Death toll climbs as Nepal rescuers search for missing hikers in Himalayas

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Story highlights

  • 39 bodies have now been found, regional administrator says
  • 326 people have been rescued from the mountainous areas
  • Those killed include Israelis, Canadians, Poles, Slovaks and Nepalis
The grim search for missing hikers and bodies buried under snow continued Saturday against the dramatic backdrop of Nepal's Himalayas, as officials confirmed that at least 39 people had died in an exceptionally heavy snowfall.
Rescue crews combed the high-altitude paths and passes of the popular Annapurna region, as well as the neighboring Manang district for trekkers missing for nearly a week.
Nine stranded Israeli tourists were rescued Thursday, as well as three Canadians and four Indians who were pulled to safety, according to the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal.
The group said it deployed helicopters to rescue hikers stranded by snow, floodwaters and avalanches unleashed along the popular Himalayan trekking trails by heavy snow Tuesday.
Regional administrator Dinesh Kumar Thapaliya told CNN that 14 trekkers were now known to have died near the iconic 5,416-meter (17,770-foot) Thorung La Pass in Mustang district, the highest point of the popular 21-day Annapurna Circuit trek.
Annapurna circuit
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The bodies include those of Israelis, Nepalis and Poles, he said.
Even as the total death toll climbed from the 17 reported Wednesday, Thapaliya warned that there are chances of finding more people dead or lost around the pass.
A Nepal army team made it up to 16,000 feet on Thursday -- still short of the pass -- on the side of the mountain where the 14 bodies were found.
'This is the dangerous part'
Friday's search efforts were concentrated on the other side of the pass, which falls in Manang district, "This is the dangerous part," Thapaliya said.
There has been no contact with the remote area even by phone, he said.
One Israeli was rescued from near the pass Thursday. Three trekkers have been confirmed as missing, two of them Indian and one Japanese.
The pass is not the only area to see deaths due to the unseasonably heavy snow.
The bodies of another five trekkers, four Canadians and an Indian, were found in Manang district, Thapaliya said. Three Nepali farmers also were killed.
Farther west, five mountaineers -- two Slovaks and three Nepalis -- lost their lives in an avalanche Tuesday night near Nepal's seventh highest peak, Mount Dhaulagiri, officials said.
Altogether, 326 people have now been rescued as of Saturday, more than half of them from Manang district, said Baburam Bhandari, chief district officer of Nepal's Mustang district.
'Trekking is adventurous'
This is already one of the deadliest such tragedies in the history of Nepal, a nation of about 26 million known worldwide for its spectacular mountain ranges, including Mount Everest.
Annapurna is far and away the most popular of its trekking areas, with some 90,000 trekking there in 2013, according to Narendra Lama, tourism officer of Annapurna Area Conservation Project.
"There have been incidents of trekkers being killed in snowstorms, landslides and avalanches in the past but not as many as this year," Lama said.
"But I do not think that this disaster will have a big impact since it is a natural disaster and not about a security situation," he said. "Trekking is adventurous in nature after all."
October is the best month of the year to do the Annapurna Circuit trek, meaning more visitors than usual may have been in the area when unusually heavy snow caused by Cyclone Hudhud in eastern India came down Monday and Tuesday.
Last year, about 20,000 foreign trekkers crossed the Thorung La Pass, almost 6,000 of them in October, according to Annapurna Conservation Area statistics.
Many remote Nepali communities rely on foreign trekkers and mountaineers for income and employment, meaning a drop in visitors could hit local people hard.
The deaths come only six months after tragedy last struck Nepal, on the slopes of Mount Everest.
Then, a bruising avalanche of ice swept 16 Sherpas to their deaths. After the accident, which came right before the peak season in May, many Sherpas refused to climb and at least six companies that lead Everest expeditions called off their 2014 climbs.