Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in Nepal, Everest operators are preparing to gather and airlift empty oxygen cylinders to medical facilities to be refilled and used to treat COVID patients. Over 9,000 new daily infections were reported yesterday, 11 May, and hospitals are beyond breaking point as they battle an oxygen shortage.
The New York Times reports that more than 4,000 cylinders could be airlifted and repurposed by early June as expeditions finish this month, according to Kul Bahadur Gurung, the Nepal Mountaineering Association's General Secretary. "We are asking them not to leave even a single oxygen cylinder in the mountains," he told Bhadra Sharma of the Times.
Questions have been raised in mountaineering circles regarding the similarities between the bottled oxygen carried by mountaineers at altitude and the gas used in medical treatment. Although the expedition cylinders contain smaller volumes of oxygen compared to those used in hospitals, their portable nature is well-suited to mobile treatment for self-isolating patients at home or in makeshift medical facilities.
China has agreed to supply Nepal with 20,000 oxygen cylinder and 100 ventilators. Speaking to the Times, Mingma Sherpa, chairman of Seven Summit Treks, shared plans to send up to 500 used cylinders from camps on Everest and other peaks.
The continuation of larger-scale high altitude expeditions in Nepal - on Everest and Dhaulagiri - while a virulent pandemic wave sweeps through the country and neighbouring India has drawn criticism. 408 permits were issued for Everest, and 33 for Dhaulagiri this season. Some expedition companies decided not to travel to Nepal and cancelled their climbs.
In a UKC opinion piece published yesterday, Everest summiter and author Mark Horrell wrote: 'If ever there was a line that should not have been crossed, then surely bringing a fatal virus to a fragile country during a global pandemic and climbing a mountain while a tragedy unfolds is it.'
While many commentators believe that the remainder of the season should be cancelled and unused oxygen cylinders be sent to hospitals immediately, the effort to repurpose used cylinders is a positive step following weeks of silence from many expedition teams on the presence of COVID-19 in camps.
On 5 May, The BBC reported that 17 people had tested positive at Everest Base Camp, but doctors at Base Camp have been denied permission to carry out PCR tests. In light of this, case numbers are likely to be higher. Yesterday (11 May) Dhaulagiri teams ended their summit attempts due to the escalating COVID situation, where at least 20 cases were present.
Basque climber Alex Txikon announced yesterday that his team's Everest summit bid has ended, 'out of a sense of responsibility due to pandemic advance.'
Meanwhile, the Government of Nepal have extended a suspension on international flights to and from the country until 31 May.