KATHMANDU, Nepal—After a year of preparation, the elite South Korean climber who had already summitted 14 of the world’s highest peaks was attempting to scale a little-known mountain through a new route.
Kim Chang-ho, a bespectacled mountaineer, and his supporting team of four South Koreans and four Nepali guides had trekked through rugged mountains in mid-Western Nepal and arrived at the rarely climbed 7,193-meter-high (23,600-foot) Mount Gurja.
Having set up a base camp at 3,500 meters (11,483 feet) from sea level, Kim was excited about the attempt, which he was planning in alpine-style and forging a new route, his expedition organizer Wangchu Sherpa said.
But a few days later, a violent, unexpected snowstorm swept away their tents, with bodies and equipment strewn hundreds of meters away in gorges and streams. It left the entire team dead.
The Oct. 11 incident on Mount Gurja is one of the deadliest to have hit Nepal in three years. In 2015, an earthquake-triggered avalanche killed 18 mountaineers on Mount Everest.
The tragedy has highlighted the risks climbers must take to summit some of the world’s highest mountains, where weather is fickle and disaster can strike at any time.
It also has raised questions about early warning systems, communications, and search-and-rescue efforts in the Himalayas.
While the incident occurred on Oct. 11, a Thursday, the expedition organizer learned about it only on the following Saturday, having been informed by a trekking guide who was at a village nearest to the mountain.
Some experts have pointed out that the cyclone Titli in the Bay of Bengal could have caused the snowstorm, comparing it with cyclone Hudhud, which caused an avalanche in 2014 on Annapurna Circuit, a popular trekking trail, that left 40 trekkers dead.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, a former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association, said the incident could have been caused by a mix of avalanche and storm. “Winds blow in the jet-stream on Everest’s summit, but it doesn’t blow away climbers. I think an avalanche struck the mountainside whose forces could have swept away the tents,” he said.
The government should set up weather stations around major Himalayan peaks, with a search and rescue team on standby near the expedition to prevent mountain disasters like this in future, Ang Tshering Sherpa said.
“We already have teams that can carry out long-line rescue operations. But early warning system and regular updates on the expedition especially in less-climbed mountains is a must,” he said.
Ang Tshering Sherpa also said members of the 2018 Koreanway Gurja Himal Expedition probably made a mistake by setting up their base camp at 3,500 meters (11,483 feet) when camps are normally established at 4,000 meters (13,123 feet).
“They seem to have chosen an edge of a barren cliff for their camp. They should have selected a more appropriate site,” he said.
But Wangchu Sherpa, the expedition organizer, said Kim, the expedition leader, had visited the site a year ago, and it was his decision to set it up there.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, the mountaineering expert, compared last week’s tragedy with the 2005 avalanche at the base of 6,800-meter (22,309 feet) Kang Guru in the Everest region, which left 18 climbers, including seven French and 11 Nepalese, dead.
“Then as now, the decision to pitch tent in a precarious area and lack of early warning system likely claimed the lives of the climbers,” he said.
As the five coffins of the South Koreans were loaded into a pickup bound for the Kathmandu airport on Oct. 16, Wangchu Sherpa, who founded the Trekking Camp Nepal Company in 2001, said risks are inherent to mountaineering.
“Their bodies were strewn all over the hills. Some were in their trousers and others in their sleeping bags. But their bodies were battered and bruised,” he said.
“We still don’t know what exactly caused the accident. A glacier could have burst; we don’t know. Up in the mountain, disaster can happen, and one should be prepared for that.”