UAE-based Indian expat contracts Covid while attempting to scale Mt Everest

Kathmandu - Umesh Panicker recalls near-death experience at Everest Camp One after being forced to abandon his ascent


Dhanusha Gokulan

Published: Sat 29 May 2021, 8:48 PM

Forty-three-year-old Abu Dhabi-based training and development professional, Umesh Panicker, left the UAE for Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 30, with the singular aim of scaling Mount Everest.

Panicker had dedicated two years of his life to this mission. He had followed a strenuous training and diet regimen, including training for four hours every day.

Unfortunately, the mountaineer contracted a severe and variant form of coronavirus at the Everest base camp, forcing him to abandon his ascent. The extraordinary events that followed the ordeal led him to a near-death experience.

"I was left to die in my tent, wrapped up in a sleeping bag on Camp One for two days with nothing to eat or drink, except boiled water," Panicker told Khaleej Times from his hotel room in Kathmandu, where he is currently stranded due to the ongoing travel restrictions between UAE and Nepal.

"I lost 21 kg in a month. If it weren't for Sherpa Mingmar, I wouldn't have been alive. It was a fight for survival," he added.

Up until 2019, the Indian expat had travelled across 60 countries and climbed several mountains, including the Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kinabalu and Mt Elbrus. "The whole point of my mountaineering expeditions has been to scale the seven summits and place the UAE flag on the peaks, representing the seven Emirates," he said.

"Seven summits. Seven Emirates. One expat. That was the original plan. I've been a UAE resident for 14 years. I needed to give back respect to the country which is my home and has gifted me a great life," he stated.

Series of deadly events

A native of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, India, Panicker believes the gift called life is not meant for ordinary living. "It is something I've always promised myself. I will go the extra mile and throw myself out of the comfort zone because that is where true knowledge happens," he said.

Panicker hired a personal trainer and nutritionist to help train him for his first attempt at scaling Mt Everest. "I spoke to people who had successfully scaled the mountain and many who had failed. I was physically and mentally prepared for the journey. I didn't think Covid-19 would be the reason for my failure. Also, this is the second time I'm contracting Covid. The first time was in March last year," he added.

The climb takes two months on average. "Our team left for the Base Camp on April 4. I did the Covid-19 test, and the result was negative," he explained.

Panicker had to wait at the Base Camp for three weeks as the Khumbu icefall was particularly dangerous this year. "No one had scaled the mountain last year; so, the entire place was untouched," he added.

"Even Sherpas were finding it hard to cross the terrains this year," he said.

The Khumbu glacier is a region of northeastern Nepal – on the Nepalese side of Mount Everest. Once at the Base Camp, teams climb through the Khumbu icefall, up the Western Cwm, the Lhotse Face, the South Col, South Summit, the Hillary Step, and the summit. Typically, teams establish three camps on this route.

Signs of severe sickness

While acclimatising to the altitude and weather and undergoing refresher training in ice climbing, Panicker faced his first challenge when his first Sherpa fell ill. He had to find a replacement Sherpa. "We were 11 climbers in the team that departed with me. However, we were all solo climbers. When the first guy fell ill, he and several other kitchen staff and porters were airlifted out of the base camp. I was transferred to another Sherpa," he said.

While he could feel the early symptoms of sickness at the base camp, he religiously took medicines to treat it.

During his ascent to Khumbu, Panicker's symptoms worsened. "Initially, I brushed it off as something called the Khumbu cough. However, I had nose bleeds, and I was coughing blood as well. I would stop now and then, and I found it impossible to stand straight. An 8-hour trek took 11 hours, and during that course of time, we ran out of drinking water," he explained.

"When the sun is up at that altitude, it burns your skin. I collapsed on the snow and I couldn't move anymore. My Sherpa kept encouraging me to move forward," he said.

Desperate and dehydrated, Panicker began chucking the Himalayan ice into his mouth and somehow managed to drag himself to Camp One. "We both collapsed when we arrived there and used a stove to boil ice and kept drinking the water," he stated.

Near-death experience

Once Panicker and his Sherpa reached Camp One, he suffered severe diarrhoea. "I felt super suffocated and kept throwing up as well. For two days, I could ingest nothing but water," he said.

Meanwhile, Panicker's Sherpa, Mingmar, trekked to Camp Two to seek assistance and a walkie talkie. "He returned two days later, and we decided to wait two more days until I could recover some strength and begin the trek down," said Panicker.

Once the duo realised they were going to die if they didn't move to the base camp, Mingmar, despite his illness, decided to leave Panicker behind and begin the descent.

"He told me that he had kids to look after, and he couldn't afford to die here in the cold. He left me, bundled up in my sleeping bag with water and began his trek down. He prayed I would survive," said Panicker.

"I suffered hallucinations and started seeing the faces of people I loved. I was in tears… I wasn't ready to die," he added.

Two days later, Migmar returned with a rescue team on a helicopter. "From there, I was airlifted to Kathmandu. I spent a few weeks in a Covid- 19 recovery centre. The cost of treatment at the centre was priced at $2,500 (Dh9,183) per day. Though he had a insurance policy that even covered Covid, some centres did not cover the cost of treatment. "Once I regained the strength, I transferred myself to a quarantine hotel. After which, I moved to the hotel where I'm staying presently," he added.

Panicker spent a whopping Dh400,000 on this expedition and he hopes to return to complete the summit in two years. He added, "Since the Everest was closed last year, Sherpa's like Mingmar are desperate to make a living this year. Their only other source of food is the potatoes they farm near their homes."

"I've also decided to sponsor Mingmar's kids' education. It's the least I can do for what he's done for me," said Panicker.

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

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