Expeditions in Nepal: How normal is this season?

Mountaineers on Mount Everest
Mountaineers on Mount Everest

Dinner is served. The first summits of the spring season on Mount Everest and Dhaulagiri in western Nepal are expected this weekend. The weather promises to be stable, with little wind, so the chances are good. Many of the commercial teams have completed their acclimatization and are champing at the bit. All quite normal, isn’t it?

I admit, it’s hard for me to report on expeditions to Nepal’s eight-thousanders while completely ignoring the dramatic corona situation in the Himalayan state – as if the mountains were a giant bubble, sealed off from everything going on around it. Day after day, new highs in COVID-19 infections are currently being reported from Nepal. Today there were 8,970, half of them in the Kathmandu Valley. The country’s health system is completely overwhelmed. Many hospitals lack beds and oxygen. Patients have to be turned away.

“Exaggerated, misleading”

South side of Mount Everest

If it were up to the Nepalese government, the expeditions don’t have to worry about corona nevertheless. The Tourism Ministry, responsible for the expeditions, even smells a conspiracy in the media reports about corona cases in the base camps – with the aim to trample down the just again tenderly blossomed little plant of mountain tourism. “Some people or a group with vested interests may be exaggerating or providing misleading information from the mountains to spoil the expedition season,” Rudra Singh Tamang, director general of the Ministry, told the Himalayan Times newspaper.

That fits with the ministry’s stonewalling tactics in recent weeks: Deny what must not be. Corona infections in Everest base camp? No, from where? The ministry feels confirmed by the statements of some expedition operators that there have been no infections in their teams so far. And the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) also rejects the media reports. “That there is a COVID-19 outbreak on Everest is just a rumour,” NMA President Santa Bir Lama told the Kathmandu Post newspaper. “Some cases of COVID-19 were reported among the climbers evacuated from the base camp three weeks ago. But now, everything is fine. There is nothing to worry about.”

Khumbu cough or COVID-19?

Everest ER instructs expedition leaders
Everest ER instructs expedition leaders

“Everest ER”, the infirmary at Everest Base Camp, announced on Facebook yesterday that doctors there had treated 227 patients so far: Cough, it said, is “a perpetual #1 season to season, but this year it’s especially challenging in light of the covid pandemic. We do not have the capacity for rapid point of care testing at the moment.” In other words, it will take a hospital in Kathmandu to prove whether it is an infection with the coronavirus. 35 climbers had to be flown out of the base camp, “Everest ER” said. Last week, Polish climber Pawel Michalski had reported from Everest Base Camp that about 30 people had been flown to Kathmandu with suspected pneumonia and tested positive for COVID-19.

Corona on Dhaulagiri

Dhaulagiri Base Camp
Dhaulagiri Base Camp

Around 20 Corona infections have now been reported from Dhaulagiri. “Helicopters could not fly in the morning,” Mexican climber Viridiana Alvarez wrote on Instagram today. “People with COVID still waiting for rescue!” Stefi Troguet from Andorra described the situation on Facebook yesterday this way: “The last days in Dhaulagiri Base Camp have been crazy and uncertain. A lot of COVID cases, people evacuated and some waiting for good weather to fly!” None of this sounds exactly normal.