It's Official. COVID-19 Has Scaled Mount Everest

The virus poses unique risks for climbing hopefuls.
Brad Bergan

A climber from Norway called off his efforts to summit Mount Everest on Thursday after testing positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus — knocking down Nepal's hopes for a busy mountaineering season on the highest peak in the world, according to an AFP report.

Everest summit hopeful calls off climb after contracting COVID-19

The coronavirus crisis devastated Nepal's typical mountaineering season despite the nation's easing of quarantine regulations to further incentivize aspirational summits — but this left anyone contracting the virus while scaling the mountain in the precarious position of, well, being stuck on a mountain with a pandemic illness. "My diagnosis is COVID-19," said Erlend Ness to AFP in a Facebook message. "I'm doing ok now ... The hospital is taking care [of me]." Ness was airlifted down the slopes via helicopter, and moved to a hospital in the Nepali capital Kathmandu after a short intervening stay at the Everest base camp.

A Norwegian news service called NRK that interviewed Ness said a sherpa in his party had also tested positive for the virus. "I really hope that none of the others get infected with corona high in the mountains," said Ness to the NRK. "It is impossible to evacuate people with a helicopter when they're above 8,000 meters [5 miles]."

Climbers of Everest typically carry oxygen tanks because the air thins at high altitudes — which makes an outbreak of any respiratory illness doubly risky. "The plan was to get fast high up in the mountains to make sure that we wouldn't get infected [...] I've been unlucky and I could have done more by myself when it comes to sanitary precautions," added Ness. A hospital in Kathmandu said it'd admitted patients from Everest who had the virus, but didn't specify the number of patients. "I can't share the details but some evacuated from Everest have tested positive," said Medical Director Prativa Pandey of Kathmandu's CIWEC Hospital, to AFP. But a spokesperson with Nepal's tourism department said it had yet to receive reports of COVID-19 diagnoses among climbers.

Nepal tries to manage overcrowding on Mount Everest

"A person was evacuated on April 15 but we were informed that he is suffering from pneumonia and is being treated in isolation," said Mira Acharya, the spokesperson. "That is all the information we have received." Back at base camp, everyone was concerned, according to the Sherpa Dawa Steven of Asian Trekking. So far, Nepal has given 377 permits to climb the mountain, and the total in 2021 is generally expected to outnumber the 381 issued in 2019, before the global pandemic. A city of tents containing hundreds of foreign climbers and support staff is rapidly surging across the foot of Mount Everest — in addition to other, nearby peaks.

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Everest saw a large upsurge in the number of climbers taking their shot at the summit in recent seasons — which caused overcrowding that has been cited as cause for multiple deaths. Eleven climbers didn't survive the climb to the highest peak in the world in 2019, with four deaths attributed to the crowd. To reduce the number of people climbing at once, the tourism ministry declared new rules capping the numbers of teams allowed to summit per each window of suitable weather. Organizers of expeditions have been instructed to send teams up toward the summit under strict adherence to limits on the number of climbers allowed to scale the mountain at a time. "The decision [...was] taken after consultation with expedition organizers and other stakeholders concerned," added Acharya.

Scaling the tallest mountain in the world is an extremely serious commitment — arguably comparable to surviving a COVID-19 coronavirus infection, for many. While we would never discourage anyone from trying to scale Mount Everest (we get it, because it's there) — climbing it in a crowd amid a global pandemic can only add to the risks. Our best hopes go out to Mr. Ness and his fellow climbers or sherpas who contracted the virus.

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