KATMANDU – Nepali troops on Saturday searched rugged snow-covered Himalayan terrain in their most intensive effort to find any remaining survivors of a blizzard that killed 30 people and injured 175 in one of the country’s worst mountain disasters.
More than 40 people are still missing after unseasonal weather in peak trekking season unleashed avalanches on the 240-km route around Annapurna, the world’s 10th-tallest peak, which takes enthusiasts three weeks to finish.
Twelve helicopters were pressed into action to drop searchers in otherwise inaccessible spots, while soldiers fanned out in different directions.
“This will be the most rigorous combing and tracking exercise we have launched so far,” Niranjan Shrestha, the army official leading the search and rescue effort, told Reuters. “The soldiers will be digging up the snow to make sure they do not leave a single body behind. They have be very fast and end the operation before evening.”
The number of missing is difficult to pin down.
While the army’s estimate is more than 40, the home ministry put it higher, at more than 35 tourists and 30 Nepali men. Foreign victims included hikers from Canada, India, Israel and Poland.
Thorong La, the highest pass along the Annapurna trek, is at an altitude of 5,416 meters, but the route does not require mountaineering experience. Many hikers were caught unprepared and unawares by the sudden change in the weather.
In the capital, Katmandu, survivors recounted their brush with death during the blizzard.
Four Nepali guides were swept away by the avalanche, said Horst Ulrich, a 72-year-old German, who was on his fourth trip to Nepal with a group of friends. “We were in a dangerous spot and shocked at the conditions we were seeing unfold in front of our eyes,” he added. “We just got lucky.”
Munchang Lama, 35, a guide for two Israeli women, found himself marooned while he was pitching a tent for them. “Suddenly it started raining and I took shelter between two rocks,” said Lama, who was rescued on Friday, suffering from frostbite and minor injuries. “Next morning I was not able to walk because my leg was stuck in snow. I realized I would only be able to get out when the snow melted.”
Lama said he was able to keep up his strength by munching on nuts, chocolates and a banana he found in the women’s bags. “This kept me alive for 48 hours,” said Lama, adding that he did not know what became of his clients.
The Nepali government has admitted failing to issue any warning that the tail end of a cyclone that battered India last weekend would bring extreme weather to Nepal, and has promised to set up an early-warning system.
Last week’s incident was the second major mountain disaster in Nepal this year after an avalanche killed 16 guides on Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, in April.
The home ministry told officials in the five affected districts to trace missing people who could have taken shelter from the storm in hamlets, temples or other isolated spots.
At least 45 Nepali families have approached officials in the districts of Mustang, Manang and Dolpa for help tracking down their missing menfolk who worked as porters and guides.
“The problem is that any Nepali is free to start operating as a porter and they do not require a license,” said Keshav Pandey of Nepal’s Trekking Agencies Association. “According to our estimate more than 85 Nepalis are still stuck.”
Nepal is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains. Income from tourism, including permit fees from trekkers, who made up more than 12 percent of its 800,000 tourists in 2013, accounts for 4 percent of its economy.