Tag : covid-19

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The Sad Peak of Human Thoughtlessness

Why oh why, of all the possible activities you could (legally) choose in 2021, would you opt to climb Mount Everest during a global pandemic of a respiratory disease?

You wouldn’t. Because if you did, you’d enter the realm of self-loving egocentric individuals living atop the sad peak of human thoughtlessness.

The funny thing though is that people are climbing in their droves, like every other year. Naturally, people back home who have spent 14 months sheltering to stop the endless spread of Covid-19 and continuing to do so, aren’t too happy about their fellow climbers brazenly disregarding the rules. Mark Horrell wrote an excellent account of the state of play on Everest in 2021 – Everest and COVID-19: climbers and operators need to come clean. Likewise, The Guardian added it’s own coverage of the 2021 season on the mountain – Everest Covid outbreak throws climbing season into doubt. Even the Daily Mail added the story of a Covid-19 climber on Nirmal Purja’s team to its coverage – Mount Everest Covid Outbreak.

The king of documenting commercial exploits on Everest is Alan Arnette. His coverage is typically superb, allowing anyone in the world to glean an insight into the current goings-on in the Himalaya. As Mark Horrell’s article suggests however, a recent interview by Alan with Kenton Cool from Everest, failed to mention Covid-19 at all despite the dire situation at both Everest base camp and in Nepal generally. Alan chalked this up to the already excessive commentary on Covid-19 on Everest, and instead chose to simply chat about the mountain. However for me, and I suspect quite a broad range of the climbing community, climbers who made the decision to go to Everest in a pandemic need to be interrogated thoroughly, because when you look closely the situation is simply sickening.

Firstly, both Indian and Nepalese hospitals are crying out for oxygen. People are dying in India because hospitals don’t have enough oxygen tanks to get patients through the critical phase where their blood O2 saturation might fall to 40% or 50%. Yet on Everest, most climbers use bottled oxygen and this year is no different. The typical climber will use between 4 and 8 cylinders on the mountain. One to sleep at C3, one from C3 to C4, one from C4 to the Balcony, one from the Balcony to the Summit, one from the Summit to C4, one to sleep at C4, and one to get back down the mountain. That’s just a general average using relatively low flowrates. Sherpas use less oxygen, many western climbers will use far more. Given that Nepal has issued over 400 climbing permits for Everest, we’re talking about well over 3000 oxygen cylinders being used on the mountain.

So this year, the contrast is stark. You have a mountain full of rich climbers with limitless oxygen supplies, whilst people in Kathmandu and Bengaluru are dying on the streets because the hospitals don’t have enough oxygen to keep them alive.

Next, we have have highly qualified guides, some holding the IFMGA holy grail of qualifications, who are guiding clients on the mountain. If a client catches Covid-19 at base camp and doesn’t present symptoms until high on the mountain, they will almost certainly die. The respiratory system is at its very limit when climbing Everest, so combine that with a novel coronavirus disease and you don’t make it off the mountain. International mountain guides are meant to be the pinnacle of our sport; to see them playing God and acting like they understand the pathophysiology of the virus and it’s impact on hACE2 in relation to high altitude demonstrates such an abdication of responsibility to their clients, this is surely their greatest sin.

Perhaps the greatest display of inhumanity from climbers (and I mostly blame guides here – if guides didn’t operate almost no one would climb the mountain), is the lack of understanding of their own impact and the repeated justification that they are somehow selflessly contributing to the economy of Nepal, as if Nepal’s economy is somehow intrinsically linked to the finances of a select few Khumbu tea houses.

The only way to support a country like Nepal through a pandemic is via financial stimulus from a central bank, not a few thousand dollars from climbing tourists. So instead of rescuing the Nepalese economy, these Everest climbers of 2021 are causing far more damage than they care to admit.

