The hopes of recovery of the country's mountaineering sector this year have been plunged into uncertainty as more aspirant climbers have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Nearly 15 climbers - foreigners as well as sherpas - have been airlifted from Mt Dhaulagiri to Kathmandu for COVID treatment. Five climbers, including a foreigner, were brought to Kathmandu on Tuesday while nine more - four foreigners and five sherpas - were evacuated today after some of them tested positive for the virus during the antigen and RDT tests carried out by a medical team of Nepali Army stationed at the base camp, sources said.

A climber from Mexico, Viridiana Alvarez posted on her Instagram today that the situation is a bit scary at the Dhaulagiri base camp. "Bad news, COVID in Dhaulagiri BC. Many sherpas and climbers are positive and have been evacuated. Still waiting for more tests for everyone," she wrote.

At least 33 foreign climbers along with over 100 support staff have already reached Dhaulagiri base camp to attempt to scale the mountain this season.

Earlier, more than 10 climbers had tested positive for the contagion at Mt Everest base camp (EBC). Over 1,500 people, including 408 permitted climbers, are at the EBC at this moment. Meanwhile, more than 100 climbers and other sherpa climbers are at EBC for Mt Lhotse ascent. Everest base camp has been turned into an isolation zone after COVID cases spiked here. Movement from one camp to another has been prohibited.

On Tuesday, Everest ER doctors held a meeting with expedition leaders to discuss the logistics for managing the respiratory illnesses. Key points shared in the meeting included encouraging all to maintain their respective bubbles, discouraging visits between camps, wearing masks even within their camps, sending any member with respiratory illness to see the doctors at Everest ER for further evaluation, and a discussion about how to properly isolate and monitor ill camp members.

It is to be noted that the government has issued record number of expedition permits for Mt Everest this year.

Earlier, the Department of Tourism (DoT) had denied of any knowledge about climbers rescued from the EBC testing positive for COVID-19 and said they had only reported of suffering from high altitude sickness.

"Even in case of Mt Dhaulagiri, we have not received any formal notice of climbers testing positive for the virus and have been told that around 20 people have been rescued due to high altitude sickness," said Rudra Singh Tamang, director general of DoT.

Stating the DoT needs to be informed about all expedition activities, he added, "Some people or a group with vested interests may be exaggerating or providing misleading information from the mountains to spoil the expedition season."

He, however, claimed that the department is now preparing to take action on this issue.

Meanwhile, Santa Bir Lama, president of Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), admitted that the COVID-19 infection has been detected on climbers rescued from Mt Dhaulagiri. "On Sunday, some mountaineers showed common cold symptoms and because nobody wanted to take any chances, they were first rescued to Pokhara and then brought to Kathmandu on Monday," he explained. "Today their tests confirmed they had contracted the virus."

He, however, said that the situation at Mt Everest is quite normal now with high alert and security. "Climbers who had tested negative before the expedition might have tested positive now. However, it has been reported that the health condition of positive climbers is normal now," he added.

Hari Prasad Dharel, chairman of Himalayan Rescue Association, said climbers at Mt Everest are mostly suffering from fever and common cold.

But those showing symptoms of COVID-19 are being urged to return to Kathmandu for testing. "We have also heard that some of the climbers rescued from Mt Everest have been diagnosed with COVID infection. However, we do not keep such records as our major responsibility is to provide health services at the base camp," he added.

A version of this article appears in the print on May 6, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.