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Mountaineers in darkness after Nepal avalanche

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

KATMANDU, Nepal -- The mountaineers were in darkness when they heard the thunderous boom, the crush of snow. Helplessly, they slid down Mount Mansalu, the world's eighth-highest peak.

It would take an hour for the sun to rise and for the survivors to see what horrors the avalanche had wrought.

Pieces of tents and bodies of victims were strewn around on the snow on the Himalayan peak in Nepal. Several other people were injured, and more still were simply gone.

"It was only a few seconds and we did not know what happened, but we had slid more than [650 feet]," Italian climber Silvio Mondinelli said Monday. "All we wanted was for it to stop."

Rescuers have brought down eight bodies -- four French, one each from Germany, Italy and Spain, and a Nepali guide. Many of the 10 survivors, including Mondinelli, were injured and flown to hospitals by rescue helicopters.

The number of climbers unaccounted for is unclear. Officials had said Monday that they were attempting to recover a ninth body, and that six other people remained missing, but they were more tentative about those numbers Tuesday.

Police chief Basanta Bahadur Kuwar said there was lot of confusion among the climbers and since the avalanche occurred at an elevation of 22,960 feet, it was difficult for anyone but trained Sherpa guides to reach.

Nepal Mountaineering Department chief Balkrishan Ghimire said Tuesday that officials had the names of only three people reported missing. The government does not have officials posted on the mountain and the nearest police station is two-day trek away from the base camp.

Two French climbers were still unaccounted for as of Monday afternoon, the French Foreign Ministry said.

The aerial search for the missing has ended, but officials said Sherpa guides were continuing to search the snowy slopes.

The avalanche hit about 4 a.m. Sunday while more than two dozen climbers were sleeping in tents at Camp 3 on Mount Manaslu.

Three French climbers and two Germans were transported to hospitals in Katmandu on Sunday. Two Italians were flown there Monday -- Mondinelli, who has climbed the world's 14 highest peaks, and fellow mountaineer Christian Gobbi.

Mondinelli said a third Italian climber and their Sherpa guide were sleeping in another tent and both were buried by the avalanche and died.

Mondinelli and Gobbi looked out of their torn tent after the avalanche, but with no light, they saw nothing. "We found someone's boots and put them on," Gobbi said.

When the sun rose, they said, they were able to assist the injured with the help of Sherpa guides who came up from lower mountain camps. The survivors who could walk made their way down to the base camp while those who more seriously injured were picked up by helicopters.

The Nepal Mountaineering Department identified the eight recovered bodies as Fabrice Priez, Philippe Lucien Bos, Catherine Marie Andree Richard and Ludovic Paul Nicolas Challeat of France; German Christian Mittermeyer; Italian Alberto Magliano; Spaniard Marti Roirg Gasull; and Nepali Dawa Dorji.

At least three of the victims were from the French Alps town of Chamonix, a hub for climbers on Mont Blanc and nearby peaks. An avalanche on a route to the summit of Mont Blanc in July killed nine experienced climbers.

Sunday's avalanche came at the start of Nepal's autumn climbing season, when the end of the monsoon rains makes weather in the high Himalayas unpredictable. Spring is a more popular mountaineering season, when hundreds of climbers crowd the peaks.

Mount Manaslu, which is 26,760 feet high, has attracted more climbers recently because it is considered one of the easier peaks to climb among the world's tallest mountains.

A total of 231 climbers and guides were on the mountain, but not all were at the higher camps hit by the avalanche.

Nepal has eight of the 14 highest peaks in the world. Climbers have said in recent years that conditions on the mountains have deteriorated and risks of accidents have increased, with some blaming global warming.

Avalanches are not very frequent on Mount Manaslu, but in 1972 one struck a team of climbers and killed six Koreans and 10 Nepalese guides.


Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.


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