Exploration

Worst-Ever Everest Accident Kills At Least 12 Sherpas

The Nepalese guides were preparing routes for commercial climbers when an avalanche hit them out of the blue.

At least 12 Nepalese guides preparing routes up Mount Everest for commercial climbers were killed on Friday by an avalanche in the most deadly mountaineering accident ever on the world's highest peak, officials and rescuers say.

The men were among a large party of Sherpas carrying tents, food and ropes who headed out in bright sunshine in an early morning expedition ahead of the main climbing season starting later this month.

The avalanche occurred at around 6:45 am (0100 GMT) at an altitude of about 5,800 metres (19,000 feet) in an area known as the "popcorn field," which lies on the route into the treacherous Khumbu icefall.

"We have retrieved 12 bodies from the snow, we don't know how many more are trapped underneath," Nepal tourism ministry official Dipendra Paudel told AFP in Kathmandu.

Assisted by rescue helicopters, teams of climbers are still searching for survivors, with at least seven people plucked alive from the ice and snow, Paudel told AFP.

A rescue team official working at the base camp of the 8,848-metre (29,029-foot) peak, Lakpa Sherpa, told AFP that the death toll could rise as high as 14.

"I have seen 11 bodies brought to the base camp, we have been told to expect three more," the member of non-profit Himalayan Rescue Association said by telephone.

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Kathmandu-based expert Elizabeth Hawley, considered the world's leading authority on Himalayan climbing, said the avalanche was the most deadly single accident in the history of mountaineering on the peak.

The previous worst accident occurred in 1996, when eight people were killed over a two-day period during a rogue storm while attempting to climb the mountain.

That tragedy was immortalised in the best-selling book "Into Thin Air" written by US mountaineering journalist Jon Krakauer.

"This is the absolutely the worst disaster on Everest, no question," Hawley told AFP.

Kathmandu-based climbing company Himalayan Climbing Guides Nepal confirmed that two of their guides were among the dead and four were missing.

"When our guides left base camp, there was no snowfall, the weather was just fantastic," operations manager Bhim Paudel told AFP.

Dozens of guides from other companies crossed the icefall safely before the avalanche struck, Paudel said.

"We expected to follow them, we had no warning at all," he said.

Every summer, hundreds of climbers from around the world attempt to scale peaks in the Himalayas when weather conditions are at their best.

Risks for Sherpas The accident underscores the huge risks taken by sherpa guides, who carry tents, bring food supplies, repair ladders and fix ropes to help foreign climbers who pay tens of thousands of dollars to summit the peak.

More than 300 people have died on Everest since the first successful summit by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

Nepal's worst-ever climbing disaster happened in 1995 when a huge avalanche struck the camp of a Japanese trekking group near Mount Everest, killing 42 people, including 13 Japanese.

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The impoverished Himalayan country is home to eight of the world's 14 peaks over 8,000 meters.

Nepal's government has issued permits to 734 people, including 400 guides, to climb Everest this summer.

In a bid to address concerns of overcrowding on the "roof of the world," the government earlier announced plans to double the number of climbing ropes on congested ice walls near the summit of Everest to reduce congestion and risks for climbers.

Authorities have also stationed soldiers and police at Everest base camp starting this month so climbers can approach officers in case of any trouble following a brawl between commercial climbers and Nepalese guides last year.

The world's 14 "eight-thousanders" -- mountains taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) -- are all located in Asia. On one hand, they really beautify a horizon, but on the other they present a fierce, at times fatal, challenge to mountain climbers. Beauty can, indeed, be deadly. Here's the "baby" of the bunch, Shishapangma in Tibet, peaking at 8,027 meters (26,335 feet).

This is Gasherbrum II (we'll have another Gasherbrum coming up shortly), on the border of Pakistan and China. It's 8,035 meters up in the sky (26,361 feet) and is sometimes known as K4. These mountaineers are near the summit.

On the left side of this picture we see the sheer mass of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet at 8,047 meters or 26,394 feet above sea level.

As promised, here's another Gasherbrum: Gasherbrum I. (Gasherbrum, translated from the Tibetan language Balti, means "beautiful mountain.") It also goes by the name of K5, lives along the China-Pakistan border and is 8,080 meters (26,444 ft) high.

The Himalayan mountain range Annapurna, in Nepal, is seen here from Pkhara, about 124 miles (200 kilometers) west of Kathmandu. Annapurna is considered one of the most dangerous for climbers; first crested in 1950, it has since been climbed by more than 100 people but taken 53 lives along the way.

This somewhat unsettling photo was taken in 1931 by mountaineers at a base camp on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest eight-thousander at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet). The area captured in the picture is known as the Nanga Wall.

Eighth-tallest of the eight-thousanders is Nepal's Manaslu, at 8,163 meters (26,781 feet).

The Dhaulagiri mountain range in the Himalayas sports a rather volcanic look in this picture, with the sun brushing its top. But Nepal's 8,167-meter (26,795-foot) monster is of course quite chilly on top. Dhaulagiri's south face is considered by mountaineers to be a next-to-impossible climb, and no one has ever topped the mountain from that side.

Clouds hover over snow-covered Cho Oyu mountain in Tibet. The sixth-tallest mountain stands 8,201 meters tall (26,906 feet), and the "Mountain Goddess" (in Tibetan translation) is considered one of less-challenging climbs among the eight-thousanders (if you don't consider climbing ANY mountain a challenge, that is!).

Next in the eight-thousander club is Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, looming on the border between Nepal and China. It's 8,463 meters (27,766 feet) tall and is another tough climb, with 22 deaths tallied against its 206 successful climbs.

Standing 8,516 meters tall (27,940 feet), Lhotse, fourth-tallest, rests on the border of Nepal and Tibet. It was first climbed in 1956.

Kangchenjunga, in Nepal, is the world's third-tallest mountain, edging Lhotse by just 71 meters, standing 8,587 meters tall (28,169 feet). It's a prominent mark on the horizon in Darjeeling, the tea-growing region.

K2, the second-tallest mountain on the planet, is 8,611 meters up in the clouds (28,251 feet) along the China-Pakistan border. Climbers know it for its incredibly difficult ascent routes; in 2008, an ice fall on the treacherous slopes took the lives of 11 climbers.

And now we reach the Big Daddy in the worldwide mountains club. That, of course, would be Mount Everest. Its name alone is synonymous with challenging feats, as climbing it continues to this day to be a dicey endeavor, though it draws people year after year to attempt the ascent. And what a climb: Mount Everest stands 8,848 meters tall (29,029 feet). It was famously crested for the first time in 1953 by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.