All nine members of a South Korean climbing expedition were confirmed dead Saturday after a violent snowstorm devastated their camp on Nepal’s Mount Gurja, one of the deadliest mountaineering accidents to hit the Himalayan nation in recent years.
The bodies of eight climbers — four South Koreans and four Nepali guides — were spotted among the wreckage of their camp by a rescue team early Saturday morning, but strong winds and icy conditions were hampering the search effort.
A fifth South Korean climber was initially reported missing, but officials have now confirmed that he was at the camp when the deadly storm hit and is believed to have also perished.
“A mountain expedition of five South Korean nationals and four foreigners were swept off by strong winds at the base camp during their climb to Mount Gurja. (They) fell off a cliff and died,” the South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement.
Helicopter pilot Siddartha Gurung was among the first people to reach the site after the deadly storm and described a scene of total destruction with the tents flattened and the climber’s bodies scattered across the area.
“Everything is gone, all the tents are blown apart,” Gurung told AFP.
Gurung landed a helicopter just above the expedition team’s camp, but icy and unstable conditions meant they were unable to retrieve any of the bodies.
Nepal’s tourism department said a second helicopter was being sent to the site Saturday afternoon.
“A helicopter has been sent for second rescue attempt but we are not sure whether it can get close to the incident site,” said spokeswoman Mira Acharya.
– Deadliest incident –
The storm is the deadliest incident to hit Nepal’s mountaineering industry since 18 people were killed at the Mount Everest base camp in 2015 in an avalanche triggered by a powerful earthquake.
The previous year, 16 Sherpas were killed on Everest when an avalanche swept through the Khumbu Icefall.
Wangchu Sherpa, managing director of Trekking Camp Nepal, who organised the expedition, said they raised the alarm after they had not heard from the South Korean team for nearly 24 hours.
“After they (the climbers) were out of contact since yesterday we sent people from the village and a helicopter to search for them,” he said.
The group of South Korean climbers and their Nepali guides had been camped at the foot of the 7,193-metre (23,599-foot) Mount Gurja since early October, waiting for a window of good weather so they could attempt to reach the summit.
Feted South Korean climber Kim Chang-ho, who in 2013 became the fastest person to summit the world’s 14 highest mountains without using supplemental oxygen, was leading the expedition, according to a government-issued climbing permit seen by AFP.
The permit listed four South Korean climbers, but a fifth member had joined the team later, according to Suresh Dakal of Trekking Camp Nepal.
Rarely-climbed Gurja lies in Nepal’s Annapurna region, next to avalanche-prone Dhaulagiri — the world’s seventh-highest mountain.
Gurja was first summited in 1969 by a Japanese team but no one has stood on its summit for 22 years, according to the Himalayan Database.
The South Korean team were planning to scale the mountain via a never-climbed route, according to the Korean Alpine Federation.
Four climbers have perished on Gurja’s flanks and a total of 30 have successfully reached its peak — a fraction of the more than 8,000 people who have summited Everest, the world’s highest mountain.
Thousands of climbers flock to Nepal each year — home to eight of the world’s 14 highest peaks — creating a lucrative mountain tourism industry that is a vital source of cash for the impoverished country.