Everest's darkest day as 12 are killed
Worst single accident; number of dead may hit 20
Twelve Sherpas were killed and three are missing on the slopes of Everest after they were swept away by an ice avalanche yesterday in the worst single accident on the world's highest mountain since records began in 1922.
Eight sherpas were rescued from the ice-fall but five of them are said to be in a critical condition, with fears that the number of dead could ultimately rise as high as 20.
Dipendra Paude, a spokesman for Nepal's tourism ministry, said that the men were hit by a "huge avalanche" at 6.30am as they were fixing ropes for their paying climbers at 19,400ft on the Khumbu Ice Fall – more than 6,500ft below the 'death zone' where most accidents happen.
They were fixing ropes to Camp One at 19,700ft and Camp Two, or Advance Base Camp, at 21,000ft on the 29,029ft mountain when the avalanche swept them away. The Sherpas were employed by six different expedition companies but were working together at the time.
Officials said a rescue operation, including two helicopters with medical teams and mountain rescuers on foot, was under way to find the missing men.
Badri Bikram Thapa, the police chief of Solukhambu district, which surrounds Everest, said most of the Sherpas – who fix guide ropes, work as porters and cooks – were local.
The Sherpa guides had gone to fix ropes for other climbers when the avalanche struck an area known as the 'popcorn field' for its bulging chunks of ice at about 6.30am, Nepal tourism ministry official Krishna Lamsal said from the base camp, where he was monitoring rescue efforts.
An injured survivor told his relatives the path up the mountain was unstable just before the avalanche struck at an elevation just below 21,000ft. As soon as the avalanche hit, rescuers, guides and climbers rushed to help.
Rescue workers pulled out 12 bodies from under mounds of snow and ice and were searching for the four missing guides, Mr Lamsal said. Officials had earlier said three were missing.
Four survivors were injured badly enough to require airlifting to a hospital in Katmandu. One arrived during the day, and three taken to the foothill town of Lukla could be evacuated today. Others with less serious injuries were being treated at base camp.
The avalanche struck ahead of the peak climbing season, when hundreds of climbers, guides and support crews were at Everest's base camp preparing to climb to the summit when weather conditions are at their most favourable early next month. They had been setting up camps at higher altitudes, and guides were fixing routes and ropes on the slopes above.
The wall of snow and ice hit just below Camp Two, which sits at an elevation of 21,000ft on the 29,036ft mountain, said Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
One injured guide, Dawa Tashi, lay in the intensive care unit at Grande Hospital in the capital late yesterday after being evacuated from the mountain. Doctors said he suffered several broken ribs and would be in the hospital for a few days.
Mr Tashi told his visiting relatives that the Sherpa guides woke up early and were on their way to fix ropes to the higher camps but were delayed because of the unsteady path. Suddenly the avalanche fell on the group and buried many of them, according to his sister-in-law Dawa Yanju.
Some experienced alpinists have complained that overcrowding on the slopes has led to delays and high-altitude queues, which leave climbers more vulnerable to frostbite, hypothermia, altitude sickness, high winds, avalanches and blizzards.
The worst recorded disaster on Everest had been a fierce blizzard on May 11, 1996, that caused the deaths of eight climbers, and which was later memorialised in a book, 'Into Thin Air', by Jon Krakauer. (© Daily Telegraph, London)