The desire to climb the highest mountain on earth seems to be immune to the coronavirus. Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism announced that as of last Friday it had issued permits to 394 foreign climbers for Mount Everest, 13 more than in the record year of 2019.
So there is no chance of idyllic Everest solitude, at least on the south side of the mountain. Mingma Sherpa, head of the Nepalese expedition operator Seven Summit Treks, told the Chinese news agency Xinhua that more than 2,000 climbers, mountain guides, Climbing Sherpas, cooks, kitchen helpers and other staff had already reached base camp. Seven Summit Treks once again makes up the largest group on Everest, with 110 clients.
Base camp life in the bubble
Last week, the first Corona infection at base camp was reported. Staff from Everest ER, the Himalayan Rescue Association‘s infirmary at the foot of the mountain, meanwhile spoke on Facebook of “a few” confirmed cases: “Some expeditions have forbidden their members to visit other camps to try to keep everyone in a safe bubble. Masks are worn between camps (remember that breathing at 5,350m is a chore even without a mask!) Camps are roped off and signed to discourage uninvited guest visits.”
Sharp increase of infections
In Nepal, meanwhile, signs are mounting that the recent explosive spread of coronavirus in India is spilling over into the Himalayan state. Infection figures in Nepal have skyrocketed in recent days. For the second day in a row, authorities registered more than 3,000 new COVID-19 cases, about half of them in the valley around the capital Kathmandu. On average, about one in four corona tests was positive.
Nepal’s Ministry of Health fears that the number of daily infections could rise to as many as 11,000. So far, more than 300,000 COVID-19 cases have been recorded in Nepal, more than 3,000 people have died. However, the number of unreported cases is likely to be high given the lack of testing facilities. The government inquired with the suppliers of bottled oxygen whether they could ensure the supply of hospitals.
The first hospitals had already sounded the alarm about an oxygen shortage. Against this background, it doesn’t give a good impression that there are several thousand bottles ready for climbers at Everest Base Camp.
Expedition operators calculate about eight to ten bottles per climber for their clients who ascend with breathing masks, plus another three to four bottles per Climbing Sherpa. Based on this calculation, there would be quickly reached more than 5,000 bottles this spring. That probably doesn’t even cover the needs of the hospitals in Kathmandu on a single day. Nevertheless, the discussion could pick up speed as to whether it is morally responsible to provide bottled oxygen for climbers at all in an extremely critical corona situation.
Göttler’s next attempt
Few of the nearly 400 climbers on Mount Everest want to do without bottled oxygen this year. Among them is German climber David Göttler, who wants to make a new attempt in after his failed one in 2019. Two years ago, the 42-year-old turned back just 200 meters below the summit due to high traffic on the normal route. “For me it feels unfinished,” David wrote on Facebook. “I would like to complete what I began.”
American Colin O’Brady also wants to climb Everest without breathing mask via the normal route first and then tackle Lhotse directly from the South Col. According to media reports, the Spaniard Kilian Jornet has even set himself the goal of the “real” Everest traverse without bottled oxygen for May: via the Everest West Ridge to the summit, then to the South Col and onto Lhotse. Kilian himself, who in spring 2017 had scaled Mount Everest via the Tibetan north side twice within a week in a rush and without breathing mask, did not yet comment on his alleged project. The Everest-Lhotse traverse via the West Ridge had also been planned by Ueli Steck in 2017. The Swiss had fallen to his death from a height of around 7,600 meters during an acclimatization climb on Nuptse.