KATHMANDU – Rescuers searched Mount Everest for bodies Saturday as authorities ruled out hope of finding any more survivors from an avalanche that killed at least 12 Nepalese guides in the deadliest accident ever on the world’s highest peak.
Four sherpas were still missing from Friday’s avalanche.
The victims were among a large party of sherpas who left Everest base camp before dawn, carrying tents, food and ropes to prepare camps for foreign clients ahead of the main climbing season starting later this month.
Nepal tourism ministry official Dipendra Paudel said search teams were trying to locate bodies buried under snow.
“There’s no chance of finding the four men still missing alive. They’ve been under the snow for over 24 hours,” Paudel told AFP.
“Our hope is to find the bodies now. But we cannot confirm a death toll of 16 until we do,” he said.
The avalanche occurred early Friday at an altitude of about 5,800 meters (19,000 feet) in an area nicknamed the “popcorn field” due to ice boulders on the route leading 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 on the route to ascend Everest.
The ice “tumbled for several thousand feet, resulting in debris that came further out into the icefall”, according an account by the International Mountain Guides climbing company, which has a team stationed on the peak.
Veteran climber Alan Arnette, who summitted Everest in 2011, said mountaineers usually tried to go through the icefall “as quickly as possible”.
The hanging glaciers “are by definition unstable, sooner or later they are going to break and fall, making the icefall very dangerous”, Arnette told AFP from his home in Colorado.
“You first hear the sharp crack of ice and then you can try to shield behind another block of ice, but in this case, they really had nowhere to hide.”
More than 300 people, most of them local guides, have died on Everest since the first summit by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.
The mounting death toll underscores the huge risks borne by local guides, who ascend the icy slopes, often in pitch-dark, usually weighed down by tenting equipment, ropes and food supplies for their clients.
The nature of their work means that Sherpas will usually make many more trips up the mountain and expose themselves to far greater risk than foreign climbers who pay tens of thousands of dollars to summit the peak.
An official working at the base camp of the 8,848-meter peak told AFP that climbers had suspended all expeditions until rescue operations ended.
“People have lost friends they’ve worked hand in hand with. Everyone is heartbroken,” said police official Kumar Timilsina.
The previous worst accident on Everest occurred in 1996 when eight people were killed during a storm while attempting to summit the mountain.
In the past, some accidents have been blamed on overcrowding or on ill-prepared foreign climbers taking unnecessary risks to reach the summit before returning home.
Every summer, hundreds of climbers from around the world attempt to scale peaks in the Himalayas when weather conditions are ideal.
Nepal’s government has issued permits to 734 people, including 400 guides, to climb Everest this summer.
The impoverished Himalayan country is home to eight of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 meters.