Grueling Himalayan effort to retrieve bodies of avalanche-hit climbers

MUMBAI (Reuters) – Two weeks after an avalanche swept up and probably killed a group of climbers in the Himalayas, Indian authorities mounted efforts to pluck their bodies from an exposed mountain face, braving harsh weather and treacherous terrain.

The peaks in the 1,500-mile-long range are among some of the world’s tallest and most dangerous, drawing thousands of adventurers who risk their lives scaling them each year. This year alone, more than two dozen climbers have been killed on peaks in India, Nepal and Pakistan.

“It could be very frightening up there and it’s definitely going to snow,” said Purmal Dharmshaktu, 61, who has climbed Himalayan peaks for 35 years.

“It’s summer and the crevasses would have widened. This is an incredibly tough task.”

The retrieval could take days, if not weeks, said officials who have been forced to abort aerial recovery bids because of the rugged terrain.

Early-morning light on Nanda Devi’s east base peak, seen from Pachu valley in Uttarakhand, India, October 8, 2016.
Associated Press

The Indian air force, border police and state and national disaster officials have been drafted into the recovery plans. A team of 32 launched a fresh ground and aerial effort on Tuesday that is expected to run 25 days.

“It is difficult for a helicopter to hover for long in that area,” said Vijay Kumar Jogdande, a government official in India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, adding that a three-sided bowl-shaped geographic configuration complicated the task.

The eight feared killed in the avalanche had targeted Nanda Devi East, a sister mountain of the Nanda Devi peak that is 25,643 feet tall. Both rank among the world’s most challenging peaks, conquered by only a handful of people.

In an effort to acclimatize before that bid, however, the group, led by expert Martin Moran, set out to scale an unclimbed 21,250-foot-high peak, said deputy leader Mark Thomas. Thomas, and three others on the expedition, survived because they did not attempt that climb.

Moran and his companions did not return to their base camp on May 29 as planned, with five bodies being spotted by a helicopter on June 3, at a height of about 16,404 feet.

Climbing regulator the Indian Mountaineering Foundation is sending a separate expedition of 12 on Wednesday. It will take an alternate route to reach the bodies by June 19, IMF spokesman Amit Chowdhury told Reuters.

The eight missing climbers have been identified as Moran, John Mclaren, Rupert Whewell and Richard Payne, all from Great Britain; Anthony Sudekum and Ronald Beimel from the US; Ruth McCance from Australia; and Chetan Pandey, an Indian, who was the IMF’s liaison officer.

(Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal; editing by Euan Rocha and Clarence Fernandez)

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