To climb the mountain from the UK, you must board two international flights, whilst the guiding company sends over freight to Nepal. Following a stint in Kathmandu where social distancing is unlikely, you then get on a flight to Lukla and begin a 2 week trek, using the same tea houses that every other climbing and trekking groups uses on the way. Whilst you then sit at base camp, all your provisions are brought in on trains of yaks, herded by local farmers and porters from the wider region. Of course, it’s not possible to bring in enough supplies to feed and cater for everyone at base camp (thousands of people) for 2 months, so daily deliveries are brought in via helicopter, porters and yak trains. For just one person to climb Everest requires so many unnecessary interactions, from baggage handlers in the UK to the Nepalese porters in the Khumbu. Baggage has been transferred from a country just about coping with a nationwide vaccination protocol to a country the WHO ranked 150 out of 191 countries in terms of healthcare, and where only 1.3% of the country has been vaccinated.

The lack of understanding from climbers and guides is staggering. I get that some really do want to make the Khumbu a better place, but instead of jetting half way round the world donate to the Juniper Fund or one of the many other charities set up to help Nepal, including Action Aid’s appeal to supply more medical equipment including oxygen to Nepal. The sad truth however is that a simple donation to one of the many funds designed to support fragile countries including Nepal does very little to massage the ego in the PR stakes. Perhaps this lack of tact isn’t so surprising from climbers such as Kenton who make their living partly from exploring some of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, and partly from high profile sponsors including Land Rover who are experts in destroying these very same places. Such incongruity is impressive, even for the most ego driven PR climbing machines.

There have been some positives in the climbing world on Everest. Jagged Globe and Alpenglow Expeditions were two major outfitters who decided early on that such an undertaking during a pandemic was folly. They understood that separation and social distancing on Everest was never going to work in reality and that their guides would need to miss vaccinations in their own country in order to fit with the Everest schedule. Many climbers would now have at least received their first vaccination had they not been on the mountain.

Alex Txikon is another positive news story from Everest. He and his team mates Sendoa and Iñaki decided to cancel their expedition in the face of the unfolding pandemic in Nepal. If anything, this is perhaps a harder decision to make given they had already done some acclimatisation and were almost ready to summit the mountain. Jagged Globe and Alpenglow didn’t need to jet half way across the world to see what a ‘total shitstorm’ Everest base camp is, but at least Alex and co made the correct decision in the end.

So was it ever going to be a good idea to climb big mountains this year? Perhaps, but certainly not on Everest. That mountain is such a commercial entity that the impacts made by climbers on the local population could never be small. Simply put, Nepalese people will die because selfish climbers decided this was their year for Everest. It may have been possible to organise an alpine style ascent of quieter, more isolated peaks, taking only hold luggage and forming an actual bubble between a small close knit group. But to suggest this could ever have happened on Everest is just a joke.

This is another sad episode for a beautiful mountain. Everest didn’t avalanche, there was no earthquake to bury multiple Sherpas, just a lot of western climbing guides looking to cash in. As if to prove the point, Noel Hanna, a well known high altitude climber from Northern Ireland told Outside Magazine: ‘The way I look at COVID, if I get it, I get it. It’s just the gamble you take.’ Welcome to the sad peak of human thoughtlessness, Noel.

Can you do anything? Well if you are looking to do any guided climbing on Everest or any other peaks, vote with your wallet. Pick a reputable company like Jagged Globe and avoid those who consider their climb of the mountain a more important use of oxygen than patients in intensive care. And ask yourself, would you really trust a guide who was happy to continue operating in a base camp full of a virus especially lethal to high altitude climbers that they had no antidote to? But don’t stop at your own survival, ask whether your guide makes good moral judgements. On the days Kenton Cool and other British guides summited Everest, 5 people suffocated in Kathmandu’s main hospital after they ran out of supplemental oxygen. A couple of weeks later, Summit Climb told Alan Arnette of their arrival at Camp 4 on the South Col: “Now we are safe in the tents resting, drinking, eating, and huffing huge amounts of bottled oxygen.” A further 200 people died in Nepal on that day.

Quite honestly, watching the death toll in Nepal growing along with a ever increasing deficit of oxygen tanks in hospitals and watching Everest summits roll in, I don’t know how Everest climbers of 2021 can live with themselves. They are literally carrying a lifesaving medical device up and away from the centre of a country that desperately needs it in order to satiate their own desires, and for that, they have blood on their hands.

