By SCOTT NEUMAN / npr.org
The coronavirus pandemic has reached the top of the world, where it has reportedly disrupted the annual climb up Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks just as the window for summiting the mountains opens up.
In recent days, reports have emerged of an outbreak at Everest Base Camp in Nepal, at 17,597 feet (5,364 meters), where hundreds of climbers assemble each year to adjust to the oxygen-starved altitude as they prepare to ascend the 29,032-foot (8,849-meter) peak.
The BBC and The Guardian have reported recently what climbers have anecdotally been seeing, and posting to social media — rising numbers of positive coronavirus tests and climbers with COVID-19 symptoms.
According to the BBC, base camp officials say there have been 17 confirmed cases after tests at hospitals in the capital, Kathmandu, where climbers with symptoms were sent for treatment. It said thatstaff at a private hospital in Kathmandu had confirmed that climbers tested positive after arriving from Mount Everest.
Last month, Polish climber Pawel Michalski posted to Facebook that “more than 30 people have already been evacuated [by air] to Kathmandu, with suspicion of pulmonary edema – later found to be positive for coronavirus.”
Prem Subedi, the undersecretary at Nepal’s Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, told the BBC, “None of the COVID cases at Everest Base Camp have been reported so far to the Ministry.”
May usually presents 10 to 15 days of good weather for reaching the summit of Mount Everest and the country’s other peaks.
The apparent infections at Everest Base Camp come as Nepal, like neighboring India, has been battling a new surge in coronavirus cases and deaths. On Wednesday, Nepal’s health ministry recorded 58 new COVID-19 deaths, with a new daily record of 8,605 coronavirus infections, according to The Kathmandu Post. While those numbers pale in comparison with India’s more than 382,000 cases on Wednesday, Nepal’s population of 29 million is a tiny fraction of its neighbor to the south.
Last month, Nepal’s Department of Tourism reported that despite the pandemic, it expected the number of climbing permits this year nearly to equal the record 381 issued in 2019.
Nepal’s Himalayan Times on Wednesday reported a similar outbreak at Mount Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh-tallest peak, with more than 10 climbers — both foreigners and Sherpas — evacuated by air from the mountain’s base camp to Kathmandu after preliminary reports of COVID-19 infection.
It said that five climbers, including one foreigner, were similarly airlifted out of the base camp on Tuesday.