KATHMANDU, NEPAL - A rescue team Sunday began retrieving the bodies of nine climbers killed in a violent storm on Nepal's Mount Gurja, a freak accident that has left the mountaineering community reeling.
A helicopter dropped four mountain guides at the camp where the South Korean climbing expedition was staying when powerful winds and snow swept through, killing the entire team and scattering their bodies as far as 500 meters (yards) away.
"All nine bodies have been found and the team are in the process of bringing them down," said Siddartha Gurung, a chopper pilot who is coordinating the retrieval mission.
A second helicopter along with a team of rescue specialists and villagers were also involved in the mission, which has been hampered by strong winds as well as the camp's remoteness in the Dhaulagiri mountain range of Nepal's Annapurna region.
The bodies of the climbers, five South Koreans and four Nepalis, will be flown to Pokhara, a tourist hub that serves as a gateway to the Annapurna region, and then to Kathmandu, said Yogesh Sapkota of Simrik Air, a helicopter company involved in the effort.
'Like a bomb went off'
The expedition's camp was destroyed by the powerful storm, which hit the area late Thursday or Friday, flattening all the tents and leaving a tangled mess of tarpaulin and broken polls.
"Base camp looks like a bomb went off," said Dan Richards of Global Rescue, a U.S.-based emergency assistance group that will be helping with the retrieval effort.
The expedition was led by experienced South Korean climber Kim Chang-ho, who has climbed the world's 14 highest mountains without using supplemental oxygen.
Mountaineering experts are questioning how the experienced team was so badly hit at their base camp at 3,500 meters.
"At this point we don't understand how this happened. You don't usually get those sorts of extreme winds at that altitude and base camps are normally chosen because they are safe places," Richards said.
The team had been on 7,193-meter (23,599-foot) Mount Gurja since early October, hoping to scale the rarely climbed mountain via a new route.