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An Appeal for Patience

7th February 2021 update: The general advice in the below article is even more relevant than before. The incredibly sad situation resulting from a rescue attempt in the lake district (where a rescuer trying to reach a two campers in a storm has fallen, suffering life changing injuries), should serve a message that to engage in any unnecessarily risky activity just now could put more than just your life at risk. Not only do you pose the risk of infecting others with Covid-19, the risk to rescue teams still remains. Purely from public information, the two men have travelled over 100 miles to camp on a mountain top during a storm. Driving such a distance is illegal. Camping is not essential exercise (it’s sleeping). Overnight stays are illegal. Please please please, follow the rules, like them or not, they are essential for many.

This was an article I didn’t think was necessary. I started writing it during the heat of Lockdown 3 when people were testing the extent of the restrictions and the law. I started to wonder however whether people would be unable to resist the temptation to travel, spurred on by phenomenal snow conditions in Scotland, and the inability to travel abroad.
And alas, it has started with national news of a mountain rescue on Ben Nevis, with the victims 100 miles from home.

So my plea remains: patience.

Whilst 2020 was the year of unrivalled doom and misery for many people, it was also a year of firsts which seemed to somehow cushion the overwhelming blow of a global pandemic. The pandemic was only just underway, already with spiralling deaths and Covid-19 test kits from the health secretary’s ex-neighbour who runs a pub, however in the early stages, Covid-19 didn’t directly affect too many people. During this time, there was a paradigm shift in lifestyle and work-life balance for many people. Sure, Trump was still unfathomably at the helm, but no one had started started an insurrection to wrestle democracy from the people, yet.

It has surely not escaped anyone’s notice however, that 2021 is actively trying to wrestle the ‘worst year in a generation’ title from its predecessor.

We in the UK, remain in various stages of lockdown, retain the title for highest Covid deaths in Europe, and have all but relinquished our sanity by ending free movement across Europe for all but the lucky dual citizens. This truly is shaping up to be some year.

With so much going on in the world and very little in the way of positivity, it’s all too easy to give in to despair, disregard the ‘rules’ (we’ll touch on those shortly) and try to carry on as before. Ten months of lockdown in 2020 felt like the limit for many people, particularly when our Dear Leader had promised in no uncertain terms that Christmas would be saved. We all know how that ended.

My plea therefore is not to totally disregard our woefully incompetent government, but to continue doing the right thing, which is to listen to our medical leaders, the people who have spent their entire lives trying to understand what impact a pandemic would have on the population, and the people best placed to end the misery. Sadly, this simply means staying at home, taking some daily exercise if you can, and otherwise only leaving home for essentials such as food shopping and work.

Of course, one could have many grievances with how our government has handled this crisis. Indeed, in the time it’s taken me to write this, the UK has moved from ‘highest death toll in Europe’, to ‘highest death toll in the world. But in an effort to be specific, I focus upon the government’s lack of clarity which has led to much bending, uncertainty and breaking of the rules.

In France, much of lockdown has been characterised by the requirement for citizens to remain within 1km of their home, unless for exceptional reasons. Until recently, England’s lockdown rules were loose at best, and even now, the guidance is to generally stay ‘within your local area’.

What does this mean? If you live in Oxford, can you travel within Oxfordshire for exercise? Oxfordshire, a relatively small county, is 1,006 square miles.

Clearly, with such limited guidance from the government, and the ease in which the rules can be bent to meet our own interpretation, the key is to use common sense. Travelling from Hertfordshire to the Brecon Beacons, a journey of around 4 hours by car, is something that many would consider outside these rules, yet police have turned away drivers doing just that: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/29/police-in-brecon-beacons-turn-away-visitors-breaching-covid-restrictions

Whilst the Home Secretary Priti Patel might continue to defend her governments watertight rules, the reality is that many people are desperate to ‘escape’ what they see as home imprisonment, with particular reference to the Cummings Effect.

In essence, a popular view is that the government lost all moral authority to enforce a national lockdown when it failed to prosecute, or even reprimand the PM’s chief advisor when he admitted to breaking both national lockdown rules and the highway code on live TV.

And so this is the entire point of this article. To plead with those who are desperate to seek adventure, not to travel cross country, to do anything excessively dangerous, or to exercise beyond a few miles from your home, unless you clearly cannot. Unfortunately, the government has given you a perfectly reasonable excuse for bending the rules, but it’s in everyone’s interest to assess the morality of each trip we take.

