KATMANDU, Nepal — Survivors of Mount Everest’s deadliest avalanche recalled scenes of panic and chaos, describing Sunday how they dug through snow with their hands and ice axes in hopes of finding their friends alive.
Minutes before the avalanche hit Friday, about 60 Sherpa guides had been backed up along the dangerous Khumbu Icefall, the edge of a slow-moving glacier known to calve and crack without warning. They heard the sickening boom of ice breaking above, then the roar of it coming down around them.
“We were sweating, panting, digging for our friends,” survivor Cheddar Sherpa said, standing beside his friend’s body at the Sherpa monastery in Katmandu, Nepal’s capital.
As he helped carry down the injured, he had no idea who might still be alive. “We were terrified,” he said.
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At least 13 people were killed, and three more were still missing Sunday, though there is almost no hope of finding them alive. Five of the dead guides were employees of Seattle-based guide service Alpine Ascents.
Climbing has been halted amid the search to locate bodies buried under snow, but the operation was suspended Sunday afternoon due to bad weather, and it was unclear when it would resume, Tourism Ministry official Mohan Sapkota said.
The expeditions ferrying foreigners to Everest’s peak said they would continue the climbs, though they’re not sure when — or how, with some guides now injured or gone.
All of the victims were from Nepal’s ethnic Sherpa community, which relies heavily on the country’s alpine trekking and climbing industry, with many making a living as climbing guides and others catering to foreign visitors by providing restaurants, equipment or transportation.
At the time of the avalanche, according to Cheddar Sherpa, dozens of Sherpa climbers were carrying tents and equipment to higher elevations to prepare for their foreign clients to ascend next month, when weather conditions are best.
They got caught in a traffic jam behind several Sherpas struggling to fix one of the aluminum ladders laid over the crevasses that cut through the Icefall.
Meanwhile, several other Sherpas, who had already passed before the avalanche hit, remain stranded above the collapsed Icefall, waiting until a new trail can be dug and new ropes fixed, said Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
Tshering said the group had tents and enough food to last for days.
Hospitals in Katmandu were treating four survivors of the avalanche for broken bones, punctured lungs and other injuries.
Hundreds of climbers, guides and support crews were at Everest’s base camp Friday, preparing to climb the 29,035-foot peak, but few were near the Khumbu Icefall.
The previous worst disaster on Everest was a blizzard on May 11, 1996, that caused the deaths of eight climbers, including famed mountaineer Rob Hall, and that was later memorialized in a book, “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer.
Six Nepalese guides were killed in an avalanche in 1970.
Material from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report.