Nepal has called off the search for guides still missing after the deadliest accident on Mount Everest killed 13 colleagues, as climbers recalled the terrifying moments when the avalanche hit.
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 decided to end the search for the three guides thought still buried.
“We have decided to stop the search for the missing,” tourism ministry official Dipendra Paudel told AFP.
“We have been unable to identify the location of bodies and at this stage it is difficult to find them in the snow.”
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 in April.
The avalanche hit them at an altitude of about 5800 metres 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 block of ice broke off from a hanging glacier, splitting into smaller chunks and barrelling down into the icefall, one of the most dangerous areas en route to the summit.
A guide 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, 38, who was climbing the icefall. “My first thought was we were all going to die.”
Moments after climbers heard the 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 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 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 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.
Nima Sherpa and Mingma Nuru Sherpam, two team members killed 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, weighed down by tents, ropes and food for their foreign clients, who pays tens of thousands of dollars to climb the mountain.
The news 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.