So my plea for you is to look at the bigger picture, and be patient in these worrying and unsettling times, regardless of your views on the lockdown or the pandemic itself.

Why? Because any unnecessary travel puts lives unnecessarily at risk.

If you need an example of how a disease with only a 1% mortality rate can thwart an entire country, take a look at this excellent breakdown:

For us adventurous types in the UK, my appeal is to allow the health service to deal with the existing Covid-19 cases without adding to the statistics. This means avoiding all sources of Covid-19 at all costs, and equally importantly, making no unnecessary journeys. In 2019, there were 157,630 RTA’s, each one potentially adding to the burden of the NHS who are already at breaking point. Quite simply, Covid-19 is gradually bringing our healthcare system to its knees, so adding another inpatient to A&E due to a silly accident on your 2 hour drive to conquer a Welsh 3000’er in the winter is beyond immoral. Yet this keeps happening, with people marching to the mountains, and joining herds of other folk at the slightest drop of snow.

One thing people seem to forget is that none of the rescue services, from fire to mountain, are likely to have had their Covid vaccine yet, and so they share the same susceptibility as the people they are trying to rescue.

I am lucky. The readers of this blog are sensible, astute and possess an accurately dialled moral compass. Sadly, from various news articles, it is clear that not everyone follows the same wisdom as you, and so I urge you to educate others, and very politely call out those who are recklessly putting lives at risk for a few hours of guilty pleasure, if that guilty pleasure doesn’t start and end within a few miles of the home.

Something which the government has tried and failed to do, is to ensure everyone understands that we are in this together. Until the virus is under control, we will keep seeing lockdown after lockdown, and deaths continue to unnecessarily mount.

Why am I writing this? I don’t have any urge to call the police at the slightest hint my neighbours are packing for an adventure, but I do feel a responsibility as a lover of the UK outdoors, and outdoors in general.
As an OS ambassador, it’s my role to encourage people to Get Outside, yet that now comes with a socially distanced caveat for the time being.

Fortunately OS is doing a great job of managing the fine balance between getting people outside safely to keep everyone in tip-top mental health, but also encouraging people to stay local. If you don’t already use OS maps on your phone, I highly recommend you give them a go for just £1 for a month of OS Maps Online.

I take no pleasure in advising others to curtail their plans for now. Having had multiple trips, both for work and pleasure, cancelled due to the pandemic, I’m as eager as the next person to venture back out to the mountains, but I also acknowledge that my time for doing this hasn’t yet arrived. I don’t live a walkable distance from the big mountains, so for me it’s clear, I’ll keep sitting this one out, let the locals from Snowdonia, Cumbria and the Highlands enjoy some quiet time in the mountains, and wait until my unessential travel falls within the spirit of the law.

This is tough, I think once we realised that Christmas wasn’t “saved”, and the virus was starting to become uncontrollable in December 2020, most people knew that at least the start of 2021 would be especially difficult.
This is the perfect time to make plans for the summer, when it looks like the vaccine may give us an easing in the restrictions. It’s equally the perfect time to continue self-improvements, whether that is to start using OS Maps to plan new routes through familiar countryside, or to implement an effective nationwide track and trace system that you somehow failed to do in the first two lockdowns. (At least we now have airport testing 10 months into the pandemic..!)

To wrap this up, thank you to all of you who are doing your bit, sacrificing your winter travel plans in order that we may get through the next few months whilst not quite reaching worst case scenario.

As we well know, the mountains, our passions and pursuits will always be there when we emerge, but sadly many people will not get to enjoy that much deserved freedom. The death toll is a truly overwhelming number, 106,000 people in the UK at the time of writing. To put that into perspective, it’s 1.3 times the capacity of the London Olympic Stadium. A truly saddening reality that only gets worse with each daily update.

Perhaps the next time you’re out for a socially distanced, very local walk, take a moment to reflect on the reality of Covid in the UK, but also take comfort that your temporary avoidance of public places and all things social may limit the impact of this awful disease, so more can continue to enjoy our outdoor spaces, our mountains, parks and gardens, in the future.