KATHMANDU, Nepal — A prominent mountaineering company abandoned its expedition to Mount Everest, dismantling its tents at base camp Saturday after members of its team tested positive for the coronavirus.
An American climber and three Sherpa guides from a 51-person expedition were evacuated from base camp and hospitalized in Kathmandu, according to Ang Tendi Sherpa, managing director of the local agency that obtained the permit for the expedition.
“Rest of the climbers felt insecure,” Sherpa said. “That’s why the expedition was canceled.”
A second wave of the coronavirus is ravaging Nepal, overwhelming its feeble health care system. On Saturday, authorities reported 8,167 new cases and 187 deaths.
On the peaks, the spread of the virus is unclear, but signs of trouble are growing.
Starting this month, hundreds of foreign climbers, Sherpas and other support staff have lived at Everest’s high-altitude base camp, preparing for an ascent to the world’s tallest peak. More and more of them are exhibiting COVID symptoms and testing positive with rapid antigen tests administered by three doctors Nepal’s government posted at the camp, according to Lukas Furtenbach, managing director of Furtenbach Adventures, which organized the canceled expedition.
Furtenbach estimated that as many as 150 people at base camp had tested positive, although the number was impossible to verify since no central authority was keeping track.
Anyone who becomes infected “at high altitude then develops symptoms and becomes ill, is very difficult to help,” Furtenbach said. “We do not take this risk, which is why our expedition is stopped immediately.”
Furtenbach Adventures’ expedition is the first to be canceled on Everest, although other climbers have independently left base camp, he said. Several climbers had previously been airlifted to hospitals in Kathmandu, according to accounts they gave on social media and hospitals where some were treated.
Everest’s peak can be reached from Nepal or from China. On Friday, China canceled all of its Everest expeditions out of concern for the spread of the virus in Nepal.
Nepal’s tourism department has repeatedly said that no one has tested positive at the Everest base camp on their side. They insist that virus safeguards imposed before the climbing season have worked.
Furtenbach said, however, that in some cases, social distancing norms were all but ignored.
“Elementary precautionary measures were simply not observed,” he said. “There were meetings between the teams, there were celebrations, parties were held.”
On Saturday, a tourism official, Mira Acharya, again disputed climbers’ accounts of infection, saying that she had recently returned from base camp and that none of her 35-member team had contracted the virus. She said that Nepal’s government had no intention of canceling expeditions.
“Some climbers who cannot climb Everest are now canceling the expeditions in pretext of COVID,” she said.
After losing an entire season — and millions in revenue — to the closure of Everest during Nepal’s first wave of the pandemic last spring, the country issued a record number of climbing permits this year. More than 400 people were hoping to reach the peak in the narrow window in the spring when the weather is usually calm enough to attempt a summit.
The first successful summit of the season was made May 7. Earlier this week, two climbers, one Swiss-Pakistani and one American, died in the thin air close to Everest’s peak. Officials immediately ruled out COVID. Because of the remote location of the bodies, no autopsies were planned.