the rate is even higher and they are running out of oxygen and hospital beds.
Set against this backdrop, it seems strange that Alan allowed Kenton to wax lyrical about Everest, without asking him about COVID-19. In fact, it wasn’t just strange; it made the interview almost surreal. (In fairness to Alan, as we shall see, he has been doing more than most to shed some light.)
We know that climbers and Sherpa support staff have been flown out of Everest Base Camp with COVID-19 symptoms and have subsequently tested positive at hospital in Kathmandu. We don’t know the extent of the outbreak. For the most part operators have been keeping quiet about it. Meanwhile, the government of Nepal is actively denying its existence.
This is not a sustainable approach; denied facts, we can only speculate, and this creates an environment where facts are drowned by rumours. This is not good for Nepal or the mountaineering industry.
Expedition leaders always used to argue (rightly) that you shouldn’t post about accidents for fear of worrying folks at home before all the facts were known. But this approach doesn’t work when the ship has sailed. You only need to go to #Everest2021 on Instagram to paint your own picture of what’s happening in a community that appears to be tone deaf to the feelings of the outside world. Meanwhile, Facebook is awash with climbers posting that multiple members of their team have become infected.
One rumour is that Nepal’s government has threatened operators with climbing bans if they say anything about COVID-19. True or not, this shouldn’t stop Alan asking Kenton about it. Kenton is one of the most respected figures in the Everest community. If the government banned him for honesty, we would all join the fight to have it overturned. Operators should not be afraid to speak up.
So speculate we must, based on what we already know about COVID-19.
Here in the UK, if you have COVID-19 symptoms, then you have to take a PCR test and isolate until you get your test result. If you test positive, you must isolate for 10 days. Everyone you live with must also take a PCR test and isolate until they get their test results. This last step is necessary because a high proportion of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic. Although they appear to be suffering no ill effects, these people can still transmit the virus to others if they continue about their business.
In the interests of safety, let’s project the same process onto Everest, however impractical it may seem. In the case of clients who dine together in the same tent, a positive test would mean that the whole team must take PCR tests and isolate. In the case of Sherpas, who also share a mess/kitchen tent, it means the whole Sherpa team must take tests and isolate.
On a typical trek to Everest Base Camp, most climbers get the Khumbu cough or some sort of flu-like symptoms. Operators would therefore need to be carrying an awful lot of PCR testing kits to ensure the safety of their team. On average, each person who gets COVID-19 infects three more people, so expeditions would more or less grind to a halt for a week if anyone tested positive.
From a cursory glance at social media, we can see that teams are continuing to go up and down the mountain willy-nilly. This means that even when they’ve had infections, many teams must be allowing those without symptoms to continue without isolating.
We know that some operators, such as my old friend Lukas Furtenbach, have had the forethought to take testing kits with them. In theory, these operators could run their expeditions safely, as long as they don’t come into contact with those who haven’t taken COVID-19 quite as seriously. But here’s the rub. There are over a thousand people at base camp and not all of them have been taking these precautions.
— Angela Benavides (@Angelab8848) May 3, 2021
The situation is complicated by the fact that all expedition teams are reliant on hundreds of porters to transport their equipment up the Khumbu trail to base camp. To run a safe expedition, the operator would therefore need to test their porters in the same way and stop them mingling in teahouses along the trail.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that in early April, the Kathmandu Post reported that only 1 in 10 people in Nepal with COVID symptoms were taking a test, no contact tracing was in place, vaccination had been halted, and people were no longer wearing masks or social distancing. It has also turned out to be a record Everest season, with permits issued to 408 climbers, beating the all-time record of 382 issued in 2019, when Nims Purja took that photo of queues of climbers on the Hillary Step.
I’m not one to speculate when facts are available, but since facts are hard to come by, I’m going to hazard a guess that at least one of those 408 climbers arriving from all corners of the earth brought one of their COVID-19 variants with them or picked up one of the Indian ones on their way through Kathmandu.
We know that one of these people was a climber from the UK, home to the highly infectious B117 variant. ExplorersWeb reported that he was evacuated from Everest Base Camp last month with symptoms of COVID-19 and tested positive at a hospital in Kathmandu. He was climbing with Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja’s “Elite Himalayan” team. One of Nims’ Sherpas also tested positive for COVID-19.
It’s currently illegal for people from the UK to travel abroad for their holidays while COVID-19 restrictions are in place, unless you travel for work, to volunteer, for education, for medical reasons, weddings, funerals, elite sports, or to look after children. None of these reasons apply to commercial clients.
ExplorersWeb also reported that the UK climber (who owns a business in York) has an address in California, which may have enabled him to bend the rules, if not break them (travellers from outside the UK can pass through in transit, so perhaps those with two homes believe this gives them a special licence).
He’s not alone. I’ve learned that a number of UK-based climbers have been brazenly posting to Instagram from base camp. At least one is claiming to be an elite athlete; for others, their excuse is unclear. One, who works for an outdoor clothing company, was even allowed to blog about his trip on the company website.
I wrote to one of the US operators who have accepted UK-based clients to ask how they were able to travel. I was surprised to get a reply from the owner himself, directly from base camp, to say that he didn’t know how but there was “probably some workaround”. While I appreciated him for responding, his answer was evasive. The UK rules are in place for safety reasons and it seems likely that at least one of his clients had committed a crime by joining the expedition.
According to a post on Instagram by a team member, five of this operator’s team have already quit the expedition, which would be a high attrition rate before a summit push. He has stated publicly that he does not believe there has been COVID-19 in his team.
