KATHMANDU: Climbers who survived an avalanche in the dark on one of the world's deadliest peaks told Tuesday of their horror as breaking dawn revealed the bodies of their companions littering the mountain.
The details of their ordeal emerged as the search was called off for a third night for three missing climbers feared dead on Nepal's Mount Manaslu, in the worst Himalayan disaster for seven years.
Nine people, including four French climbers, a Spaniard, an Italian, a German and a Nepali guide, were killed while two Frenchmen and a Canadian man are missing.
Italian climber Christian Gobbi, 42, said he and his friend, Silvio Mondinelli, 54, had woken and were talking when suddenly their voices were drowned out by a giant roar before their tent was swept away.
“It was only a few seconds and we did not know what had happened, but we had slid more than 200 metres (650 feet). Then it stopped,” he told AFP from a hotel in Kathmandu.
Gobbi and Mondinelli ventured outside their tent and couldn't see anything in the pitch black.
But as the sun came up, they discovered the body of the Nepali guide who had led them on the hazardous trek and their friend, Italian Alberto Mariano, among broken tents, scattered belongings and the bodies of the other climbers.
“We were terrified -- we didn't know what to do,” said Mondinelli, one of the world's most experienced climbers, who in 2007 became the sixth person in history to scale all 14 of the world's peaks above 8,000m without oxygen cylinders.
The group of more than 20 at the camp were hit by a wall of snow in their tents near the peak of the 8,156-metre (26,759-foot) Manaslu in the early hours of Sunday.
Rescuers found 13 people alive after the avalanche, described by survivors as looking like a “war zone”, with several flown to hospitals in Kathmandu by helicopters.
“We were without boots and gloves, we had only the sleeping bags. We waited an hour until sunlight and we found some boots and wore them,” said Gobbi.
“There was one American, who was screaming and asking for help, but we couldn't do anything.”Gobbi said he and Mondinelli were not injured and were able to walk down to a lower camp, helping people along the way and applying dressings to their wounds.
“We checked to find out who was alive and who died. I alone saw seven dead bodies,” said Gobbi, adding that among them was their Nepali mountain guide, Dawa Sherpa, lying dead in the snow.
A team of high-altitude sherpas ended a third unsuccessful search for three missing climbers, police said, with almost no hope that they would be rescued.
An air rescue operation was called off on Monday, more than 24 hours after the climbers went missing.
District police chief Basanta Bahadur Kunwar said the sherpas had been using snow shovels, ice axes and bamboo sticks to search for the missing.
“But there is less likelihood of finding them. If not now, they may be found once the snow melts,” he said.
Seven French climbers from the group, including three who suffered minor injuries in the avalanche, flew to Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport on Tuesday.
“I feel miserable, I don't know where I am anymore. I keep thinking of those who disappeared in the crevasses, who will probably never be found. It's a real shock,” said Arnaud de Fouchier.
Experts have questioned the timing of the Manaslu expedition, arguing that the mountaineers should have waited a few more days.
New snowfall, associated with the autumn season which comes after the monsoon, is the most frequent cause of avalanches.
“Though the monsoon season usually ends by mid-September, they were a little early. One should attempt the summit in late September or early October,” said Ang Tshering Sherpa, vice-president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
Nepal's worst-ever climbing disaster happened in 1995 when a huge avalanche struck the camp of a Japanese trekking group in the Mount Everest region, killing 42 people including 13 Japanese.
In 2005 a powder-snow avalanche ploughed into a French expedition's base camp, on Kang Guru, in the Manang region of central Nepal, sweeping all seven members of the team as well as 11 Nepalese staff to their deaths.
Manaslu saw its worst disaster when a South Korean expedition was buried by snow attempting to climb the northeast face in 1972. The 15 dead included 10 sherpas and the Korean expedition leader.