Mountaineers climbing the Hillary Step during their ascend of the South face to summit Mount Everest, left, and Harshvardhan Joshi, right. Images: Getty Images and Harshvardhan Joshi

I Got COVID-19 While Climbing Everest. Then Came Two Cyclones.

Harshvardhan Joshi just got back from the deadliest adventure of his life. He describes it here in detail.

On May 8, Harshvardhan Joshi geared up at Everest base camp to scale the world’s tallest peak. He and his team had been waiting here for almost a month while a team of sherpas scouted the route and fixed ropes all the way to the summit that had stayed unclimbed through 2020. Along with over 400 other summit aspirants, the 26-year-old hoped to make his lifelong dream come true.

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The Everest base camp had over 1,500 climbers and support staff this season. Photo: Harshvardhan Joshi

Given the pandemic that was raging in Nepal and his home country of India, a fellow climber had brought along some rapid antigen tests. These tests detect the presence of proteins unique to the coronavirus and provide results in minutes. Joshi took one of these speedy tests and then stepped outside the tent to take some photos of the scenic view. 

He thought of the first obstacle he was to tackle later that night when his team was to set off for the summit: the deadly Khumbu Icefall, a jumbled maze of towering ice blocks. After collecting his thoughts, he walked back to the tent, where he was met with a deafening silence and blank stares. 

Then, somebody broke the news to him: he tested positive for his COVID-19. Minutes later, he hoped against hope and tested himself again. It too threw up another positive result. 

“It was a quiet scene,” Joshi recalled. “They knew what the expedition had meant to me, and that they had to go on without me.” 

The journey to the top

A decade ago, Joshi lived a sheltered life far from the mountains. He preferred books to the outdoors while growing up in Vasai, on the outskirts of the city of Mumbai, India. 

In 2011, a short hike up a nearby hill changed his life as Joshi fell deeply in love with the idea of scaling peaks. 


“I realised that real beauty begins where the road ends,” he said. 

While pursuing a degree in IT engineering, he started saving money by assembling computers as a side hustle. He used this stash to plan escapades into the wilderness and learn the skill of mountaineering. 

After graduating with an engineering degree in 2017, he thought of a better investment for the money he’d originally saved up for a postgraduate degree – climbing Everest. 

He honed his skills on smaller mountains and followed a rigorous training regime. His work as a digital marketing consultant and an Airbnb host gave him the flexibility to put all his efforts into training for Everest for two years. In between, he wrote thousands of emails to raise funds for the climb, which can cost a whopping $40,000. He saw his efforts finally come together last year, only to have the pandemic cancel the climbing season in Nepal, affecting the livelihoods of thousands associated with the industry. But when 2021 rolled around with a bit of hope, he knew it was time.

Camping with COVID

The climbing season this year unfolded under the most extraordinary circumstances. Despite fears of a second wave, Nepal controversially decided to reopen Mount Everest and other mountains after a year of closure.

Joshi arrived in Kathmandu at the end of March 2021 and set off for the summit.


A week-long hike from Lukla, the gateway to Everest where the Tenzing-Hillary Airport is located, brought him to Everest base camp. In mid-April, the first murmurs of coronavirus in the base camp started emerging, though Nepalese officials continued to deny that the virus had arrived on the world’s highest peak. 

“There were quarantine rules in place, but nobody checked on its implementation. A few simply flew into Lukla after a couple of days of isolation,” Joshi said. 

With no testing facilities in place, nobody could distinguish between a coronavirus symptom and the dry, persistent “Khumbu cough” that most climbers experience at this altitude. Only the big expeditions were equipped with doctors and testing kits, Joshi said. 

“We too could test only after a teammate asked his wife to bring rapid antigen kits with her from India,” he recalled. 

In Dibuche, a village near the base camp, Joshi’s teammate who was living in the same lodge, tested positive and decided to fly back home. Soon, five other members caught the virus too. On May 8, Joshi became the sixth. 


Joshi’s first priority was to isolate himself in a solo tent for 10 days. Since he was largely asymptomatic, he decided to hang around instead of getting evacuated by a chopper and taken to a hospital with other sick climbers. He hoped he could continue the climb after the isolation period ended.

“I asked doctors back home for advice. They sent me a treatment plan and I got my expedition organiser in Kathmandu to send the medicines via helicopters that regularly fly into base camp,” he said. 

Joshi had his medicines ferried from Kathmandu via helicopter.JPG

Joshi had his medicines ferried from Kathmandu via a helicopter. Photo: Harshvardhan Joshi

Joshi spent long hours chanting and practising breathing exercises while in isolation. 

“I spent most of my time in the tent itself. Meals were sent over from the kitchen tent that was in place for the expedition. I would eat alone in the cold outside, a really lonely affair.”

To add to his anxiety, Cyclone Tauktae – which killed more than 100 people in India and blew off three dozen camps at one of the base camps – threatened to shatter his dream once again. 

“I had to be disciplined and keep calm since the situation was changing every day. I also wanted to ensure I was absolutely fine before setting foot on the mountain,” he said.


Though the climbing season usually ends in May, Nepal’s authorities extended it to include the first few days of June to give climbers waiting for good weather, another shot at scaling the peak. 

Peak preview

 At dinner on May 19, things finally looked up for Joshi. There was a short window of good weather predicted in the days ahead and his latest test had just come back negative. 

