NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Five bodies were spotted high on a mountain in the Indian Himalayas on Monday during an aerial search for eight climbers feared swept away in an avalanche last week, a government official said.
The climbers - four from Britain, two from the United States, and one each from Australia and India - were reported missing by colleagues on Friday after they failed to return to their base camp near Nanda Devi, India’s second highest mountain.
An air force helicopter spotted the five bodies on a flight over the area where they went missing, Vijay Kumar Jogdande, the top government official in the nearby Pithoragarh district.
“Four bodies can be seen together and a fifth slightly away from the others,” he said.
The search mission was now working on the assumption that all eight climbers had been killed, he said.
“We are trying to retrieve the bodies. We believe the other three will be nearby,” he said.
The climbers was attempting to climb an unnamed, previously unclimbed 6,477 metre (21,250 feet) peak near Nanda Devi when their route was hit by a “sizeable avalanche”, said the company that organised the expedition, Moran Mountain.
Jogdande, said the bodies were above 5,000 metres and the possibility of a second avalanche would make accessing the site difficult. It had not been decided whether a team would go in by air or on foot, he said.
“We’re considering both alternatives. Since the bodies are at high altitude it is inaccessible, it is still unstable terrain that could lead to a secondary avalanche. We’re working out a plan.”
“It has always been a dangerous place to go. Mount Everest is easier to climb,” he said.
A team would take at least a week to reach the area, Sanjay Gunjiyal, a senior police official involved in the mission, told Reuters.
Four climbers in the group had turned back and later raised the alarm about their missing colleagues. They were evacuated from their base camp by helicopter and were “fine and healthy”, said Tripti Bhatt, an official of the Uttarakhand State Disaster Response Force.
It has been one of the deadliest climbing seasons in the Himalayas for several years. More than 20 people have been killed in the mountains, including 11 on Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak that has been plagued by poor weather, inexperienced climbers and overcrowding.
Nanda Devi, at 7,816 metres (25,643 feet), and its sister mountain, Nanda Devi East, are among the world’s most challenging peaks and only a handful of people have climbed them.
The leader of the missing group, Martin Moran, was the first person to summit Changuch, another peak in the area, and was known as a “godfather” of guiding in the Himalayas, according to a video diary of Rob Jarvis, who accompanied him on that expedition in 2009.
“He was very well versed with the area, but the route they were taking is not usually travelled,” Gunjiyal said.
Many of the other missing climbers are veterans but with little experience of Nanda Devi and its surrounding peaks, he said.
Indian authorities have identified the eight missing as Moran, John McLaren, Rupert Whewell and Richard Payne, all from Britain, Anthony Sudekum and Ronald Beimel from the United States, Ruth McCance from Australia, and liaison officer Chetan Pandey from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.
Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Martin Howell, Robert Birsel