KATMANDU: Bad weather suspended searches Sunday on Mount Everest for three Nepalese sherpa guides still missing after an avalanche killed 13 of their colleagues in the deadliest accident on the world’s highest peak.
Rescuers have retrieved the bodies of 13 sherpa guides and plucked another nine to safety since an ice and snow avalanche smashed into their expedition on Friday morning on the world’s highest peak.
Authorities have ruled out any hope of finding more survivors, and with bad weather hampering efforts, they have now decided to end the search for the three guides thought still buried.
“We have decided to stop the search for the missing. We have been unable to identify the location of bodies and at this stage it is difficult to find them in the snow,” tourism ministry official Dipendra Paudel told AFP.
The guides were among a large party that left Everest’s base camp before dawn, carrying tents, food and ropes to prepare routes for international clients before the main climbing season starts later this month.
The avalanche hit them at an altitude of about 5,800 metres (19,000 feet) in an area nicknamed the “popcorn field” due to ice boulders on the route, which leads into the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.
Dozens of guides were on the move when a huge block of ice broke off from a hanging glacier, before splitting into smaller chunks and barrelling down into the icefall, one of the most dangerous areas en route to the summit.
A guide on the mountain recalled how, moments after the avalanche struck, he and others spent hours digging through snow, pulling out bodies and rescuing injured colleagues.
“We heard a roar and when we looked up we saw a massive ball of snow coming towards us,” said Namgyal Sherpa, who was climbing the icefall when the accident happened.
“My first thought was we were all going to die,” the 38-year-old guide, who has summited the peak 11 times, told AFP.
Moments after climbers heard the sound of crashing ice, they sprang into action, calling helicopter companies for help and trudging through snow to rescue stranded colleagues.
“We could see hands, legs and bags above the snow,” Sherpa said.
Joe Kluberton, Everest Basecamp Manager for Seattle-based Alpine Ascents International, told AFP the local and foreign guides’ speedy response saved at least three lives.
“We got nine men off the mountain including three who were critically injured and needed immediate medical attention,” said Kluberton, whose team lost four sherpas in the accident with another still missing.
Just 24 hours before the accident, Kluberton’s team had held a day-long prayer ceremony at base camp, asking priests to bless their climbing gear and putting up Buddhist flags, in line with local customs which consider Mount Everest to be sacred.
“We basically ask the mountain for permission to climb, we don’t cross base camp until we finish the puja (prayer),” he said.
Two young members of the team, Nima Sherpa and Mingma Nuru Sherpam who lost their lives in the accident, had recently been promoted to climbing guides after spending four years working at base camp.
“They knew the risks, we are all familiar with the dangers of Everest, but it doesn’t make it any easier to lose your friends,” Kluberton said, his voice cracking with emotion.
The disaster underscores the huge risks borne by local guides who ascend the icy slopes, often in pitch-dark and usually weighed down by tents, ropes and food for their foreign clients, who pays tens of thousands of dollars to climb the mountain.
News of the accident sent shockwaves among the mountaineers, leaving some climbers and sherpas considering whether to continue with their expeditions.
“At this point, we are in mourning, we are not ready to think of the future,” Kluberton said.
More than 300 people, most of them local guides, have died on Everest since the first ascent to the summit by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
Decades of mountaineering have seen Everest becoming the final resting place for many climbers, whose bodies do not decompose in the extreme cold.
The previous worst accident on the 8,848-meter peak was in 1996 when eight people were killed during a storm.
The government has issued permits to 734 people, including 400 guides, to climb Everest this summer season.