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KATHMANDU, Nepal – In April, Jangbu Sherpa developed a cough and fever at Mount Everest base camp, where mountaineers get used to the extreme altitude before climbing the top of the world’s highest peak.
At 17,590 feet, his symptoms quickly worsened. The expedition company that Mr Sherpa hired to help a Bahraini prince climb Everest had him flown to a hospital in the capital, Kathmandu, where he tested positive for Covid-19.
He spent a week in the hospital and six days at home, then returned to base camp. Skilled guides like him from Nepal’s high-mountain Sherpa community were in short supply due to the pandemic, and the expedition company would lose thousands of dollars if the prince’s ascent was canceled.
With his body still battling the remains of the virus, Mr Sherpa, 38, was most likely the first person with Covid-19 to stand on the summit of Everest when he led the Prince and 15 others there at dawn on May 11th At the end of the climbing season at the beginning of this month, according to interviews with climbers and expedition companies as well as the personal accounts of social media users, at least 59 infected people were on the mountain, including five others who reached the summit.
“Were sherpas and climbers supermen?” Said Ang Tshering Sherpa, a past president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. “This topic deserves in-depth research.”
But according to the Nepalese government, there was never Covid-19 on Everest. Tourism officials dismissed mountaineering reports and named one a pneumonia patient. Coughing is nothing new in the dry mountain air.
Nepal’s tourism department, which oversees Everest expeditions, maintained this position even when people were flown off the mountain and expeditions were canceled – a rare occurrence because of the great expense and effort involved in training, traveling to Nepal and attempting to climb Everest , were expended.
In April, a Norwegian climber, Erlend Ness; a British climber, Steve Davis; and others wrote about Covid-19 on social media during their Everest expeditions.
“From 2 hospitals take 3 days. Today I have a PCR test. I hope to be able to leave the hospital soon, ”Ness wrote on Facebook and posted a photo of herself in a mask in a hospital bed.
Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, is grappling with a dire coronavirus outbreak and a lack of vaccines. Few Sherpas or other Nepalese had access to vaccines during the climbing season; even now, as the government is asking wealthy nations for doses, less than 3 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
Officials had strong incentives to downplay the Covid situation on Everest. Nepal closed its peak in 2020 due to the pandemic after raising more than $ 2 billion in climbing and trekking in 2019. If the Covid-19 cases were made public, it could damage Nepal’s image as a tourist destination and invite climbers whose expeditions have been canceled to request extensions of their climbing permits.
However, with this year’s climbing season over, more and more expedition agencies are recognizing that Covid-19 infections were rampant in the overcrowded base camp, which this year drew a record of 408 foreign climbers. The real number of cases could well exceed 59 as expedition organizers, doctors and climbers themselves said they were pressured to hide infections.
The Nepalese government had made some preparations to avoid infections on the mountain. It introduced tests, mask and social distancing requirements, stationed medical personnel at Everest base camp, and provided helicopters to pick up and pick up infected climbers.
Expedition companies, often bringing their own medical staff, also packed antigen kits, regularly tested members of their groups, and isolated anyone who tested positive.
Given that all climbers had to test negative before starting the hike to base camp, most of those with Covid-19 likely got infected on the mountain, although it is possible that some arrived with infections that were initially undetected.
There were compelling reasons for expedition companies to continue the ascent, even as the first coronavirus cases were reported at base camp from the last week of April to the first week of May.
They had spent more than 60 percent of their budget. The Nepalese government received royalties of $ 4.6 million. Sherpas and support staff were deployed. Soon ropes should be attached. Groceries, cooking gas, and other supplies had been dragged by workers and yaks into the makeshift town of brightly colored tents, where mountaineers stay for 40 days to adjust their lungs to the altitude and wait for a clear weather window to climb.
Several sherpas and expedition companies interviewed by the New York Times said that at least three or four people from each expedition group eventually became infected during their stay at base camp.
Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures, who canceled his expedition and sent climbers back to Kathmandu before they could attempt to climb Everest, estimated the number was far higher than the Times’ number.
His company’s expedition ended after an American climber and three Sherpa guides were evacuated from base camp to the capital, where they were hospitalized for Covid-19. Mr. Furtenbach has written to Nepal’s tourism department requesting that the government extend his mountaineering permits for two years.
Rudra Singh Tamang, director general of the tourism department, said he had no information about the appointment of Mr. Furtenbach or other expedition agencies sent to his office to renew climbing permits.
“We cannot extend climbing permits just because of Covid rumors,” said Tamang.
“Whether or not their expeditions were canceled because of Covid-19 should be checked,” he said.
With very few Sherpas vaccinated when they arrived at base camp, dozens contracted Covid-19. Some were flown out. Others isolated themselves in their puppy tents and climbed to higher camps after their recovery.
Phunuru Sherpa of International Mountain Guides said 10 Sherpa guides on his team had Covid-19.
Of the more than 400 foreign climbers who tried to climb Everest, almost half abandoned their expeditions, either because of a Covid-19 infection or because of a hurricane that caused snowstorms in the Himalayas.
Scott Simper, a Utah mountaineer who lives in New Zealand, reached the summit of Everest on May 11, according to his wife, Anna Keeling, a mountain guide.
“He didn’t know he had Covid on the mountain,” she said. Mr Simper only found out about his infection after testing positive days later in Kathmandu, where his expedition company quarantined him in a hotel for 12 days. His wife said he was still recovering from the illness.
Mr Ness, the Norwegian climber who described his battle with Covid-19 on social media, was flown from base camp to a hospital in Kathmandu. Doctors advised him not to return to the mountain, so he flew home to Norway. The Everest expedition had taken three years and cost him $ 40,000 plus hospital fees in Nepal. He doesn’t expect to get any money back.
Mario Celinic from Croatia said he tested positive at Everest Base Camp. He had trained for Everest for four years and climbed some of the other highest peaks in the world. Having no symptoms, he decided to go upstairs.
“‘You have Covid and you have to be careful,’ that crossed my mind because Covid affects the lungs and it would be difficult to breathe above 8,000 meters,” he said.
“This mountain is like a beautiful flower that will kill you anytime. It attracts you. You have to come, you will be admired. And if you go up to 8,000 meters, you are completely helpless. Whatever the mountain decides, that will be your fate, ”said Mr Celinic.
Bhadra Sharma reported from Kathmandu and Emily Schmall from New Delhi.