Death toll climbs as Nepal rescuers search for missing hikers in Himalayas

Kathmandu, Nepal (CNN) — The grim search for missing hikers and bodies buried under snow continued Thursday against the dramatic backdrop of Nepal’s Himalayas, as officials confirmed that at least 27 people had died in an exceptionally heavy snowfall.

Rescue crews combed the high altitude paths and passes of the popular Annapurna region as well as the neighboring Manang district for missing trekkers.

Nine stranded Israeli tourists were rescued Thursday, as well as three Canadians and four Indians who were pulled to safety, according to the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal.

The trekkers’ group said it deployed helicopters to rescue hikers stranded by snow, floodwaters and avalanches unleashed along the popular Himalayan trekking trails by heavy snow Tuesday.

Regional administrator Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya told CNN that 14 trekkers were now known to have died near the iconic 5,416-meter (17,770-foot) Thorung La Pass in Mustang district, the highest point of the popular 21-day Annapurna Circuit trek.

The bodies recovered so far include Israelis, Nepalis and Poles, he said. Three remain buried under snow.

Even as the total death toll climbed from the 17 reported Wednesday, Thapaliya warned that there are chances of finding more people dead or lost around the pass.

A Nepal army team made it up to 16,000 feet — still short of the pass — on Thursday on the side of the mountain where the 14 bodies were found. But more could be found in the final 1,800 feet of ascent, officials fear.

‘This is the dangerous part’

At the same time, there has been no search at all yet on the other side of the pass, which falls in Manang district, Thapaliya said.

Friday’s search efforts will be concentrated there. “This is the dangerous part,” he said.

There has been no contact with the remote area even by phone, he said.

One Israeli was rescued from near the pass Thursday, having been stuck since Tuesday.

Three trekkers have been confirmed as missing, two of them Indian and one Japanese.

However, government records suggest another dozen may be missing after taking into account the 14 confirmed dead so far below Thorung La Pass.

The chief district officer of Mustang district, Baburam Bhandari, said that on Monday and Tuesday, 346 trekkers had left for the pass and 320 of them had crossed — leaving 26 people unaccounted for.

The pass is not the only area to see deaths due to the unseasonably heavy snow.

The bodies of another five trekkers, four Canadians and an Indian, were found in Manang district, Thapaliya said. Three Nepali farmers were also killed.

Further west, five mountaineers — two Slovaks and three Nepalis — lost their lives in an avalanche Tuesday night near Nepal’s seventh highest peak, Mount Dhaulagiri, officials said.

Altogether, 226 people have now been rescued, Thapaliya said, more than half of them from Manang district.

The trekkers’ group said it deployed helicopters to rescue hikers stranded by snow, floodwaters and avalanches unleashed along the popular Himalayan trekking trails by heavy snow Tuesday.

Regional administrator Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya told CNN that 14 trekkers were now known to have died near the iconic 5,416-meter (17,770-foot) Thorung La Pass in Mustang district, the highest point of the popular 21-day Annapurna Circuit trek.

The bodies recovered so far include Israelis, Nepalis and Poles, he said. Three remain buried under snow.

Even as the total death toll climbed from the 17 reported Wednesday, Thapaliya warned that there are chances of finding more people dead or lost around the pass.

A Nepal army team made it up to 16,000 feet — still short of the pass — on Thursday on the side of the mountain where the 14 bodies were found. But more could be found in the final 1,800 feet of ascent, officials fear.

‘This is the dangerous part’

At the same time, there has been no search at all yet on the other side of the pass, which falls in Manang district, Thapaliya said.

Friday’s search efforts will be concentrated there. “This is the dangerous part,” he said.

There has been no contact with the remote area even by phone, he said.

One Israeli was rescued from near the pass Thursday, having been stuck since Tuesday.

Three trekkers have been confirmed as missing, two of them Indian and one Japanese.

However, government records suggest another dozen may be missing after taking into account the 14 confirmed dead so far below Thorung La Pass.

The chief district officer of Mustang district, Baburam Bhandari, said that on Monday and Tuesday, 346 trekkers had left for the pass and 320 of them had crossed — leaving 26 people unaccounted for.

The pass is not the only area to see deaths due to the unseasonably heavy snow.

The bodies of another five trekkers, four Canadians and an Indian, were found in Manang district, Thapaliya said. Three Nepali farmers were also killed.

Further west, five mountaineers — two Slovaks and three Nepalis — lost their lives in an avalanche Tuesday night near Nepal’s seventh highest peak, Mount Dhaulagiri, officials said.

Altogether, 226 people have now been rescued, Thapaliya said, more than half of them from Manang district.

‘There was no visibility’

Those who manage the steep ascent at energy-sapping high altitude to the Thorung La Pass are normally rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views.

But on Tuesday morning everything changed.

Trekkers spend the night at local camps on either side of the mountain before they set out, sometimes as early as 4 a.m., to make the crossing, said Bidur Kuikel of Annapurna Conservation Area project.

“On Tuesday heavy snowfall began at about 8 a.m.,” he said. “There was no visibility beyond three meters.”

Since the tracks were covered by snow, people could have fallen down or become lost, he said. Those traveling on their own rather than in organized groups are usually most likely to lose their way, he said.

As anxious families wait for news, army and police personnel continued to search the area below the Thorung La Pass in Mustang district on Thursday, Bhandari said.

A Facebook page, Annapurna Nepal Avalanche and Blizzard Info Share, has been set up to try to connect worried relatives with those in Nepal. Some trekkers who have made it down from the remote pass have posted updates to help others.

One, Virginia Schwartz, wrote: “Thank you to everyone for all the kind words and prayers, we are safe. We are trekking out of the avalanche danger zone and heading back down along the circuit.”

Another, Nic Brdo from Perth in Western Australia, wrote: “I’ve just got out of base camp evac’d by heli and would advise to not go up. Flying to Pokhara the amount of snow in the pass (was) astounding.”

‘Trekking is adventurous’

This is already one of the deadliest such tragedies in the history of Nepal, a nation of about 26 million known worldwide for its spectacular mountain ranges, including Mount Everest.

Annapurna is far and away the most popular of its trekking areas, with some 90,000 trekking there in 2013, according to Narendra Lama, tourism officer of Annapurna Area Conservation Project.

“There have been incidents of trekkers being killed in snowstorms, landslides and avalanches in the past but not as many as this year,” Lama said.

“But I do not think that this disaster will have a big impact since it is a natural disaster and not about a security situation,” he said. “Trekking is adventurous in nature after all.”

October is the best month of the year to do the Annapurna Circuit trek, meaning more visitors than usual may have been in the area when unusually heavy snow caused by Cyclone Hudhud in eastern India came down Monday and Tuesday.

Last year, about 20,000 foreign trekkers crossed the Thorung La Pass, almost 6,000 of them in October, according to Annapurna Conservation Area statistics.

Many remote Nepali communities rely on foreign trekkers and mountaineers for income and employment, meaning a drop in visitors could hit local people hard.

The deaths come only six months after tragedy last struck Nepal, on the slopes of Mount Everest.

Then, a bruising avalanche of ice swept 16 Sherpas to their deaths. After the accident, which came right before the peak season in May, many Sherpas refused to climb and at least six companies that lead Everest expeditions called off their 2014 climbs.

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