KATHMANDU (Reuters) - The death toll in a blizzard that engulfed trekkers on a popular hiking route in Nepal rose by nine on Saturday to 39, as a helicopter search spotted more bodies stranded in the rugged, snow-covered Himalayan terrain.
Sixty more people were rescued from the Annapurna trail, a three-week route popular with foreign adventure tourists that circles the world’s tenth-tallest mountain, bringing the total saved to 371. Dozens more were still missing.
“We have spotted nine new bodies today,” said Govinda Pathak, police head in the district of Mustang. “We could not retrieve them because of bad weather conditions and snowfall. I can confirm that the toll is 39 now.”
Twelve helicopters were pressed on Saturday into action to drop searchers in otherwise inaccessible spots, and soldiers fanned out in different directions along the 240-km (150-mile) route.
It was the most intensive effort yet to find survivors of one of the country’s worst mountain disasters, which struck at a time of year when the weather is usually calm and clear.
Foreign victims included hikers from Canada, India, Israel and Poland who were caught on Wednesday by the tail end of a cyclone that battered India’s eastern coast last weekend before heading northward.
Thorong La, the highest pass along the Annapurna trek, is at an altitude of 5,416 meters (17,769 feet), but the route does not require mountaineering experience. Eyewitnesses said many victims perished trying to descend the pass in freezing, whiteout conditions.
In the capital, Kathmandu, survivors recounted their brush with death during the blizzard.
Four Nepali guides were swept away by an avalanche, said Horst Ulrich, a 72-year-old German, who was on his fourth trip to Nepal with a group of friends.
“We were in a dangerous spot and shocked at the conditions we were seeing unfold in front of our eyes,” he added. “We just got lucky.”
Munchang Lama, 35, a guide for two Israeli women, found himself marooned while he was pitching a tent for them.
“Suddenly it started raining and I took shelter between two rocks,” said Lama, who was rescued on Friday, suffering from frostbite and minor injuries.
“Next morning I was not able to walk because my leg was stuck in snow,” he added. “I realized I would only be able to get out when the snow melted.”
Lama said he was able to keep up his strength by munching on nuts, chocolates and a banana he found in the women’s bags.
“This kept me alive for 48 hours,” said Lama, adding that he did not know what became of his clients.
The government has admitted failing to issue any warning that the weather would take a sudden turn for the worse, and has promised to set up an early-warning system.
This week’s incident was the second major mountain disaster in Nepal this year after an avalanche killed 16 guides on Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, in April.
The home ministry told officials in the five affected districts to trace missing people who could have taken shelter from the storm in hamlets, temples or other isolated spots.
At least 45 Nepali families have approached officials in the districts of Mustang, Manang and Dolpa for help tracking down their missing menfolk who worked as porters and guides.
“The problem is that any Nepali is free to start operating as a porter and they do not require a licence,” said Keshav Pandey of Nepal’s Trekking Agencies Association. “According to our estimate more than 85 Nepalis are still stuck.”
Nepal is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains. Income from tourism, including permit fees from trekkers, who made up more than 12 percent of its 800,000 tourists in 2013, accounts for 4 percent of its economy.
Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Raissa Kasolowsky