The initial plan was to first climb Everest and then Lhotse – Everest’s neighbour and the fourth-highest mountain in the world. But now, Joshi decided to attempt Lhotse first, since it would have fewer climbers during this short period of good weather. At midnight, Joshi set out in the company of two high altitude guides, Furte Sherpa and Anup Rai. 

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Anup Rai (left) and Furte Sherpa accompanied Joshi on Everest. Photo: Harshvardhan Joshi

“Some of the strongest and most experienced sherpas on the team had left due to COVID,” said Joshi, who was worried about how his lungs would react at such a high altitude, right after recovering from the virus that is known to affect the lungs. 

“Those accompanying me were young but strong. I decided to take two [sherpas] along for maximum safety, in case anything were to go wrong.” 

The three made steady progress up the mountain. On May 21, he reached Camp 3 where he met a number of climbers headed for Everest. The standard routes up Everest and Lhotse are the same until this point. He decided to take his chances and revisit his original plan of scaling Everest. With more bad weather predicted in the days ahead due to another cyclone, he realised this short window was probably his best chance. 


Mountaineers climbing to Everest. Photo: Harshvardhan Joshi

“The winds were going to be high and the window of good weather to climb was very narrow,” he said. “But I decided to go for it anyway. My expedition organiser said this would totally be my responsibility since I would have just one shot at the summit.”

The next morning, he was off. He soon encountered a queue of around 200 climbers, a few trudging up the steep terrain while holding up others behind them. Joshi decided to push past a number of them by unclipping from the fixed line that secured him to the slope before getting back on the trail. By 1 PM, he was at South Col, the final camp before the summit. 

“The conditions were horrendous, and the winds destroyed our tents. We had to borrow one from another team and it took us two hours to settle in at South Col. The wind was howling outside and I really hoped the tent wouldn’t rip apart while we sat inside,” he recalled. 

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The summit of Everest, as seen from South Col. Photo: Harshvardhan Joshi

At 9:40 PM, Joshi and the accompanying sherpas set out for the summit despite winds of over 50 kmph. The strong gusts made him fall in the snow often. The trio had to seek shelter behind some rocks to change oxygen cylinders at “The Balcony,” a relatively flat patch on Everest at about 8,400 metres. Sleep deprivation was catching up on him too.

But things got better once daylight broke, warming up their bodies. Finally, they were on the summit. The glacier on the north side in Tibet was aglow under the morning sun. Lhotse stood out behind him, as did other Himalayan giants in the distance.


“There were at least 20 people on the summit before us. I just sat there and soaked in the view around me. I then bowed to my high altitude guides, thanking them for getting me there safely,” he said.

 Despite this being a momentous occasion, the impending cyclone meant Joshi had only a few moments to take photos before heading back. 

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Joshi reached the summit of Everest on May 23 at 6.43am. Photo courtesy of Harshvardhan Joshi

“I just didn’t feel as excited as I’d thought. It just felt like everything I had to deal with before getting here was far more challenging than climbing the summit itself.”

On their way down, they faced the notorious traffic jam that often takes place near the summit. They had to await their turn to descend even as other climbers were still headed up. They turned down their oxygen flow to conserve the cylinder for the descent. Joshi grew cold with every passing minute but there was not much he could do. Finally, he grew impatient and decided to make his way down without clipping into the fixed line for safety. A minor slip at the bottom made him land on the body of a dead climber at the base of the Hillary Step, a nearly vertical rock face close to the summit. 

“I had seen a number of them before, but this really played on my mind now because I was dehydrated and exhausted,” Joshi said.

Finally, after almost 22 hours since they set out, they reached the safety of Camp 2 where all teams set up base before continuing up or down the mountain. Here, they had to wait for five days of Cyclone Yaas-wrought heavy snowfall and high winds before they could carry on. 


On their way to Camp 2. Photo: Harshvardhan Joshi

A cut above the Eve-rest

Joshi grew weaker as the wait increased. But finally, on May 28, the weather cleared and the team decided to set forth. But just 30 minutes into the descent, the weather closed in again. 

“There are a lot of hidden crevasses on the route and my friend and five-time Everest summiter, Pemba Tashi Sherpa, had died a few weeks ago after falling in one. It played on my mind, especially since it was hard to make progress with visibility down to 10 metres.”

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The route between Camp 1 and Camp 2 on Everest is laden with crevasses. Photo: Harshvardhan Joshi

On the way, they noticed tents buried under several feet of snow. They pushed on and entered the top of the Khumbu Icefall one last time. Fifteen minutes later, Furte grabbed Joshi and the two ducked, blasted by pieces of ice and snow. A tower of glacial ice had collapsed a short distance ahead. They were lucky to have missed it but it wiped out the rope that linked the route ahead. It took them a while to navigate the collapsed terrain before resuming their descent.

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When he walked into the base camp at 4:30 PM that afternoon, Joshi replayed the last few weeks in his head. Everest had tested him time and again, and the deadly cocktail of coronavirus and the cyclones had almost shattered everything he’d worked for. 

But Joshi still wants to return to the mountain some day. And he hopes that the next time, it will be far less lethal.

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Joshi with the two sherpas – Anup Rai (left) and Furte Sherpa – who helped him scale Everest. Photo: Harshvardhan Joshi

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