Storm toll jumps to 43 in Nepal's worst trekking disaster

AFP , Saturday 18 Oct 2014

A landslide is seen in Sindhupalchowk district August 2, 2014. (Photo:Reuters)

The death toll from a devastating snowstorm in Nepal's Himalayas climbed to 43 on Saturday, in the worst trekking disaster ever to hit the mountainous country.

Tuesday's storm, which triggered avalanches, struck at the height of the trekking season, catching hikers unaware on their way up to an exposed high mountain pass along the scenic Annapurna Circuit route.

Officials said on Saturday that 11 more bodies had been found, bringing to 43 the number of those known to have died -- with fears that more bodies could be lying under heavy snowdrifts and ice.

"We have located the bodies of nine Nepalese people on the border between Dolpo and Mustang districts," said Keshav Pandey of the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal (TAAN), an industry body organising search-and-rescue efforts.

"We have also recovered the bodies of two Japanese tourists at the Thorong La mountain pass."

At least 19 of the dead are tourists, from countries including Canada, Israel, Poland, Slovakia, India and Vietnam.

Four days after the blizzard hit, all surviving trekkers who were left stranded are now believed to be safe, officials said, with 385 people rescued after frantic calls for help.

"We have not received any further calls for rescue or for information about stranded people," said Binay Acharya of TAAN.

"We understand all remaining trekkers in the region are safe."

The focus has now shifted from rescue to the grim prospect of retrieving more bodies feared to be lying on the popular trekking route, which goes as high as 5,416 metres (17,769 feet).

Nepalese army choppers circled the upper reaches of the popular trekking region to locate bodies on Saturday, while officials arranged to fly in a team of experts from Kathmandu to assist with the operation.

The dead include at least 26 hikers, guides and porters on the trekking circuit, three yak herders, and five people who were climbing a nearby mountain.

Further details about the nine Nepalese found near the route were not available.

Thousands of people head to the Annapurna Circuit every October, when weather conditions are usually clear.

However, the region has seen unusually heavy snowfall this week sparked by Cyclone Hudhud, which slammed into India's east coast last weekend.

The disaster prompted Nepal's Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to announce plans to set up a weather warning system across the country, which relies heavily on tourism revenues from climbing and trekking.

The Annapurna Circuit is particularly popular among tourists, and has come to be known as the "apple pie" trek for the food served at the small lodges, known as teahouses, that line the route.

But many were unprepared for the conditions on the Thorong La pass, which bore the brunt of Tuesday's unseasonal snowstorm.

Some industry veterans said trekking firms could have done more to ensure clients' safety.

A lack of regulation allows companies to take chances with safety, with the added complication that many trekkers ignore warnings, Tashi Sherpa, director of Seven Summit Treks, told AFP after the disaster.

Sherpa had insisted that four dozen clients postpone their trek up the Annapurna circuit, likely saving their lives.

The Himalayan nation has suffered multiple avalanches this year, with 16 guides killed in April in the deadliest ever accident to hit Mount Everest, forcing an unprecedented shutdown of the world's highest peak.

Short link: