This Monday, 19 July, is “Freedom Day” here in the UK. Despite rocketing infection rates of the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant, and hospitalisations starting to rise exponentially, our government has decided that it’s time to start opening up again.
From Monday, almost all COVID-19 restrictions will end, including the wearing of masks, any form of social distancing, and most international travel restrictions. Public health will now be a matter of personal choice rather than government decree. It will now be down to individuals to decide whether to wear a mask indoors, to businesses whether to impose any form of distancing requirements in their venues, and to other countries to decide whether to let British holidaymakers in.
Scientists have described it as a dangerous experiment in public health that inevitably means COVID-19 will spread unchecked among unvaccinated people.
In fact, if the 2021 Everest season is anything to go by, we already know what happens when people are left to their own devices amid an outbreak of a highly infectious virus (in this case, the same Delta variant of COVID-19 that is currently spreading rapidly across the UK).
Despite only 1% of Nepalis having been vaccinated by the start of April this year, the government of Nepal decided to lift restrictions and open up their country for tourism.
Most trekking operators and a handful of responsible mountaineering operators decided to stay at home, knowing they would be unable to sufficiently protect their staff, clients and communities they travelled through in the event of an outbreak of COVID-19.
But unless there are rules, there will always be people only too happy to put their own objectives above the good of the community.
In almost every way, it was a record year for mountaineering in Nepal. There were more teams and more permits issued for Everest than any previous year. In fact, there were more teams and more permits issued across all Nepal peaks than any previous year.
With rules lifted, operators allowed their clients to fly in from their home countries unvaccinated and move straight on to the rural Khumbu region with little or no quarantine. Many didn’t bother to test for COVID-19 or even check whether national restrictions allowed their clients to travel at all.
Operators allowed hundreds of unvaccinated staff and porters to flood the Khumbu region, where medical facilities lacked high-flow oxygen treatment and villagers could not afford to travel to hospitals in Kathmandu.
The rest is history, but it’s a history that is still being written. Nepal and its neighbour India were about to experience the biggest outbreak of COVID-19 in the world. An estimated 100-150 climbers in Everest Base Camp became infected. A figure for the number of locals infected in the Khumbu region is less clear. In May, the Telegraph reported a figure of 77 known cases, including 15 in the village of Pangboche.
Despite clear evidence, the government of Nepal unbelievably continued to deny the existence of COVID-19 on Everest throughout the season. Most operators, fearing adverse publicity, were only too willing to keep quiet about the scale of the problem, or pretend that things were under control.
But the truth always comes out in the end, and much of it is out there already if you know where to look. In fact, many clients have been refreshingly open about their experiences, often providing insights which flatly contradict public statements by their operators. If there are any journalists out there looking for a new book project, then I recommend the 2021 Everest season. There is no shortage of publicly available material waiting to be unearthed.
One person who has been diligently sifting through it all is Paul Devaney, who runs the excellent Irish Seven Summits website, which chronicles the achievements of Irish climbers on Everest and elsewhere.
Paul is not a journalist but an aerospace engineer, an industry which, like international mountain guiding, has been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With time on his hands, Paul has been wading through expedition dispatches, Instagram posts and hours of podcasts searching for the truth.
The result is Everest 2021 – The WTF Season, a monumental review of the 2021 Everest season which holds operators firmly to account. For example, there has been a lot of talk in recent years about unethical Nepali operators on Everest (the implication being that western operators are more trustworthy). But in 2021, top-end US operators were among the worst offenders and it therefore seems time to reset this debate.
Among other nuggets in Everest 2021 – The WTF Season, you can read about:
- The climber with a bad cough who descended to Namche, where he visited a café and had his hair cut before getting evacuated to Kathmandu with symptoms of COVID-19. When he tested positive, his UK/Nepali operator failed to impose any restrictions on their team.
- The same operator’s party at base camp with no social distancing, attended by multiple teams, some of whom had fled from Dhaulagiri after another outbreak of COVID-19.
- The US operator whose public statements about a healthy team staying in their bubble and social distancing were belied by his client’s Instagram feed which described clients being evacuated for illness, others flying to Namche for rest and relaxation, and exuberant base camp pujas.
- Another US operator who continued with their expedition without isolating, despite 12 members including guides and Sherpas testing positive.
- How the same US operator allowed their clients to return to the mountain after recovering in Kathmandu. Things then went from bad to worse. Clients complained of missing oxygen, insufficient food and no tents. One client reached the summit without a guide or a Sherpa and another was evacuated from Camp 2 with frostbitten feet.
- Nine identifiable UK-based clients who appear to have travelled to Nepal illegally despite an international travel ban.
- A clear explanation of how the oxygen on Everest could have been used to treat cases in the Khumbu, and the total failure of government or operators to organise movement of those bottles to where it was needed. There is even a sample of the tone deaf posts by clients and operators, bragging about their ready supply of oxygen.
I’m only scratching the surface here. I’m willing to wager a pair of crampons that “Freedom Day” in the UK is followed by a series of super-spreader events with zero regard for numbers, social distancing or basic precautions. Because one thing Everest 2021 has shown us is that if people are allowed to do something selfish and harmful to others, they will do it. This is even more the case with COVID-19, where significant numbers of people don’t believe or appreciate the harm they are causing.
Paul’s post is essential reading, something that needed to be written, not only for those of you interested in Everest history, but as a salutary lesson in human psychology. And it will certainly be of interest to any potential Everest climbers wondering which operators to avoid when the pandemic is finally over.
It remains for me to echo what Paul says at the end. Like him, I’ve strongly defended commercial mountaineering on Everest, but not this year. I’m ashamed of those climbers and operators who chose to continue their expeditions while COVID-19 ravaged base camp and the places beyond. I hope this is commercial mountaineering’s nadir, but I’m not hopeful. I expect many will flock back to Nepal this autumn.