Rescue workers in Nepal airdropped packaged noodles to about 70 trekkers trapped in the Annapurna mountain range as the death toll from a blizzard three days ago rose to 28, the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal said.
Authorities are also scouring the area for bodies of an unknown number of missing hikers. Search and rescue dogs are expected to be brought in to sniff out remains buried in the snow, which is 6 feet deep in some places, Gangaram Pant, chief executive officer of the association, said today by telephone.
Citizens from Israel, Canada, Vietnam and India are among the dead, along with at least 11 Nepali guides, porters and local shepherds, who were caught by surprise by the freak snowstorm, Pant said. Unlike Mount Everest, the Annapurna circuit is cheaper and a relatively easier trek that attracts amateurs who may not be trained to trek in adverse weather, worsening the death toll, according to Pant.
“It was a sudden snowstorm that came with no warning,” said Pant, whose organization is among agencies engaged in the rescue operations. “This is the worst mountaineering accident in our history as far as I can remember.”
The disaster is the second major trekking catastrophe in the country this year, and highlights the risks taken by adventure-seekers and Sherpas who take clients up some of the world’s most treacherous slopes. In April, an avalanche on the deadly Khumbu icefall on Mount Everest claimed the lives of as many as 16 Sherpas, who were preparing the route for a foreign expedition.
The section of the Himalayas where this week’s accident occurred includes deep gorges, picturesque valleys, and 14 peaks taller than 23,000 feet.
The South Asian nation’s reputation as a climbing mecca helped attract 800,000 foreign visitors in 2012, according to government data. It generated 39 billion Nepali rupees ($395 million) in 2013, accounting for about 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to a report by the World Travel & Tourism Council.
The Annapurna disaster occurred after a group of trekkers attempted to descend a steep slope on the evening of Oct. 14, seeking to exit a pass before a blizzard intensified, said Prakash Adhikari, chief executive of Himalayan Rescue Association, a non-profit organization that provides medical support to trekkers.
Unable to walk
They were climbing down from Thorong La, a pass located about 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) above sea level, to a place called Muktinath at 12,000 feet, when heavy snowfall and a resulting avalanche blocked their path, Adhikari said.
“Many people got stuck as they were unable to walk any further,” Adhikari, whose organization is also involved in the rescue operations, said in an interview.
A smaller group of about 24 people who chose to stay on the pass and take shelter in a shack during the blizzard, survived, the trekking association’s Pant said. Those and another set of about 50 people trapped near a lake, are the two pockets of survivors that the rescuers are evacuating, he said.
“The only way to get them out is by helicopter so we are flying sorties now with the army,” Pant said. “There is hardly any food there, so the helicopters are dropping packaged noodles for them.”
About 170 people have been rescued so far, Pant said today. Several of the survivors found yesterday had frostbite and were admitted to hospitals in the capital Kathmandu, his association said on its Twitter Inc. feed.
The 128-mile (205-kilometer) horseshoe-shaped trek is one of the most popular in Nepal and draws almost 100,000 people each year, from experienced climbers to novices, according to Pant. One reason for the popularity is budget climbers can complete the trek for less than $500, according to backpacker.com.
Some independent trekkers without a licensed guide are so far unaccounted for, Pant said.
The freak blizzard was thought to be caused by a cyclone that hit India’s southeastern coast last week, the Weather Channel reported, citing forecasters.
Baburam Bhandari, the chief government administrator for the area, wasn’t available for comment.
A Facebook Inc. page set up to share information about the incident and the rescue activities had dozens of posts by relatives of climbers from countries including the U.S., England, Canada and Germany, seeking information about their loved ones.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his condolences to the Canadians who died, in a message on his Twitter feed yesterday. The Israeli foreign ministry said yesterday that three of its citizens had died.