It was the first major avalanche on Mount Everest this climbing season – each year, hundreds of foreign and Nepali climbers flock to the mountain to attempt to reach its 29,035ft peak.
Nepal’s tourism ministry said 12 sherpas had been confirmed dead, four remained missing and three others were injured. All of the dead were Nepali nationals.
The avalanche hit an area nicknamed the “Popcorn Field” because of its bulging chunks of ice, which is just below Camp 2, Ang Tshering, of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said. Camp 2 sits at an elevation of 21,000ft.
Helicopters and rescuers on foot had been sent to the site, senior ministry officials said.
An injured survivor told his relatives that the path up the mountain had been unstable just before the avalanche. As soon as the avalanche hit, rescuers, guides and climbers rushed to help. Four survivors were injured badly enough to require airlifts to a hospital in the capital, Katmandu. One arrived there yesterday, and three taken to the foothill town of Lukla will be evacuated today. Others with less serious injuries were being treated at base camp.
Rescue workers pulled out 12 bodies from under mounds of snow and ice and were searching for the four missing guides.
One injured guide, Dawa Tashi, lay in intensive care at Grande Hospital in the capital late yesterday after being evacuated from the mountain. Doctors said he had suffered several broken ribs and would be in hospital for a few days.
Mr Tashi told visiting relatives that the sherpa guides woke up early and were on their way to fix ropes leading to the higher camps but were delayed because of the unsteady path. Suddenly, the avalanche swamped the group and buried many of them, according to Mr Tashi’s sister-in-law, Dawa Yanju.
More than 4,000 climbers have scaled Everest’s summit since it was first climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. The route they took was the one hit by the avalanche yesterday.
Nearly 250 people have died on the mountain.
Everest is on the border between Nepal and the Chinese region of Tibet and can be climbed from both sides.
In recent years, the demand to tackle Everest, particularly from more inexperienced climbers, has risen.
Nepal’s tourism ministry has issued permits to 334 foreign climbers to scale Everest this season, up from 328 last year. Officials from the impoverished country do not want to deter climbers due to the income they generate for sherpas and other support staff.
A team of administrators has recently been dispatched to the area to deal with any problems on site.
Nepal also plans to cut fees to climb the mountain, despite concern about overcrowding.
Last month, it was reported that the Nepalese authorities were considering installing ladders on Everest’s Hillary Step, the final rock wall climbers scale to reach the summit, in an attempt to ease congestion.
In the meantime, extra ropes are being fixed on to other congested ice walls in a bid to improve safety and cut delays caused by a “logjam” of climbers.