Nepal’s coronavirus outbreak, which is growing faster than almost anywhere else in the world, has spread to the remote Himalayas, with an increasing number of climbers testing positive after being evacuated from the base camps of Mount Everest and surrounding peaks.
In recent weeks, several climbers have been flown out of Mount Everest Base Camp after reporting symptoms of Covid-19, then tested positive after reaching Kathmandu, the capital. On Wednesday, Nepali news outlets reported that 14 climbers, including foreigners and Sherpa guides, were being airlifted from Mount Dhaulagiri, another major peak, to Kathmandu for treatment after some were found to be infected.
The cases have raised fears for the safety of climbers and their Nepali guides who are pushing ahead with expeditions in the forbidding, high-altitude terrain, where doctors say they are already vulnerable to illness, lower blood oxygen levels and weaker immunity. Hundreds of climbers and Sherpas are isolating in their tents in gusty conditions at Everest base camp, trying to guard against infection while preparing to begin their ascent to the 29,000-foot summit.
Nepal’s government — determined to revive its lucrative mountaineering industry after a total shutdown last year — continues to deny that there is any outbreak at Everest base camp and has released no information about the number of climbers who have been evacuated. The government has granted 408 permits to scale the world’s tallest peak, the most in any year since the first recorded summit in 1953, earning millions of dollars in royalties.
“I have heard only a few cases of pneumonia,” said Mira Acharya, an official at Nepal’s Department of Tourism. “No corona case.”
Infections are exploding in Nepal, from fewer than 100 per day in early March to more than 7,500 on Tuesday, the most the country has recorded since the pandemic began. The surge has come at the same time as the devastating outbreak in neighboring India, and foreign climbers could have been infected while passing through Kathmandu in March and April en route to the mountains.
Erlend Ness, a Norwegian climber, said he fell ill at Everest base camp last month and was evacuated by helicopter and ambulance to a hospital in Kathmandu.
“I tested positive at the hospital on the same day I arrived in Kathmandu from the mountains,” Mr. Ness said by telephone from Oslo, where doctors told him he couldn’t return to Nepal this year.
Another climber, Steve Davis, chronicled his airlift from base camp last month and subsequent positive test on his blog. Mr. Davis remains in Nepal, where the government has banned domestic and international flights as part of its latest lockdown.
Last week, Pawel Michalski, a climber from Poland, wrote on Facebook that more than 30 people who had difficulty breathing had been airlifted by helicopter to Kathmandu — and “later found to be positive for coronavirus.”
The Nepalese Health Ministry warned last week that “hospitals have run out of beds,” but the authorities have said they would not cancel expeditions.
Rudra Singh Tamang, the tourism department’s director general, said that elite Sherpas this week would finish installing a rope to help climbers reach the Everest summit.
“Expeditions won’t be canceled,” said Mr. Tamang, who has tested positive for the virus and is self-isolating. “Everest is an isolated area, so there’s no risk of coronavirus.”
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