Everest avalanche underscores risks borne by guides as search for survivors stops for the night

KATHMANDU (AFP) - Rescuers on Mount Everest found the body of a 13th Nepalese guide on Saturday as the authorities ruled out hope of finding any more survivors from the deadliest accident ever on the world's highest peak.

Three sherpas remained missing from Friday's avalanche which struck after a large party of guides left Everest base camp carrying tents, food and ropes to prepare for international clients ahead of the main climbing season.

Towards the evening, rescuers suspended the search until Sunday. "We have suspended the rescue operation for today. It is risky to continue searching the mountain as evening sets in," tourism ministry official Madhusudan Burlakoti told AFP.

An Australian mountaineer who narrowly escaped the deadliest accident ever on Mount Everest said on Saturday some local guides and climbers were questioning whether to scrap their summit plans after 13 Nepalese were killed in an avalanche.

Mr Gavin Turner was scaling the treacherous Khumbu Icefall with his sherpa guide early on Friday when he saw the avalanche strike climbers just ahead of him, at an altitude of about 5,800m. "We saw it approach... it was an extremely close call, a matter of minutes," Mr Turner told AFP in a phone interview from Everest base camp.

As news of the accident sent shockwaves among mountaineers, most of the sherpas on the mountain gathered their belongings and left, leaving the world's highest peak deserted but for tents packed with western climbers stunned by the disaster.

The accident underscores the huge risks borne by local guides, who ascend the icy slopes of the 8,848m peak, often in pitch-dark and usually weighed down by tenting equipment, ropes and food supplies for their clients.

The nature of their work means that sherpas will usually make many more trips up the mountain and expose themselves to far greater risk than foreign climbers who pay tens of thousands of dollars to summit the peak.

While rescue helicopters buzzed overhead, plucking snow-blanketed bodies out of the mountain to base camp using cables suspended from the aircraft, hundreds of sherpas said they wanted to take a break from the climb.

Some said they would not come back at all this season.

"My sherpa said he won't be returning - he has a wife and a two-year-old son and the love of his family outweighed any financial reward," Mr Turner said.

The 38-year-old had set out for his first Everest summit just days ago, in a bid to raise funds for a children's charity, but said the accident had left "many climbers asking themselves if they should go ahead".

Mr Turner's thoughts were echoed in an account posted online by veteran mountaineer Tim Rippel, the Canadian owner of expedition company Peak Freaks.

Four sherpas on Mr Rippel's team endured a close shave when the avalanche struck, two were trapped above the disaster area and two others dropped their loads and retreated to base camp only minutes before the accident occurred.

"Everyone is shaken here at base camp," Mr Rippel wrote on his blog late Friday.

"Some climbers are packing up and calling it quits, they want nothing to do with this. Reality has set in," wrote Mr Rippel, who reached the summit of Everest in 2008.

"Everyone is in agreement that Everest 2014 is shaping up to be the worst season in history for complications and for deaths."

Nepal's Sherpas, an ethnic group thought to be of Tibetan origin who live mainly in the eastern Himalayas, served as guides and porters for some of the first expeditions in the Everest region.

Among the most famous is Tenzing Norgay, who made the first summit of Everest with New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary in 1953.

The term today is used for all local guides who assist Himalayan expeditions.

For Mr Turner, who described the attempt to summit Everest as "a mountaineer's pinnacle experience", the tragedy has cast a spotlight on the heroes all too often banished to the sidelines.

"There is enormous build-up for an Everest expedition - from the physical training to the emotional investment to the financial commitment we make."

But Friday's disaster "reminds us again that it's the sherpa community who bear the weight of these expeditions, they are the backbone of every team", he said.

The avalanche smashed into the sherpas early on Friday at an altitude of about 5,800m in an area nicknamed the "popcorn field" due to ice boulders on the route leading into the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.

Dozens of guides were on the move when a huge block of ice broke off from a hanging glacier, before splitting into smaller chunks and barrelling down into the icefall, one of the most dangerous areas on the route to ascend Everest.

The ice "tumbled for several thousand feet, resulting in debris that came further out into the icefall", according to an account by the International Mountain Guides climbing company, which has a team stationed on the peak.

Veteran climber Alan Arnette, who reached the summit of Everest in 2011, said mountaineers usually tried to go through the icefall "as quickly as possible".

The hanging glaciers "are by definition unstable, sooner or later they are going to break and fall, making the icefall very dangerous", Mr Arnette told AFP from his home in Colorado.

"You first hear the sharp crack of ice and then you can try to shield behind another block of ice, but in this case, they really had nowhere to hide."

More than 300 people, most of them local guides, have died on Everest since the first summit by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

The death toll underscores the huge risks borne by local guides who ascend the icy slopes, often in pitch-dark and usually weighed down by tenting equipment, ropes and food supplies for their clients.

The nature of their work means that sherpas will usually make many more trips up the mountain and expose themselves to far greater risk than foreign climbers who pay tens of thousands of dollars to scale the 8,848m peak.

While helicopters buzzed overhead, plucking snow-blanketed bodies out of the mountain using cables suspended from the aircraft, climbers said they would pause all expeditions until rescue operations conclude, according to police official Kumar Timilsina.

"People have lost friends they've worked hand in hand with. Everyone is heartbroken," Mr Timilsina told AFP from Everest base camp.

In Kathmandu, anxious families waited for the bodies of their loved ones to arrive ahead of funeral rites at the city's Buddhist monasteries.

Teenager Phinjum Sherpa said her 36-year-old father Ang Kaji Sherpa had been on five Everest expeditions.

"He used to say that... after the 10th expedition, he will stop," she told AFP, while waiting for his body to arrive at a monastery in the capital.

"I spoke to him on Thursday evening. He said he was going up the next morning, but the weather was not very good... He said, 'pray for me'."

"We are six siblings and our grandparents are old. I am worried about how we will take care of each other," said the teenager.

Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, a national body representing tourism promoters, said guides' families would receive life insurance payments amounting to US$10,000.

"It's very difficult for families when the main breadwinner dies, but the association will look after their children's education," he said.

The previous worst accident on Everest occurred in 1996 when eight people were killed during a storm while attempting to summit the mountain.

In the past, some accidents have been blamed on overcrowding or on ill-prepared foreign climbers taking unnecessary risks to reach the summit before returning home.

Every summer, hundreds of climbers from around the world attempt to scale peaks in the Himalayas when weather conditions are ideal.

The government has issued permits to 734 people, including 400 guides, to climb Everest this summer.

The impoverished Himalayan country, home to eight of the world's 14 peaks over 8,000m, counts tourism as a key revenue-earner.