Climbers were initially thought to be suffering from HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema), which is a life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs that can occur even in otherwise healthy people at high altitude.
It was only after being air-lifted to Kathmandu and PCR-tested that the correct diagnosis of Covid-19 were made. The symptoms of HAPE and Covid-19 are eerily, and dangerously, similar: low oxygen levels, acute difficulty in breathing, fever and lung fluid.
Although reports continued to filter in of Covid-19 at Base Camps, and climbers are evacuated, some climbers’ personal blogs severely critical of the lax attitude being taken towards Covid-prevention both in the individual team camps and communal areas. Invariably, social media posts by the team leaders themselves completely ignored the issue.
The idolised Nirmal Purja, aka Nims dai, who had catapulted to fame last year for breaking records and climbing all 14 eight-thousanders in seven months, followed by the controversial first-ever winter ascent of K2, made self-aggrandising posts of his prowess and skills, accompanied by glossy, model-boy photos.
These were greeted by his adoring fans with sycophantic comments of ‘hero’ and ‘awesome’ even while one of his Elite Expedition team members fell victim to Covid-19. What a change from the modest man who, in Autumn 2020, had cancelled his Everest and Manaslu expeditions, publicly stating, ‘we do not find it ethical to run the expedition with the risks of more transmission, jeopardising the safety of our clients as well as the local community’.
What had happened to that admirable sense of ethics? Had it been submerged by an inflated ego? Or was he under intense political pressure to toe the line?
In the early evening of Friday, 7 May the Sherpa rope-fixing team reached the summit of Everest. Among them was Kami Rita Sherpa, marking his record-breaking 25th summit. Nepal’s Covid-19 caseload for that same day crossed the 9,000 mark, the active case count crossing 80,000, with a positivity rate of over 40% in the Valley, as high as 70% in Banke.
Facebook groups like the Nepal Covid-19 Support Group started being inundated with requests for help, advice, and above all for life-giving oxygen.
If the situation on Everest were not already bizarre enough, then the following Reuters report added the final touch: ‘China will set up “a line of separation” at the summit of Mount Everest to prevent the mingling of climbers from COVID-hit Nepal and those ascending from the Tibetan side as a precautionary measure … It was not immediately clear how the line would be enforced on the summit, a tiny, perilous and inhospitable area the size of a dining table…. A group of 21 Chinese nationals are en route to the summit on the Tibetan side.”
On 9 May Tourism Mail, under the headline, ‘No Infections on Everest: Tourism Ministry’, reported the official denial that Covid-19 had been detected at EBC: ‘The Ministry has urged one and all not to entertain and disseminate unreliable and unverified information, creating fears among members in expedition teams and their families and just to follow the information provided by official sources.’
It seemed that in this complete denial of reality and desperate attempt at deception, the last straw of decency and honesty had irrevocably snapped.
Now I am left wondering how those Nepalis who have lost their loved ones to Covid-19 will feel as the first ‘real’ conquests of Everest on its ‘strictly separated summit’ by wealthy climbers rather than largely anonymous Sherpas started being announced this week—knowing that the feats have been achieved with the aid of supplementary oxygen.