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2 climbers die; covid infection doubted

by BHADRA SHARMA THE NEW YORK TIMES | May 14, 2021 at 3:59 a.m.

KATHMANDU, Nepal -- Two climbers, a Swiss-Pakistani and an American, have died on Mount Everest, the first fatalities of a busy climbing season as a second wave of the coronavirus batters Nepal.

The expedition company that organized their climbs, Seven Summit Treks, said both men were experienced mountaineers who lost consciousness around Mount Everest's "death zone," an area above about 26,000 feet named for its thin air and brutal weather.

When the climbers died Wednesday, the wind had picked up on Everest. Climbing tourists and most of the Nepalese guides who aid them turned away from the summit Thursday as weather conditions grew more severe.

Puwei Liu, 55, an experienced climber from California, died at the first camp below the peak after attempting the summit Wednesday, according to Chhang Dawa Sherpa, a Seven Summit Treks director.

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After standing on top of Everest on Wednesday, Abdul Waraich of Switzerland, 41, died at South Summit -- close to the Mount Everest summit -- while descending toward lower camps, Sherpa said.

Waraich had achieved the rarefied feat of reaching the summit of all seven of the world's highest mountains, according to Billi Bierling of the Himalayan Database, which chronicles mountaineers' climbing records.

Deaths are not uncommon while climbing, either from events like avalanches, snowstorms or earthquakes, or from high-altitude sickness. In 2019, 11 climbers died, and some of those deaths were attributed to the hourslong traffic jams that can occur on the overcrowded path to the peak.

Nepal's tourism department and the agency that organized the climbers' expedition ruled out any possible link to the coronavirus that is ravaging the small Himalayan country. Instead, they blamed high-altitude sickness. However, as with many of the hundreds who have died attempting Everest, no autopsies were planned, because the bodies are in such remote places.

"No covid. They died of altitude sickness. Had they covid, they wouldn't be able to reach at that height," said Mingma Sherpa, Seven Summit Treks' chairman.

The tourism department's director-general, Rudra Singh Tamang, agreed.

"Reaching to that height is impossible if someone is infected with the covid," Tamang said.

"Weather isn't good. So, it's not sure when they will retrieve dead bodies or whether to conduct PCR testing as climbers had no covid symptoms earlier," he added.

However, since last month, fear of the coronavirus has clung to the mountain after several climbers planning to summit Everest were evacuated from base camp and later tested positive for the disease, according to climbers and hospitals where some were treated.

After losing an entire season -- and millions of dollars in revenue -- to the closure of Everest during Nepal's first wave of the pandemic last spring, the country issued a record number of climbing permits this year. More than 400 people were hoping to reach the peak in the narrow window in the spring when the weather is usually calm enough to attempt a summit.

Officials have denied that any climbers at Everest's base camp were positive for the coronavirus. They insist that virus safeguards imposed before the climbing season have worked.

Off the peaks, Nepal's health care system is under incredible strain because of a rash of new cases, mirroring the ferocity of the second wave in neighboring India.

With hospitals running out of beds, vaccine in short supply and infections rising faster than clinics can record them, Nepal's health ministry deemed the situation "unmanageable" last week.

The need for oxygen support has become so acute that relief groups have asked mountaineers to donate their canisters so that they can be refilled for covid-19 patients.

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