As hospitals in Nepal strain to cope with one of the world’s fastest-growing coronavirus outbreaks, relief groups in the Himalayan nation are asking mountain climbers to hand over their used oxygen cylinders so that they can be refilled for Covid-19 patients.
The unusual appeal reflects the strange duality in Nepal: While hundreds of foreign climbers are attempting costly expeditions to the summits of Mount Everest and other peaks, the impoverished nation down below is facing urgent shortages of hospital beds, medical oxygen, coronavirus test kits and other supplies.
Expedition operators are preparing to airlift thousands of cylinders from the Himalayas as expeditions are completed this month, the culmination of the climbing season. Kul Bahadur Gurung, general secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, estimated that tour companies would be able to provide at least 4,000 cylinders by the first week of June.
“We are asking them not to leave even a single oxygen cylinder in the mountains,” Mr. Gurung said.
Climbers attempting to reach the top of Everest, the world’s tallest peak, and other mountains carry oxygen to help them breathe in the thin air. Although Nepal prohibits leaving equipment behind in the mountains, canisters are sometimes left buried in the snow by exhausted climbers or stashed by expedition companies for later use.
Cylinders used in mountaineering are smaller to those typically found in intensive-care wards, but Mahabir Pun, a prominent Nepali scientist who is helping to lead the cylinder drive, said that they could be used by patients who cannot find a hospital bed or who are being treated at home.
“I.C.U. beds are already filled with critical Covid patients, so we want to distribute these portable expedition cylinders with regulators for those patients staying in home isolation,” Mr. Pun said.
Nepal’s outbreak has surged in recent weeks, most likely fueled by the virus’s catastrophic surge in India, with which it shares a long, porous border. On May 1, Nepal reported 26 deaths from the virus. On Tuesday, the official death toll was 225.
Doctors say that a shortage of medical oxygen is a factor in many of the deaths. Many hospitals have stopped admitting new Covid-19 patients, citing a lack of oxygen. Wealthy families are airlifting their loved ones by chartered helicopter to cities where they can find intensive-care beds. Other patients are being treated in makeshift emergency facilities set up in parking lots and other open spaces.
With almost half of Nepal’s coronavirus tests coming back positive, health experts warn that the worst is yet to come.
China has pledged to provide Nepal with 20,000 oxygen cylinders and 100 ventilators, the first batch of which arrived on Tuesday.
Expedition companies are stepping in with smaller donations. Mr. Gurung’s group said that he was sending five dozen cylinders, along with a few more from a local mountaineering museum, to hospitals treating coronavirus patients.
Mingma Sherpa, chairman of Seven Summit Treks, Nepal’s largest expeditions operator, said that he planned to ship as many as 500 cylinders used in expeditions to Everest and other peaks soon after climbers descended to base camps.
“My only condition is that those cylinders should be used for poor and helpless people rather than V.I.P.s,” he said, adding: “It’s our responsibility to help the government during these trying times. We will do it happily.”