KATMANDU, Nepal – Survivors of Mount Everest's deadliest avalanche recalled scenes of panic and chaos, describing Sunday how they dug through snow with their hands and ice axes in hopes of finding their friends alive.
Just minutes before the avalanche hit on Friday, about 60 Sherpa guides had been backed up along the dangerous Khumbu Icefall — the edge of a slow-moving glacier known to calve and crack without warning. They heard the sickening boom of ice breaking above, and then the roar of it coming down around them.
As details of the tragedy trickle down the mountain, Nepal's tight-knit climbing community has been left reeling and struggling to make sense of an accident that they say could have happened to any one of them, at any time.
"We were sweating, panting, digging for our friends," survivor Cheddar Sherpa said, standing beside his friend's body at the Sherpa monastery in Katmandu, Nepal's capital.
As he helped carry down the injured, he had no idea who might still be alive. "We were terrified," he said.
At least 13 people were killed, and another three are still missing, though there is almost no hope of finding them alive.
Climbing has been halted amid a search operation to locate bodies buried under snow, but the operation was suspended Sunday afternoon due to bad weather, and it was unclear whether it would resume on Monday, Tourism Ministry official Mohan Sapkota said.
The expeditions ferrying foreigners to Everest's peak said they would continue the climbs, though they're not sure when — or how, with some guides now injured or gone.
All of the victims were from Nepal's ethnic Sherpa community, which relies heavily on the country's alpine trekking and climbing industry, with many making a living as climbing guides and others catering to foreign visitors by providing restaurants, equipment or transportation.
At the time of the avalanche, according to Cheddar Sherpa, dozens of Sherpa climbers were carrying tents and equipment to higher elevations in preparation for their foreign clients to ascend next month, when weather conditions are best.
They got caught in a traffic jam behind several Sherpas struggling to fix one of the aluminum ladders laid over the crevasses that cut through the Icefall.
Meanwhile, several other Sherpas, who had already passed before the avalanche hit, remain stranded above the collapsed Icefall, waiting until a new trail can be dug and new ropes fixed, said Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
It was unclear how long that would take, but Tshering said the group had tents and enough food to last for days.
Hospitals in Katmandu were treating four survivors of the avalanche for broken bones, punctured lungs and other injuries.
While there were hundreds of climbers, guides and support crews at Everest's base camp preparing to climb the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak, few had been around the Khumbu Icefall on Friday, according to American climber Jon Reiter, who spoke with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (http://bit.ly/1hcOA0R) by satellite phone from the base camp.
He and an Australian had been climbing in the area when their Sherpa guide shoved them back from the avalanche, and out of harm's way.
"We were moving up to Camp 1, just after dawn, when we heard that 'crack,'" said Reiter, 49, a contractor from Kenwood, California. "My first thought was to film it, and I reached for my camera. But the Sherpa yelled to get down. Things started happening in slow motion. Big blocks of snow and ice started coming down all around."
It's not clear how close Reiter was to the avalanche. But in response to questions, he wrote on his blog: "There were very few Western climbers in the area, and all of us had our climbing Sherpa by our sides and they all survived."
The worst recorded disaster on Everest had been a fierce blizzard on May 11, 1996, that caused the deaths of eight climbers, including famed mountaineer Rob Hall, and was later memorialized in a book, "Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer. Six Nepalese guides were killed in an avalanche in 1970.
Hundreds of people, both foreigners and Sherpas, have died trying to reach the world's highest peak. About a quarter of them were killed in avalanches, climbing officials say.
More than 4,000 climbers have reached the top of Everest since 1953, when the mountain was first conquered by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
Nepal this year began stationing officials and medical personnel at Everest's base camp, located at 5,300 meters (17,380 feet), to better monitor the flow of climbers and speed up rescue operations during the March-May climbing season.