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China’s plan to draw ‘separation line’ on Everest summit over virus fears raises questions

That China would create a “separation line” at the summit of Mt Everest to prevent the mingling of climbers from the Nepal side with those ascending from the Tibetan side over fears of COVID-19 infections has sparked concerns among Nepal mountaineers and officials.

According to reports, the Tibetan guides will set up a separation line ahead of the arrival of a team of Chinese officials on the summit, the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua said, without describing what the line would look like.

It was not immediately clear how the line would be enforced on the summit, a tiny, perilous and inhospitable area the size of a dining table, Reuters reported.

Nepali mountaineering and government officials said on Monday that China’s plan to set up a “separation line” on the peak of Everest is just an imaginary thing that is impossible to enforce.

Mingma Sherpa, chairman of Seven Summit Treks, Nepal’s largest expedition outfitters, told the Post that the number of climbers from the Chinese side is “very small” who may leave within a few minutes of reaching the summit, with no practical possibility of their mingling with climbers from the Nepal side.

Chinese state media said on Sunday that a group of 21 Chinese nationals is en route to the summit on the Chinese side.

The 8,848.86-metre Everest straddles Nepal and China and the summit can be reached from both countries.

China has not allowed any foreign climbers to ascend from the Tibetan side since the COVID-19 outbreak last year due to infection concerns.

Tourists in the Everest scenic area in Tibet are also banned from visiting the Base Camp on the Tibetan side.

“So what does the line of separation mean? Is it a rope? Who will fix them and where?” said Sherpa, whose agency alone is handling 130 climbers this spring on Everest.

“Are they holding the ropes and waiting for climbers from the Nepal side in the thin air to tell them about the line of separation?”

Nepal has issued 408 Everest climbing permits this season.

The area at the top of Everest is around 25 square metres and another mound above it is about 3 square metres, but that is dangerous to stand on, according to Everest summiteers.

Nepal and China in early December last year co-announced the new height of Everest at 8,848.86 metres, after disagreeing for decades on how tall the world’s tallest mountain was.

An agreement to jointly announce the new measurement of Everest was made during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal in October 2019.

The joint announcement of Everest height was touted as a new milestone in Nepal-China friendship, and it was also an assertion that the two countries share its summit, a small mound of snow that can accommodate just around 60 people at any one time, with its north slope in Tibet, China and south slope in Nepal.

“No one is allowed to create a ‘separation line’ at the summit,” said Rudra Singh Tamang, director general of the Department of Tourism, the government agency responsible for issuing climbing permits. “Everest is an international boundary.”

According to Tamang, there has been no official communication from China regarding the so-called separation line.

“Remarks from any person from China does not mean it will happen,” Tamang told the Post. “And what does the separation line mean anyway?”

Everest climbing, which did not happen last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was opened this year after Nepal reported a dramatic decline in cases and the country resumed international flights and threw open its doors for tourists.

But as spring arrived, “cases: started to soar. By the time Nepal was engulfed by the second wave, around 1,500 climbers had already gathered at the Everest Base Camp.

Reports surfaced about some people getting infected. Some of those evacuated from the base camp had tested positive for the coronavirus in Kathmandu. Then COVID-19 “cases” were reported at the 8,167-metre Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world as well, stoking fears of infections among Everest climbers.

Nepal has been hit hard by the second wave of COVID-19, with new daily cases constantly crossing the 8,000 mark for the last few days. The country is averaging 50 deaths a day.

Amid this, 12 Nepali climbers made it to the summit on Friday, May 7, the earliest in the spring climb season in more than two decades.

The number of Everest climbing permits issued this spring—408—is an all-time high since Everest was climbed in 1953, and with each climber hiring at least one climbing guide, the number of total climbers is estimated to be over 800.

In 2019, Nepal issued permits for 381 climbers, and a crowd of 644 mountaineers, including 280 foreigners, stepped on top of the world—the highest number to reach the summit in a single season so far in Everest history.

According to Sherpa, on Monday night, around sixty climbers would be preparing for the summit push from Camp 4 at 7,906 metres.

“They will reach the summit by tomorrow [Tuesday] morning. There are summit attempts planned for Tuesday and Wednesday as well,” Sherpa told the Post. “We are expecting around 300 climbs in the first window of good weather.”

The first window of good weather is expected till Wednesday.

Sherpa ruled out climbers from the Nepal side having to share the summit with those ascending from the Tibetan side.

But that’s just a technical thing–whether climbers would mingle or not. The question is what a separation line that China has announced actually means.

Tamang, the official at the Department of Tourism, said if China is concerned about COVID-19 transmission, so is Nepal.

“We are making every effort to make climbers reach the summit safely,” Tamang told the Post.

Sherpa described the line of separation as an imaginary thing.

“Such plans are feasible at lower altitudes, not necessarily in the death zone,” said Sherpa, “where people struggle to remain just for a few minutes.”

Source: Sangam Prasain – The Kathmandu Post

Header: Chinese surveyors hike toward a higher spot from the base camp on Mount Everest at an altitude of 5,200 meters, May 16, 2020. (Jigme Dorje/Xinhua via AP)