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.