From high on the side of Mount Everest, Bishnu Gurung could hear the regular drone of helicopters landing in the base camp, nearly 6,000 vertical feet below. The 52-year-old guide couldn’t say whether the flights were saving sick climbers or possibly commuting to more people from COVID hotspots like Kathmandu. Either way, it wasn’t good. He looked down and saw his client carefully up the Lhotse’s face. Bishnu placed his crampons against the slope as he slowly moved through Camp III and dropped his load of supplies. After 30 years of work on Everest, the mountain had almost become a second home. Although he couldn’t see the base camp, he had heard rumors from other guides and climbers that the coronavirus was raging in the nylon metropolis.
His client was a Nepalese mountaineer named Gobinda Prasad Devkota. Bishnu was impressed with the speed and dexterity he exhibited on this first acclimatization trip, although he lost the use of a leg to polio as a child. Gobinda had planned this climb for six years. Unable to raise funds, he eventually mortgaged his homestead in Kathmandu to pay for the shipment. After a rest, the two men turned from their climax and descended towards the base camp. As they entered the Khumbu Icefall, the route became increasingly crowded with guides and clients all sharing a single fixed rope. Traffic jams formed on either side of the squeaky aluminum ladders that were tied together to span the gaping crevices. Crowds in the Icefall are always dangerous, as they slow down progress and increase exposure to unpredictable frozen debris falling or avalanches. This year the threat has been magnified by the risk that other climbers may be contagious. Passing by other people, Bishnu tried to pull his neck warmer up over his nose like a mask, but his sunglasses quickly fogged up in the cold mountain air. As soon as they got to the base camp, Bishnu found his phone and called his wife.
A month earlier, Bishnu had sat with her in the crowded two-bedroom apartment they shared with their 25-year-old son in the Baluwatar neighborhood of Kathmandu. He didn’t know what he was going to do. His last Everest expedition, in 2019, was a failure: his client fled the country without paying his bonus or tips at the top, even though the expedition was a success. Then COVID canceled the 2020 climbing season. Bishnu’s funds quickly dried up. He borrowed what he could from friends to cover food and rent. When a local outfitter, Himalayan Ecstasy, called him, he jumped at the chance to work. The company specialized in budget shipments, so the salaries on offer were relatively low, but Bishnu was still able to earn more than double Nepal’s average annual per capita income in just two tough months. It would be enough to carry his family throughout the year. The terms of the contract were quickly negotiated – $ 3,800 for the climb and a top bonus of $ 2,500. The company provided him with almost the entire amount, including the bonus, in advance and in cash. He had made a commitment to go to the top. Bishnu immediately repaid his loans, then bought a new headlamp and a pair of expedition gloves. He knew that returning to Everest during a pandemic was a risk, but the risk is nothing new for a Nepal climbing guide who needs to put food on the table.
Nepal had dodged the worst of the first wave of the coronavirus. The cases having decreased steadily during the first months of 2021, newspapers celebrated the days of zero death. Kathmandu was buzzing with traffic. The airport was overrun with travelers as the government slashed and then dropped all quarantine requirements. The health department launched a nationwide vaccination program and prioritized frontline workers in the tourism industry. Like many climbing guides, Bishnu stood in line for hours to receive his first dose of the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine. A record number of climbing permits have been issued to peaks of 8,000 meters, including Everest, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri.
In mid-April, as the industry boomed to prepare for the busiest season in Everest history, a new variant of COVID was sweeping India and heading north towards from Nepal. While Singapore and Hong Kong have banned direct flights from India, thousands of migrant workers have crossed the open border and flew from Kathmandu instead. The former King and Queen of Nepal both tested positive after returning from a religious holiday in India and checked into hospital the next day. A week later, the Queen was fighting for her life in intensive care.
The variant crossed through Nepal. Within two weeks of April 11, reported virus cases have increased tenfold, and the number of reported deaths followed suit. The Pasupathi temple complex in Kathmandu Added 51 makeshift pyres along the Sacred Bagmati River to meet the growing demand for cremations. Critical COVID patients began to die in ambulances and at home, unable to obtain hospital beds, steroids or medical oxygen. In Kathmandu, public hospitals have set up makeshift beds on sidewalks, on construction sites and in hallways. In some private hospitals, patients were asked to buy oxygen on the black market.
The first cases of COVID at base camp were initially dismissed as altitude sickness or a catch-all known as Khumbu cough. Very early on, some mountain workers and mountaineers were evacuated to Kathmandu; in subsequent interviews they said they tested positive for the virus. The tourism department took an aggressive public stance, denying that the virus had spread to Everest, then issued a harshly worded gag order prohibiting anyone working on the mountain from “posting[ing] or circulate[ing] any information that would create fear among climbers and their families without prior coordination with government agencies. The expedition leaders did what they could to contain the spread and cordoned off their camps with rope barriers and handwritten placards. Those who could afford it used rapid antigen tests and isolated their clients from anyone who came in from the outside.
Still others, like rock climbing celebrity Nirmal “Nims” Purja, flaunted the rules with abandon, hosting a maskless jam session with American pop star Mike Posner in a crowded dining tent. Elite climbers from multiple teams attended the party, laughing and posting live videos to social media. At the time, few people knew that Everest Base Camp was on its way to becoming a major super-spreader event.
On April 26, Kathmandu entered a second lockdown. Bishnu’s wife could now only leave the small apartment for two hours a day to collect food, supplies and her diabetes medicine. On May 3, the government banned all non-emergency domestic flights, and two days later the international airport blocked commercial flights. The first wave of Everest customers set foot on the summit the following week.
As Bishnu spoke with his wife at base camp, the dangers on the mountain seemed to disappear. Four of his close relatives had died of complications from COVID during his short rotation at Camp III – a young nephew, uncle, aunt and daughter. The latter two died together at home, unable to find oxygen or a bed in intensive care. The girl was Bishnu’s age. Bishnu felt trapped. He collapsed in his tent. There was no point in going home: he couldn’t afford a helicopter and the bodies had already been cremated. The monks, prayers and final rituals had to wait.
Instead, Bishnu prepared for a push to the top. He checked and rechecked his equipment, including 40 pounds of oxygen in five cylinders, only one of which was for him. Each cylinder was placed gently next to the others in his backpack; it was the very thing his family had died without, the very thing he would wear so that someone else could live.