KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Small avalanches hampered the search for Nepali porters and guides missing for six days after a devastating Himalayan storm, officials said on Monday, as rescue crews began to scale back the hunt for survivors of a disaster that killed 40 people.
Nearly 600 people have been rescued from the popular hiking trail around Annapurna, the world's tenth highest peak, after it was hit by unseasonable snow and avalanches brought by the tail end of a cyclone that swept through neighbouring India.
"Today is the last day of the search and rescue operation,"said Keshav Pandey of the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal. "After this we can only hope that those who are missing will establish contact with us or their families.
"We don't think that any tourist is missing now. I am getting reports that some local porters and tour guides who were on the trek have not been traced so far," said Pandey, whose team has rescued more than 250 people.
The dead include Canadian, Indian, Israeli, Japanese, Nepalese, Polish and Slovak trekkers. Survivors said many people perished trying to descend in freezing whiteout conditions from the highest pass of the 240-km trail around Annapurna, which offers dramatic views of crags and hamlets.
Searchers retrieved another body on Monday, taking the tally of deaths to 40.
"Army rescuers dug out the body of an Israeli tourist from snow today," Baburam Bhandari, chief of Nepal's Mustang district, one of the worst hit, told Reuters.
Nepalese army and private helicopters have brought back survivors from parts of the trail that are more than 5,000 metres high.
Soldiers fanned out through some of the most treacherous terrain, where helicopters cannot land, including around the glacial lake of Tilicho, about four days' trek from the main circuit, and the distant villages of Naar and Phu near Tibet.
"Rigorous efforts are being made to reach seven people who still remain missing in Naar and Phu," said Devendra Lamichhane, the chief administrator of Nepal's Manang region. "Small avalanches are still continuing in Manang, making search and rescue operations difficult." The incident was Nepal's second major mountain disaster this year, after 16 guides died in an avalanche in April on Mount Everest, the world's highest peak.
Tourism Minister Dipak Amatya said he was determined to overhaul adventure sports tourism in Nepal, and ensure it never again faced a similar tragedy.
"There is no point blaming the hostile weather for the disaster," he told Reuters. "I blame our entire mechanism because it is our responsibility to protect tourists and Nepali citizens."
Amatya's ministry is working on a plan to build more than 200 shelters on all the trekking routes in Nepal, to ensure every tourist finds a shelter within a distance of 3km.
Nepal is home to eight of the world's 14 highest mountains. Income from tourism, including permit fees for trekkers, who made up more than 12 per cent of its 800,000 tourists in 2013, accounts for four per cent of its economy.