15 May 2021

Mountaineer Guy Cotter: the impact of Covid-19 on Everest

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 15 May 2021

Covid-19 cases have been spreading through the Everest Base Camp as Nepal deals with a surging outbreak of the virus. Despite this, there has been a record number of climbing permits issued as the Nepali government tries to boost tourism revenue after it suspended the 2020 climbing season.

Kiwi mountaineer Guy Cotter has been leading expeditions up Mount Everest since the early 1990s, his company Adventure Consultants was the first to guide paying customers to the summit.

Recent events have seen Guy and his business partner Suze Kelly put the company into hibernation for the rest of the year, but he remains concerned about the impact of the virus on the Sherpa community, which is already experiencing hardship.

Photo taken on 22 May, 2019,  by climber Nirmal Purja's Project Possible expedition.

Photo: AFP

"Last year Nepal did very well at locking down the country, and not allowing any expeditions or trekkers to come into the country, and they actually shut off the Khumbu Valley, which is the gateway to Mount Everest, and it's very inaccessible ... so it was a good place to actually stop people getting in there, and stop Covid getting in there," Cotter says.

"[But] local Nepalese operators were really hurting through not being able to operate, so they enabled domestic tourism to start up initially. That took the first Covid into the Khumbu Valley. Then they enabled some foreigners to go in, and some people went and ran some expeditions, and it didn't appear that there was a big outbreak afterwards, and that gave them confidence to open for this spring, pre-monsoon season, 2021.

Guy Cotter

Guy Cotter Photo: Supplied

"But, they weren't really looking at what was happening around the world, and especially what was happening in India.

"After the first wave of Covid through India, Nepal picked that up one month later. And this year when we saw India go through a second wave it was only a matter of time before it happened in Nepal as well. And unfortunately it's really hit home very hard in Nepal, and they're suffering terribly."

More than 4500 people have reportedly died of Covid-19 in Nepal, with more than 400,000 cases reported, according to John Hopkins University's Covid-19 tracking.

"This time of year, the pre-monsoon in Nepal I'd normally be running an expedition to Everest, or a whole series of expeditions to various peaks, trekking trips and the likes in Nepal. It was the busiest time for our company, and we'd run about 14 different expeditions and treks through this period.

"We are not operating any expeditions around the world at this stage."

Expeditions to Mount Everest bring in about $4 million a year for Nepal, Cotter says, including an $11,000 permit fee per climber.

Mountains in Everest region, Himalaya, east Nepal

Mountains in the Mount Everest region, Himalayas, east Nepal. Photo: 123RF

"I think for quite some time there's been unscrupulous operators, but we're talking about a country with no support network for people who are unemployed through the likes of Covid or earthquake, or whatever it is. So it's understandable that everybody there wanted to open for business, and I can understand why the local operators put pressure on the government to open up this season. Their livelihood, their well-being, their survival actually depend on it.

"It was the choice of foreign operators whether they would take people there - [that] was the position we found ourselves in. And I just didn't think that it was a good idea for us to operate our expeditions up in the remote areas, where people haven't been vaccinated. They've got a very poor hospital system - there are very few intensive care bed units in Nepal.

"So what we'd be doing, by running an expedition, is concentrating all of these local people there, and if anybody had Covid then it would spread around everybody.

Temples and people in ancient square

Durbar Square, Kathmandu Photo: RNZ / Lynn Freeman

The problem has been exacerbated by Nepal's traditionally open border with India, which has remained open, he says.

"Even now there are still flights coming and going between Nepal and India, even though they've shut down with the rest of the world. And because [countries] weren't accepting people flying directly from India to the rest of the world ... what was happening was Indians were flying to Nepal to isolate for two weeks, they'd go and hide out in Kathmandu for a couple of weeks ... and then flying off to the rest of the world. And they were certainly bringing the various strains of Covid with them.

"But Nepal made no effort to stop that. So they kind of opened the door to encouraging the virus to come in en masse, which is incredibly sad."

"Nepal's a young democracy, and they rely a lot on foreign aid, but they've always had a relationship with India. There's a lot of Nepalese who work in India, and also the Hindu religion is shared... and actually the biggest tourism for Nepal is religious tourism from Indians."

Cotter says a range of charities are operating in Nepal, that are trying to meet the growing needs .

Adventure Consultants founded the Sherpa Future Fund for the children of Sherpas who've died on Mount Everest and other orphans. He says other groups like the Himalayan Trust and Unicef, are doing good work.

And Hope and Challenge is feeding more than 1000 people a day just in Kathmandu, who don't have any income, don't have any way to feed themselves.

"The chances are that we're going to need to supply more support to the country as this goes through its natural course, and of course we don't know quite where it's going to go."

One resource in short supply is medical oxygen canisters, Cotter says. But while there has been talk about climbers helping by leaving their oxygen tanks when they leave Nepal, he understands the rate of delivery of oxygen from the climbing cylinders is about half what is needed for medical use, so they are only of limited use.

Apart from the pandemic, Cotter says there are still a number of ongoing issues and ethical problems surrounding tourism to Mount Everest, including crowding bottlenecks on the mountain, pressures caused by demand for the different routes to the mountain and up it, geopolitical and social tensions and differences between India, China and Nepal, rubbish left behind, and inexperienced climbers.