KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Search teams in Nepal used shovels and ice axes on Friday to dig through thick snow and rescue about 40 hikers trapped for days on a Himalayan pass after blizzards and avalanches killed at least 29 people in one of the world’s worst mountain disasters.
The Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal said 37 people were brought down from Thorong La pass, which is 5,416 metres (17,769 feet) high. Austrians, French, Germans, Indians and Nepalis were among the nationalities represented.
Police said 48 people were rescued from different locations in the popular trekking region around Annapurna, the world’s 10th highest peak, where some had sought shelter in a temple.
“Some of the foreign tourists were sitting in a temple for the last two days,” said Surya Bahadur, a police officer from Dolpa, a district of glaciers and ravines.
“They had very little food to eat and they were sharing blankets. It is still snowing and our access is very limited.”
Thorong La is the highest point of a three-week loop around the Annapurna peak. It is a wide, barren cleft between some of the world’s highest mountains and offers scant shelter.
Authorities said they had little idea how many Nepalis were missing from remote villages near the Tibetan border, and blamed failures in weather forecasting and lax regulations that led to many trekkers being caught in the open when the blizzard hit.
Trekkers battling the blizzard were left helpless after porters fainted from the cold, one survivor said.
“When we were coming down I saw several porters struggling with loads on their backs,” said Eitan, 31, an Israeli trekker who was descending from a teashop at a high altitude where he had taken refuge when the snowfall began.
“Some of them fainted right in front of me and we could not help. They were cold and there was no one to help,” said Eitan, who declined to give his last name.
Eitan, who was speaking at an army hospital in the capital, Kathmandu, had severe frostbite on his fingers, which were swathed in bandages.
Heavy snowfall is unusual during the October hiking season, known for clear skies that draw people from all over the world to enjoy spectacular views of the peaks. The blizzard was triggered by a cyclone in India.
Casualties from the snowstorm included trekkers from Canada, India, Israel and Poland, as well as Nepali guides and herders.
Police in Kathmandu said 82 people are still unaccounted for, including porters and villagers trapped up high when the blizzard struck.
Searchers dug out of the snow an Israeli tourist who had been buried up to his neck for 48 hours and took him to hospital, said Baburam Bhandari, governor of the Mustang region near Tibet that took the brunt of the blizzards and avalanches.
Helicopters assisted the search by a team of about 60 soldiers and police through deep snow near the pass.
Israel’s ambassador to Nepal said 13 Israelis had been admitted to hospital but “many more” were still out of contact.
“We hope they are safe but it is important for us to get a sense of the situation they are in,” said envoy Yaron Mayer.
Army and civilian teams have brought down more than 200 tourists, many who had taken shelter in the small guest houses and tea shops that line the Annapurna route.
The 240-km (150-mile) circuit traverses dramatic scenes of jagged peaks and Buddhist villages. Perhaps the most popular walking route in the Himalayas, it is dubbed the “apple pie” circuit for the baked treats offered by teahouses along the way.
The incident was the second major mountain disaster in Nepal this year, after an avalanche killed 16 sherpa guides on Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, in April.
This week’s disaster was the worst since avalanches crashed down peaks in the Mount Everest region, killing 42 people in 1995, army officials said.
Nepal is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains. Income from tourism, including permit fees for trekkers, who made up more than 12 percent of its 800,000 tourists in 2013, accounts for four percent of its economy.
Writing by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Clarence Fernandez