Which brings me back to the rumours, some of which are more reliable than others. Alan Arnette and Angela Benavides of ExplorersWeb are the two reporters who deserve most credit for trying to uncover them.
Writing for ExplorersWeb, Angela has described the situation as out of control. She has learned that the doctors working at the Himalayan Rescue Association’s medical facility at base camp (known as “Everest ER”) have been denied permission by Nepal’s government to carry out PCR tests.
Alan has said that ten or more climbers a day are being evacuated to Kathmandu by helicopter with COVID-like symptoms. One returnee told him that the situation at base camp was a total shitstorm (though she immediately cast doubt on her sanity by saying she would be continuing to Pakistan to attempt K2).
You can also go to Instagram and look up any of the climbers currently on Everest. Or look at the operators’ own expedition dispatches, which show photos of pujas (base camp parties) where the rules of social distancing don’t apply, including one notable example posted by the infamous Seven Summits Treks.
We know enough about COVID-19 to know that once cases appear the virus will rapidly spread unless strict testing and social distancing measures are in place. Knowing what we know, it seems certain that not only has there been a major outbreak at Everest Base Camp, but that it is probably widespread throughout the Khumbu region, in part transmitted by expeditions on their way to Everest.
I know there are arguments on the other side too. I feel for the mountain guides and the people of Nepal who work in tourism, who have been denied an income for over a year (I have less sympathy for the clients who are there for a holiday, however intrepid). Nepal does not have the safety net of a furlough scheme to support employees while their work is shut down. Lockdowns hit much harder in the developing world.
But however successful the climbing season may be, however worthy the personal achievement for those who reach the summit, the employment to the community and the friendships that are made, it will weigh heavily against the lives that will be lost to COVID-19 and the impact on Nepal’s already fragile health system.
It didn’t need to be this way. While climbers and mountaineering operators have arrived in droves, trekkers and trekking operators have largely remained at home. Both these groups are also keen to return to Nepal, but have decided the time is not yet right. Their needs are the same, so why is the trekking industry waiting while mountaineering is ploughing on regardless?
Mountaineering operators don’t need as many clients to make a trip viable and clients are more likely to accept the quarantine period for a longer trip. On the face of it, it may appear to be easier to keep small mountaineering groups safe than large trekking groups.
The trouble is that on Everest, mountaineering groups are not small. Some have dozens of clients and an equal number of Sherpas. Mountaineering expeditions require huge numbers of porters, and a single expedition might carry the same risk of spreading the virus as 10 or 20 trekking groups.
Logistics aside, it seems that climbers and mountaineering operators are more willing to take risks than trekkers and trekking operators. It’s in their nature, after all. This is what Billi Bierling, keeper of the Himalayan Database, said in an interview to ExplorersWeb: “Everest climbers are more the daredevil type, and those whose plans were cancelled in 2020 couldn’t wait to return, COVID or not.”
But Billi was being generous. Irish climber Noel Hanna, on Everest this year, told Outside magazine “The way I look at COVID, if I get it, I get it. It’s just the gamble you take”. While this may sound like an audition for the Darwin Awards, it’s not just about Noel. It’s one thing to risk your own life for your sport, quite another to risk the lives of others. Daredevil these climbers may be, but if you cannot spare a thought for the people you may be transmitting the virus to, then you are also being selfish.
Credit where credit is due. Some Everest operators like Adventure Consultants, Alpenglow and Jagged Globe attract international clients but decided to cancel their expeditions this year. The rest need to examine their example. All climbers and operators need to take a hard look at 2021 and decide if the positives of their impact outweigh the negatives. This won’t happen as long as they pretend it isn’t happening, or it’s not as serious as those of us sitting at home on our sofas are saying.
We need honesty about quarantine, testing and social distancing arrangements in Kathmandu, on trek and at base camp. We need to know what testing took place, what actions were taken when teams experienced COVID symptoms, and which team members who were evacuated subsequently tested positive. We need to know why climbers from countries with travel bans were allowed to travel.
Quite clearly, operators have not been able to keep their teams and the community safe. If, as seems probable, there has been a global superspreader event at base camp, then answers are needed. We need to know what mistakes were made, and how safety can be improved, for climbers, Sherpas and the communities they came into contact with.
For the good of Nepal, we need openness. We may think the worst of the pandemic is passing in the developed world. This is debatable, but it’s far from over in countries like Nepal. There’s a chance the pandemic will still be with us a year from now, and the same questions will arise again. We can’t repeat the same mistakes.
There are parallels with Everest 2014, when 16 mountaineering workers died in an avalanche. I wasn’t sitting on my sofa that year; I was there at base camp, an eyewitness to everything that unfolded. It was traumatic, and in some ways predictable too.
I can understand climbers’ reluctance to talk immediately. I arrived back in Kathmandu that year bewildered. I didn’t want to talk to journalists and it was several days before my thoughts were composed enough to write my first blog post about the experience. But we all eventually talked about it. Changes were made to make Everest safer and to improve things for mountaineering workers – not enough, and in some cases things have gone backwards, but nothing would have been achieved by pretending everything was OK.
The outbreak in India and Nepal underlines how the fates of all of us are intertwined. Here in the UK, we’ve experienced an outbreak that killed hundreds daily and caused our health service to creak under the strain. We are starting to emerge from it, thanks to an extreme lockdown and a successful vaccination campaign.
But if we want to travel abroad for Himalayan holidays and not bring a new variant back with us, we need to help India and Nepal by sending them medical supplies, not COVID-19 variants of our own.