Everest Base Camp (Nepal) (AFP)
More than 30 sick climbers have been evacuated from the foot of Mount Everest, raising fears that the coronavirus could sabotage an exceptional season hoped for on the world’s highest mountain.
Nepal’s tourism industry suffered a devastating blow last year when the pandemic caused its peaks to shut down completely, costing millions of dollars in lost revenue.
This year, authorities relaxed quarantine rules in an attempt to attract foreign adventurers and issued climbing permits to more than 400 people, a new record.
An Everest permit alone costs $ 11,000 and climbers pay over $ 40,000 for an expedition.
But the warmer weather that ushers in safer conditions for scaling Nepal’s dangerous snow-capped peaks has coincided with a deadly second wave of Covid-19 infections, with active cases in the country increasing six-fold in the past two. weeks.
Norwegian mountaineer Erlend Ness spent two nights sleeping in his tent at base camp last month, unsure of what was making him sick.
“I was evacuated to Kathmandu and tested. My result was positive for Covid, ”he told AFP, becoming the first climber to have an Everest permit to confirm his infection.
“I think I’m not the only one… All the base camp teams know that the risk of Covid is there and they have to be careful, they have to be careful,” he said.
Climber Gina Marie Han-Lee decided to abandon her expedition last week for fear the disease could spread around base camp.
“I brought an EBC (Everest Base Camp) helicopter back to Kathmandu after 1 day. The Covid situation at EBC is a total storm. I had no idea what I was flying in, ”the US citizen wrote on her Facebook page. April 29.
“It was a heartbreaking decision, but I put my health first. High altitude Covid doesn’t sound like something I want to play with. ”
– ‘We don’t have any tests here’ –
Officials at a health clinic serving climbers say more than 30 people have been evicted from the camp in recent weeks.
At least two have tested positive after returning to the capital Kathmandu.
But the government has yet to confirm a single Covid case on Everest.
“Some evacuees may have tested positive in Kathmandu. They have not been tested at the base camp, so we cannot be sure where they were infected, ”said the head of Nepal’s tourism department, Rudra Singh Tamang.
Camp health workers say they lack the capacity to test for the disease.
“We are allowed to work only as a clinic, so we don’t have testing here. We have made requests but nothing has happened yet, ”said a doctor.
Over a thousand people typically camp in the bustling tent city at the foot of Everest, including foreign climbers and the Nepalese guide teams who escort them to the top.
But the usual daydreaming and boisterous community parties are absent this year after expedition groups were urged to stay alone and avoid socializing with others.
The customary religious ceremonies held before an ascension to pray for a safe expedition have also been turned into quiet and private affairs.
“We take every precaution possible to make sure there are no infections,” said Tashi Sherpa of Seven Summit Treks, Everest’s largest climbing agency.
“We don’t visit other tents, and even the groups within the camps don’t mix. “
– ‘We are very scared’ –
More than 400 people in Nepal have died in the past two weeks after contracting Covid.
The country’s healthcare system was overwhelmed by the sudden spike, with hospitals filling up quickly and patients’ families scrambling for medicine and intensive care beds.
Climbers on peaks elsewhere in the country have also encountered problems.
An expedition to Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh highest mountain, is in limbo after at least three members tested positive for Covid this week.
Nine are being evacuated and more are being tested, the leader of their expedition said.
Breathing is already difficult at high altitudes, so any outbreak of coronavirus among the climbing groups could pose serious health risks.
The evacuation of sick climbers from remote peaks poses a major logistical challenge.
“We’re very scared, there are a lot of rumors and we don’t know what’s really going on,” said Harshvardhan Joshi, an Indian mountaineer who hopes to reach the summit of Everest.
“What if someone shows symptoms after reaching a higher camp?” “
© 2021 AFP