'Very worrying': What it's like climbing the world's fourth-tallest mountain during COVID-19
SINGAPORE: Singaporean adventurer Khoo Swee Chiow, 57, was winding down the frigid evening high in the Himalayas on May 6 when he started coughing out blood and yellow phlegm.
"That made me worried," he told CNA on Friday (Jun 3) via a WhatsApp call from Lukla, Nepal. "Did I get COVID or something?"
For a normal person at 6,500m above sea level on the icy slopes of Mount Everest, this kind of cough - especially as the pandemic rages on - would have been more than a cause for concern.
But Khoo is not any normal person.
He has summited Everest thrice and climbed the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents - the Seven Summits dream that many mountaineers hope to achieve.
Next in his sights were the 14 tallest peaks in the world that stand above 8,000m, called the eight-thousanders.
Khoo has climbed the tallest three - Everest (8,848m), K2 (8,611m) and Kangchenjunga (8,586m) - and three more further down the list: Makalu (8,485m), Cho Oyu (8,188m) and Shishapangma (8,027m).
This aim of this year's trip was to climb the fourth tallest mountain in the world: Lhotse (8,516m).
Khoo had tried to summit Lhotse in 2015 but failed because of an earthquake. Another attempt in 2016 also ended in failure following an accident that happened to a climber in another team.
This third attempt at Lhotse was also a return to his yearly mountain expeditions after COVID-19 effectively cancelled last year's season.
So when the experienced Khoo started coughing, he immediately knew that it was a throat infection, based on a similar illness he had caught on previous trips.
The next morning, he left camp 2 to return to base camp, knowing that he could get medicine there and recover better at a lower altitude.
Still, Khoo did not rule out the possibility that he had COVID-19.
"It (getting infected) was a constant thing at the back of my mind," he said. "That's why this expedition was very tough."
So why did Khoo still decide to embark on the expedition despite the threat of the pandemic?
The veteran mountaineer said it was a "last-minute" decision, spurred by the fact that he would get vaccinated before the trip.
After successfully booking his vaccination appointments, he started planning for the trip. Then the doubts crept in.
"The main worry was the outbreak in India and because of the porous borders, people could easily come over to Nepal, which happened, and Kathmandu was locked down and all that," he said.
"But I wasn't sure how the situation was going to be in the mountains and at the base camp."
Khoo spoke to a few people in the industry, and opinion was divided on whether he should go.
"It was a 50-50 thing; some said yes, some said no," he added. "So, I basically took the risk and went."
The resolve to take this risk was driven by a great desire to tick off another eight-thousander.
"I mean, I’ve been wanting to go back and do Lhotse for a long time," he explained.
"It’s just my unfinished business. I want to try to finish it."
Khoo left for Kathmandu about a week after his second vaccine shot. He took a swab test 72 hours before his flight in line with Nepal regulations. As usual, he posted regular updates about his trip on Facebook.
"I swear I have been here and done this before!" he joked in a status update on Apr 23, accompanied by a picture of five large duffel bags filled with his belongings and gear.
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
In Kathmandu, Khoo was swabbed for a second time in his hotel room. The next day, he took a flight to Lukla, which he described as a small town with a "mountain airport". Lukla is also the start of the trek to Everest base camp.
Nepal's tourism industry suffered a devastating blow last year when the pandemic completely shut down its summits, costing millions in lost revenue.
This year, authorities eased quarantine rules to lure back foreign adventurers, and issued a record number of climbing permits - more than 400 - for Everest, AFP reported.
More than 100 permits were issued for Lhotse, Khoo said.
Climbers initially follow the same path to get to the summit of Everest and Lhotse. After camp 3, the route splits at 7,700m above sea level. Those heading to Everest turn left while the Lhotse-bound take a right farther up.
Khoo immediately noticed that there were fewer trekkers on the journey to base camp. The normally bustling lodges along the way were mostly empty.
When Khoo arrived in base camp on May 1, he observed some climbers wearing masks and using hand sanitiser. Khoo washed his hands regularly and kept a safe distance.
Different teams also had their own tents and did not mingle with each other, and Khoo was careful not to visit friends in other teams.
The usually colourful Puja ceremony, where monks chant prayers and bless the climbers, was more muted too, he said.
"Base camp was more quiet and the mood was more subdued," Khoo said. "During mealtimes when you are in the dining tent, you try to sit a bit farther away from other people."
On May 3, he posted on Facebook that he noticed many climbers coughing. "Feels like the calm before the storm," he wrote.
Khoo told CNA that coughing is common in base camp due to the altitude. Climbers even call it the "Khumbu cough".
Khoo said all the coughing made him feel "a bit uneasy". "You can't tell whether it's COVID or the Khumbu cough," he added.
Regardless, Khoo pressed on.
He left for camp 1 on May 4 and arrived at camp 2 the next day to spend two nights as acclimatisation. The yellow tents there offered some protection, but it got so cold that Khoo slept in his thick red downsuit.
The second day in camp 2 was when Khoo started coughing out the yellow and red "stuff". He returned to base camp, took some antibiotics and recovered after five days.
While this reassured him that he likely did not have COVID-19, the fears were not over.
"WHAT IF I GET IT?"
