KATMANDU, Nepal – Rescuers widened their search Friday for trekkers stranded since a series of blizzards and avalanches battered the Himalayas in northern Nepal early this week, leaving at least 29 foreigners and locals dead, officials said.
Dozens of people were rescued Friday, officials said, but dozens more were still scattered along popular high-altitude hiking trails.
The government has formed a high-level committee to coordinate rescue efforts following criticism that officials were not doing enough to help the hikers.
With weather conditions improving, helicopters expanded their search area, looking for people who took shelter in small lodges and huts dotted along the Annapurna trail, where deep snow has made movement on the ground extremely difficult, said Baburam Bhandari, the top government official of the Mustang district.
Helicopters rescued 40 trekkers Friday, and received information about another 50 people stranded but safe in another village, he said.
Authorities rescued 78 trekkers from Mustang and 157 from the neighboring Manang district on Wednesday and Thursday.
Information Minister Minendra Risal said the new committee, ordered by the prime minister, would directly monitor the rescue operation and help wherever needed. The committee would coordinate among the army, police, local administrations and the private operators now involved in the rescues.
The Nepal government was criticized for not helping enough after its initial assistance was limited to two army helicopters.
The Annapurna trekking route, 160 kilometers (100 miles) northwest of the capital, Katmandu, was filled with foreign hikers during the peak October trekking season, when the air is generally clear and cool. There were also many Nepalese on the trails because of local festivals.
Trekkers, unaware the weather would change dramatically, were largely caught off-guard.
Gombu Sherpa, who was guiding a group of Germans, said clear skies quickly gave way to a blizzard earlier this week.
"We could hardly see anyone, even within a couple of feet. The wind was blowing snow and visibility was almost zero," he said in a telephone interview while returning to Katmandu by bus. He said many people lost their way in the storm, but everyone in his group survived.
One of his assistants, who was behind the group when the storm hit, was missing for an entire night.
"We found him the next morning wondering in the snow. It is a miracle that he is alive," Sherpa said.
Samten Sherpa of the guiding company Snow Leopard Trek said dozens of foreign trekkers were stranded at Tilicho lake, a picturesque hiking destination at 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), a little off the Annapurna trail. No one has been able to contact them for two days, and he said only two small lodges were at the lake.
The blizzard, the tail end of a cyclone that hit the Indian coast a few days earlier, appeared to contribute to an avalanche that killed at least eight people in Phu village in neighboring Manang district. The dead included three Indian and four Canadian trekkers as well as three villagers, said government official Devendra Lamichane. Three Canadian trekkers who survived the avalanche were taken by helicopter to a shelter in a nearby town.
Five climbers were killed in a separate avalanche about 75 kilometers (45 miles) to the west, at the base camp for Mount Dhaulagiri. The climbers, two Slovaks and three Nepali guides, were preparing to scale the 8,167-meter (26,800-foot) peak, the world's seventh tallest, said Gyanedra Shrestha of Nepal's mountaineering department.