'Pealtnägija': Alpinist infected with coronavirus while climbing Everest

Katrin Merisalu.
Katrin Merisalu. Source: ERR

This May, two Estonian women tried summiting the highest peak in the world - Mount Everest. While Krisli Melesk became the first Estonian woman to reach the top of the world, Katrin Merisalu turned back because of a bout with the coronavirus. Investigative show 'Pealtnägija' spoke to Merisalu and unveiled scenes from her personal vlog.

Krisli Melesk became the first Estonian woman to reach the peak of Mount Everst (8,848.86 m) on May 23 2021. With the achievement, Melesk also became the fourth Estonian to ever reach the highest peak in the world. On May 22, 2003, Alar Sikk was the first Estonian to climb Mount Everest, Tanel Tuuleveski and Andras Kaasik did the same in 2011.

Another Estonian, Katrin Merisalu, was also on the summit team but stopped her climb after reaching the C4 camp 7,900 m above sea level. The 53-year old is one of Estonia's most successful mountaineers, being the first Estonian woman to summit an 8,000-meter plus peak, reaching the top of Manaslu in the Nepalese Himalayas.

She started climbing mountains seriously in 2010 and has reached the summit of several of the world's most famous mountains. After summiting Manaslu, the next logical step for the woman was reaching the top of the highest mountain in the world - Mount Everest.

The Estonian was part of an international group consisting of alpinists from Romania, India the U.S., Montenegro, Japan, El Salvador and the U.K. The group met in Kathmandu on March 30, where all of the climbers were tested for the coronavirus. The group then headed for base camp, where they acclimatized and waited for the right weather.

Climbing Mount Everest is a significant source of revenue for Nepal. While the climbing season was canceled at Chomolungma in 2020 because of the coronavirus, 408 alpinists worldwide applied for a summit permit this year.

"Although it is extreme tourism, it is also possible to conquer Mount Everest in five-star conditions," Merisalu noted, adding that the most luxurious packages can cost up to €160,000, but her budget was €28,000. Among other things, this meant she did not use the help of a sherpa. "You can choose the more modest option, where a client lives in a small tent. That is what I chose."

Katrin Merisalu on Mount Everest. Source: ERR

Merisalu's husband Aivar is not just a fan, but a coordinator and adviser. He is in constant communication with his partner via satellite and advises the woman from their home in Viimsi.

While Mount Everest is not the most difficult climb technically, its rough and volatile conditions, extreme winds, mountain sickness and avalanches have claimed the lives of more than 300 climbers.

A part of conquering high peaks is waiting to get used to the conditions. Simply put, alpinists live in camps, in which they practice climbing until the body, weather and other conditions are suitable for a higher climb. There are four camps on Mount Everest.

In hindsight, the climbers suspect that the coronavirus reached the camps through local sherpas, who assist climbers with equipment. "We had done our first acclimatization summit, had returned to camp and one of our strongest and happiest sherpas, the heart of our camp, struggled back," Merisalu said and added that the sherpa returned to camp in bad condition.

From that moment, other sherpas also began to show symptoms of the coronavirus and had to be transported back down the mountain. "By then, we were told that there were coronavirus cases at camp," the mountaineer said.

Merisalu added that the sherpas began treating their coughs with home-made medicines. "One sherpa had some kind of inhaling oil with him, this oil was then dripped into a bowl, you put a towel over your head and that was all we knew to do," the climber said.

The Estonian eventually developed a high fever and was completely powerless. "There was no long story, I understood that this is it and it could not get any worse," Merisalu said, adding that it did indeed get worsse.

She spoke to her husband who put an update out on social media, but she did not unveil much of her condition. "She consciously softened it so that I would not be worried here at home and that she could make her own decisions," Aivar Merisalu said and added that he would have immediately told his wife to pack up and head home if he knew what had actually happened.

Around mid-May, the Estonian climber felt chest pains, which caused her to head back from a camp about 5,000 m from sea level to the city of Lukla some 2,800 m above sea level. While the health of her group members worsened with some having to be transported down to Kathmandu Hospital via helicopter, Katrin felt better.

She had struggled for a month and a half, but made it up to the C4 camp 7,900 m above sea level. Climbers usually spend a few hours there during nighttime and start their final climb, which tends to last some 10 hours and covers an 848 m climb. Merisalu's group had fallen apart with all of the initial sherpas hospitalized and replaced with less experienced ones.

Since a major storm was brewing, the situation did not appear to be getting any better soon. "I cannot imagine the wind speeds of that storm, but I have been in all kinds of situations on mountains and have never seen such a storm," the climber said.

She added that her health began to get worse as the storm was coming in. "I had chest pains again and understood that if I do not get down soon, I might just stay here for good," Merisalu noted.

The Estonian tried calling for a helicopter in a camp some 6,500 m above sea level, but helicopters were not flying that day because of the weather. The remaining members of her group eventually catch up with her on the way down after summiting, but the atmosphere was more sad than happy, Merisalu said.

Krisli Melesk ended up reaching the peak on May 23 as part of another exhibition, becoming the first Estonian woman to reach the top of the world.

Merisalu reached Kathmandu Hospital a day after returning from the mountain, where she was given a coronavirus diagnosis, along with bilateral pneumonia. After more than two months away from home, the Estonian arrived in Estonia on June 1 10 kg lighter and traumatized.

The climber said she would go to Mount Everest again, however. "I consider it a lesson," she said, adding that she does not consider the trip an unsuccessful one.

Katrin Merisalu atop Manaslu, 8th-highest peak in the world. Source: Facebook/Aivar Merisalu


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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