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Chinese state media reported yesterday that they’re instituting a “line of separation” at Everest’s summit area to prevent mingling between climbers coming up from the Tibetan side, which China controls, and Nepal’s side, a country that’s seeing a spike of Covid infections, including at Everest basecamp.

Nepal’s government has so far admitted to only a handful of confirmed infections at the basecamp on their side of the mountain, information that conflicts with reports from on the ground. A source in Nepal has confirmed with AJ that as far back as mid-April, there were arguments amongst the Sherpa community associated with the Everest climbing season between Sherpas who wanted to shut down basecamp and control the spread of Covid, fearing its introduction into remote Khumbu Valley settlements, and those who, desperate for work, were willing to risk infection.

But the climbers came, and, in recent weeks, our source has tracked flight logs for rescue helicopters and seen a dramatic uptick in rescues from basecamp. A Sherpa has confirmed people are being sent down with Covid symptoms regularly, though often the climbers are being “diagnosed” with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). The source estimates as many as 8-10 people per day are being carted out with respiratory ailments.

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Staff at hospitals in Kathmandu are reporting that climbers are moving down from Everest basecamp and being treated at their facilities for positive Covid infections.

“We have just received from Kathmandu confirmation of 17 positive cases [in climbers flown out of Everest],” said Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa, an official with the Himalayan Rescue Association.

“You can hear people coughing everywhere,” said Lukas Furtenbach, of Furtenbach Adventures, in a phone call with the BBC from base camp. “But this is not just the regular cough that mountaineers catch here. You can make it out that people are in pain and they have other symptoms like fever and body aches.”

Photo: Daniel Oberhaus

It’s not just Everest, either. Dhaulagiri, the 7th-highest peak in the world, is also seeing climbers sent down with Covid symptoms, as respiratory sickness runs rampant through basecamps there as well. Climbers are bringing their own rapid antigen tests to perform their own Covid tests in basecamp. Summit pushes are being aborted this week.

There are also reports that Maya Sherpa, one of the world’s best mountaineers, who was attempting to climb Dhaulagiri earlier this month, has been diagnosed with Covid.

Nepal depends heavily on Everest tourism for income and with last year’s season impacted by Covid, it may be that officials are downplaying the infections running through Everest and Dhaulagiri’s basecamp.

China, meanwhile, has not allowed foreign climbers to ascend Everest from the Tibetan side since the Covid pandemic began last year. This weekend, they sent some 21 Chinese national climbers to the summit to enforce a line of separation between climbers from Nepal and Tibet. It’s unclear how exactly that line will be enforced, or where it will be implemented. Expecting a group of Chinese climbers to linger in the death zone above 26,000 feet, keeping climbers apart for hours at a time seems unlikely.

It’s expected that this week, a flood of climbers still at Everest basecamp will be making their summit pushes, so China’s line of separation is likely to be tested.

Some climbers, like Kilian Jornet and Colin O’Brady are prepping for climbs without using supplementary oxygen, which means they must move quickly and avoid crowds that can slow progress. How that can be done with the expected confusion arising from a potential attempt to keep climbers apart causing long queues remains to be seen.

According to the Guardian, Nepal is seeing 8,000 new Covid cases per day, in a country of only 30 million people.

“Our sherpas are known for sharing their oxygen with struggling climbers at high altitude,” wrote KP Sharma Oli, Nepal’s Prime Minister. “Today, Covid-19 is leaving our country breathless and so we are looking for the ‘sherpas’ of the international community. We are pleading with our friends around the world to urgently provide us with essential medical items, life-saving drugs and vaccines.”

Despite the pandemic, Nepal’s government announced last month they expected to issue at least 381 Everest climbing permits, equal to, or exceeding the record set in 2019.

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Looking for more Everest content? Try The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War, and Everest, a fascinating look at Maurice Wilson, a British soldier who decided to fly to Everest from England, land on its lower slopes, then hike to the summit. But he wasn’t a climber. Or a pilot.

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