Chinese to Build a Fence Across the Top of Everest?

A Chinese climbing team is currently heading to the top of Mount Everest, to create a “line of separation” at the summit. This is to prevent climbers arriving from China and Nepal congregating together and potentially spreading Covid, as reported by the official state news agency Xinhua.

Everest Summit, Sibusisu Vilane, Robert Mads Anderson

Sibusisu Vilane (left) and I at the summit – he was in Nepal and I may have had one foot in China? Photo: David Hamilton

With multiple reports of increasing numbers of climbers infected with Covid on the Nepalese side of Everest, this should ensure any untoward mingling at the top keeps additional cases of the virus from creeping over the top of the world and down into China. Really?

The Chinese/Nepali border runs exactly across the top of Mount Everest, going up the Southeast ridge from the South Col, over the top and down the Northeast Ridge. Historically, there has been no concern – and surprisingly, almost a lack of concern, as to where climbers go once they leave the Base Camps.

Artwork: Stephen Venables

The majority of some routes like the West Ridge, often started from Nepal, spend most of their time in China. The precedent was set in 1963 when the West Ridge route was first completed by Hornbein and Unsoeld, completing the first traverse of the Mountain.

On the West Ridge, the climber is in China and everything to the left of the ridge is China. On the right side, Nepal and the Western CWM far below him. Photo: Ed Webster from our climb together on the West Ridge Direct.

When we completed our new route up the Kangshung Face without oxygen, we approached and climbed via China, camped out on the South Col in Nepal, also right on the border, then set off up the Nepalese side of the Southeast ridge on the original Hillary/Tenzing route to the summit. At the top we dipped a toe back into China, climbed back down along the ridge in Nepal, camped out and then descended our route back into China. Needless to say there was no “line of separation,” no border guards and and passports required.

Not far from the top of the world, just below the South Summit. Technically the climbers are in Nepal. If the cornice breaks, they will fall into China.

One does wonder if the “line of separation” might include a rotating team of hardy Tibetan border guards just to make sure the line is enforced. And will they serve tea?

The top of Everest is about the size of a billiard table, sloping into Nepal, with the other side a cornice hanging out over the immense 4,000 vertical meter drop down the Kangshung Face.

On a busy summit day, as can well be expected this year with record numbers registered, climbers have been known to have to queue to get a chance for their photo at the top. If the “line of separation” runs right over the summit, as it really must, so both Chinese and Nepal route climbers can properly summit, that summit space will effectively be halved.

Realistically, anything placed across the summit will have to be very lightweight and perhaps a bit flimsy, so how controlled this line will be is yet to be seen. Maybe just some red paint and a “do not cross” sign in the snow will work? A line of prayer flags may be more aesthetic but perhaps not a Chinese first choice.

However, with Covid numbers rising dramatically every day in Nepal, with over 9,000 cases reported Friday, while China reports only overseas travelers infected, with Covid cases hovering at around 10 a day, perhaps there is real cause for concern.

Far more worrying is that anyone gets that high on Everest not knowing they have Covid and in an enthusiastic summit photograph, remove their mask and infect others? The ability of Covid to survive minus 25 c. temperature isn’t a study we really want to do.

While attempts to isolate at Base Camp and below are claimed, people wandering down valley to rest prior to their summit climbs, as well as quickly helicoptering to the tea shops in Namche and then returning, don’t bode well for much containment.

Everest Summit Sunrise

Climbing in Nepal, sunrise over China.