KATHMANDU (AFP) - The bodies of nine climbers killed in a violent storm on Nepal's Mount Gurja were retrieved from the mountainside on Sunday (Oct 14) as rescuers tried to piece together what led to the freak accident.
Rescuers found the bodies of the South Korean climbing expedition scattered across the base camp amid the broken remains of their tents and equipment.
The team had injuries, including head wounds and broken bones, consistent with being hit by powerful winds, but rescuers say it was most likely caused by the powerful downblast from an avalanche and not a storm.
"It seems that seracs (glacial ice) and snow fell from high on the mountain and the strong gusts of winds from that hit the campsite, throwing the climbers off," said rescuer Suraj Paudyal who reached the site on Sunday.
The remote camp at around 3,500m was located next to a gully that acted as a funnel for the mass of snow, ice and rocks brought down by the avalanche, creating a powerful kickback of wind that decimated the team.
It took a helicopter several trips to bring the bodies - five South Koreans and four Nepalis - down from the camp in the Dhaulagiri mountain range of Nepal's Annapurna region.
They initially were flown to Pokhara, a tourist hub that serves as a gateway to the Annapurna region, and will be brought to Kathmandu later on Sunday, said Mr Yogesh Sapkota of Simrik Air, a helicopter company involved in the effort.
"Base camp looks like a bomb went off," said Mr Dan Richards of Global Rescue, a US-based emergency assistance group that helped with the retrieval effort.
The accident is believed to have happened either late last Thursday or Friday, but there are no surviving witnesses.
The alarm was raised only on Saturday morning when the team had not been in contact for more than 24 hours, said Mr Wangchu Sherpa of Trekking Camp Nepal, who organised the expedition.
A helicopter was sent to investigate and spotted the bodies, but strong winds prevented the rescue team from retrieving the dead.
The expedition was led by experienced South Korean climber Kim Chang-ho, who has climbed the world's 14 highest mountains without using supplemental oxygen.
The team had been on 7,193m Mount Gurja since early October, hoping to scale the rarely climbed mountain via a new route.
A sixth South Korean climber was staying at a village lower in the valley when the storm hit, after being forced to a lower altitude by health problems.
Only 30 people have ever reached the summit of Mount Gurja, with the last successful ascent recorded in 1996, according to the Himalayan Database.
The freak accident is the deadliest incident to hit Nepal's mountaineering industry since 18 people were killed at Mount Everest's base camp in 2015 in an avalanche triggered by a powerful earthquake.
The previous year, 16 Sherpas were killed on Everest when an avalanche swept through the Khumbu Icefall during the busy spring climbing season.
Then in October that year, a blizzard killed more than 40 tourists and their guides in the Annapurna region, a disaster that was largely blamed on poor weather forecasting and lacklustre safety standards in Nepal's poorly regulated trekking industry.