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Rescue team recovers bodies of mountaineers

5 Korean, 4 Nepali climbers were killed in Himalayas Friday
Oct 15,2018
The bodies of five Korean climbers and four Nepali guides who were killed by a vicious snowstorm in the Himalayas on Friday were recovered on Sunday, confirmed Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The nine mountaineers, led by veteran climber Kim Chang-ho, were camped out on the slopes of Mount Gurja in western Nepal at an altitude of approximately 3,500 meters (11,483 feet) when a massive storm swept them off a steep cliff.

A rescue helicopter found their bodies scattered across the mountain on Saturday, but poor visibility and unfavorable weather conditions prevented it from landing and recovering the bodies that day, Nepali police confirmed.

According to the Korean Embassy in Nepal, a four-person recovery team reached the site of the accident via helicopter on Sunday morning and retrieved all nine bodies through multiple flights.

Due to the precipitous geography of the accident site, the recovery team members rappelled down from the chopper to recover the bodies, which were then transported to a nearby village, an embassy official said.

The climbers were on a 45-day expedition called the “Korean Way Project” to scale the 7,193 meter tall Mount Gurja in western Nepal from Sept. 28 to Nov. 11. The team was awaiting better weather conditions at the base camp before beginning their ascent when the storm hit.

Their plan was to reach the mountain’s peak via an uncharted route, said a spokesman from the Korean Alpine Federation. The name planned for the pioneered route was “One Korea ? Unification of North and South Korea,” in commemoration of recent warming relations on the peninsula.

The Nepali helicopter pilot who first spotted the bodies on Saturday said the storm had leveled the camp, flattening the tents and leaving the bodies dispersed across a wide area - some in a riverbed 500 meters away.

Expedition leader Kim, 49, was a veteran climber renowned internationally as the fastest person to scale the world’s 14 highest mountains without using extra oxygen - including Nanga Parbat (8,156 meters) in 2005 and Everest (8,848 meters) in 2013.

The other climbers include Yu Young-jik, 51, the expedition’s equipment specialist; Lee Jae-hun, 24, who was in charge of food and medicine; and Rim Il-jin, 49, a documentary filmmaker well known for his pieces on mountain climbing.

A fifth Korean, identified as Jeong Joon-mo, a board member of the Corean Alpine Club, was not part of the expedition but was identified among the dead by local newspapers on Saturday. Later reports confirmed that he was on a separate trek in the Himalayas and was visiting the base camp on Friday to cheer on the climbers.

Officials identified the four Nepali guides who also lost their lives as Chhiring Bhote, Lakpa Sangbu Bhote, Netra Bahadur Chantel and Phurbu Bhote.

The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday said it deployed two officials to Nepal to oversee the recovery efforts and coordinate with local authorities. As soon as they are recovered, the bodies will be transferred to Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, where preliminary funeral arrangements will be made, a spokesman said.

The Union of Asian Alpine Associations, an umbrella organization consisting of 21 Asian climbers’ associations including the Korean Alpine Federation, convened an emergency meeting in Seoul on Sunday to organize its response to the incident. The group’s chairman Lee In-jung told the press that they were having difficulty acquiring airline tickets to Nepal for the family members of the dead climbers, but that he would be the first to travel to the country this Tuesday.

This is the deadliest incident to hit Nepal’s mountaineering industry since 18 people were killed in 2015 by an avalanche at a base camp on Mount Everest.

Though thousands visit the country each year to scale the Himalayas, Mount Gurja is rarely attempted, with only 30 climbers ever having successfully reached its summit compared to more than 8,000 for Everest.

Lying around 216 kilometers (134 miles) northwest of Kathmandu, Gurja forms a part of the Dhaulagiri mountain range, whose highest peak stands at an elevation of 8,167 as the seventh highest mountain in the world. Climbers familiar with the mountain say the terrain is harsh and dangerous but offers a spectacular view from its slopes.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]