KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Seventeen bodies have been recovered on Mount Everest base camp after a severe earthquake on Saturday set off an avalanche, making it the deadliest disaster in the history of mountaineering on the world's highest peak, a mountaineering official said.
The first helicopter took off from Kathmandu on Sunday morning to airlift the injured after flights were delayed by cloudy weather, Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, told Reuters. At least 61 people were injured.
The avalanche swept down Everest, burying part of the base camp as climbers gathered near the main route to the summit at the beginning of the climbing season in the deadliest incident on the mountain.
US climber John Reiter said dozens of people had suffered critical injuries, many of them with head injuries. "It's been a rough 18 hours," he told CNN.
An Indian army spokesman said earlier a climbing team found bodies on Saturday in the first hours after the quake. Nepal's Tourism Ministry could only confirm 10 deaths, but spokesman Gyanendra Shrestha said the toll could rise.
One of those killed was Mr Dan Fredinburg, a Google engineer based in California. He suffered head injuries when the avalanche hit, according to a statement from the mountaineering company that had taken him to base camp. "We pray too for all those who have lost their lives in one of the greatest tragedies ever to hit this Himalayan nation," Jagged Globe said.
Tourism Ministry officials estimated that at least 1,000 climbers, including about 400 foreigners, had been at base camp or on the ascent to the peak when the earthquake struck.
April is one of the most popular times to scale the 8,850m peak before rain and clouds cloak it at the end of May. Almost exactly a year ago, an avalanche killed 16 Nepali guides in what was the single deadliest day on the mountain.
Saturday's 7.9-magnitude quake was the strongest to hit Nepal for 81 years. It also shook neighbouring India, China and Bangladesh. Early on Sunday, the official death toll stood at more than 1,800 people in Nepal.
Mr Nick Farr, an Australian climber of The Everest Academy and Trek Climb Ski Nepal, said efforts to find out the situation at base camp were being hindered by poor phone coverage. "Nothing is being received out of there at the moment," he said.
Mr Steve Moffat, a mountain guide and operations coordinator for New Zealand-based Adventure Consultants, said two Nepali staff had been killed when the avalanche tore through base camp.
A further 31 staff and climbing clients - including two from the United States, five from New Zealand and one each from Australia, Italy and Iceland - were safe but stranded at Camp 1, further up the mountain.
"The first stage and the first priority is to get them down to base camp. We don't know if it's going to be possible to get them down and out through the Khumbu Icefall or whether we will need to chopper them out," Mr Moffat said from New Zealand.