On May 7, AFP reported that more than 30 sick climbers had been evacuated from base camp, raising fears that COVID-19 had hit the mountain.
An expert climbing guide later estimated that the coronavirus had infected at least 100 climbers and support staff on Everest.
"With COVID spreading in BC (base camp) and crisis in Kathmandu, this is the most difficult expedition I have under taken," Khoo wrote on Facebook on May 8.
"Had I known, I would not have come. But I am here. So, just have to take it a day at a time."
Khoo soon got news that friends who fell ill on other mountains had been evacuated by helicopter to Kathmandu before testing positive for COVID-19.
On May 9, he witnessed a climber who was coughing badly being evacuated from base camp after returning from the Everest summit. He later tested positive for COVID-19, Khoo said.
"We shared the same dining tent and saw each other every day," Khoo added.
The helicopter pilot did not wear personal protective equipment and simply went about "his normal flying job", Khoo recalled.
For Khoo, things started to get "very worrying" as he thought "all the time" about getting infected.
"You know, what if I get it? And then how about going home, is it going to affect my family and all that," he said. "So, there was a lot of worry in my mind at the point in time."
During those few days, Khoo considered aborting the expedition and flying home. But then he discovered that international flights out of Kathmandu had been suspended because of COVID-19.
"There is no flight, and Kathmandu is so chaotic with the outbreak and all that. So, the safest place to be is in the mountains," he concluded.
Khoo decided to persevere with his climb. Things looked brighter when Sherpas fixed the rope to Lhotse's summit on May 10, before a spell of good, windless weather the next day.
But Khoo was still recovering from his infection, so he had to give the window a miss. "May 11 was the best day," he said. "Many people summited Everest and a few on Lhotse as well."
From then on, it was a case of studying the forecasts for good weather and playing "the waiting game", as Khoo described in a Facebook update on May 17.
The window from May 20 to 21 seemed suitable until strong winds showed up in the forecast, increasing the risk of frostbite. May 22 looked fine but the weather changed again.
Khoo said he managed to overcome the uncertainty of the weather and the pandemic by trying not to be too anxious.
"All you can do is just carry on with your daily precautions," he said, adding that he kept in touch with his wife. "She was (worried), but she has seen many expeditions so she knows I will do my best."
Khoo decided to make a push for the summit on May 25, when the forecast said the winds would wane. The plan was to hit camp 1 on May 25 and summit four days later.
"By the time we were on the summit push, COVID was behind me already," he stated. "We are focused on the summit attempt."
But another spell of bad weather meant Khoo delayed his summit attempt till May 31. Then on May 29, he got news of an avalanche risk above camp 3, so he waited until the next day to get there.
The weather at camp 3 on May 30 was good, and so the final plan was to reach camp 4 the next day before summiting on Jun 1.
This was definitely the last chance for a summit push, Khoo said, highlighting that it was rare for climbers to reach the peak of Everest or Lhotse so late in the climbing season.
As June beckoned, Khoo said the seasonal monsoon dumps heavy rain lower down in Kathmandu and higher up in the mountains, creating heavy snow. This makes climbing difficult and marks the end of the season.
Khoo left camp 4 at 11.30pm and climbed for about three hours to a point 8,020m above sea level. There, he discovered all hope was lost.
The four days of heavy snow from May 25 to May 28 had completely buried the rope leading to the summit.
"It was impossible to pull up the rope," Khoo said, noting that there were only four Sherpas and four climbers around at the time - not enough to accomplish this hefty task.
"To add to that, the wind was pretty strong - more than probably 30km/h - so it was damn cold. And Lhotse is very steep, steeper than Everest, so without a rope, all it takes is one mistake and you will tumble down all the way."
Khoo said he had anticipated the rope being buried, but he could not be sure "so we just have to give it a go".
"Of course I was very disappointed; this is my third attempt," he said about being forced to descend. "But the decision to turn back is the right one, and you don't want to risk a fall."
When asked if worries about the pandemic at base camp affected his preparations for the climb, Khoo replied: "I guess it's at the back of my mind - trying to stay safe and all that."
A LONG JOURNEY HOME
Now in Kathmandu, Khoo will take a flight to Istanbul on Jun 10 before hopping on another plane to Singapore. The only flights out of Kathmandu until Jun 30 are to Delhi, Doha and Istanbul.
Khoo said he is wary of the outbreak in Kathmandu and will take the same precautions there, including not going out or meeting others.
Nepal began recording a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in early April that peaked in mid-May at more than 9,000 infections a day. The daily rises have declined slightly but the healthcare system remains under pressure.
Khoo will also take a swab test before leaving for Istanbul, as per Singapore regulations.
"That will be the next challenge," he said. "If I - touch wood - test positive, then I can't fly."
On how he would respond to people who might call him irresponsible for travelling abroad during the pandemic, Khoo reiterated that he was not sure at the time about whether the mountains would be affected.
"Basically, I took the risk to come," he said. "Life is about evaluating risk and all that."
Khoo said he will see "what next year brings" before deciding on another attempt at Lhotse, adding that a lot depends on the COVID-19 situation.
For the moment, Khoo is only looking as far as the 21-day stay-home notice he has to serve after touching down in Singapore.
"It's a long time away from family and home," he said. "If the quarantine rule still applies, I don't think I want to do another trip."