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How a gorgeous mountain pass in Nepal turned into a graveyard

A view of the mountains from the Thorung La Pass in the Annapurna Circuit. (Anup Kaphle/The Washington Post)

Thousands of foreigners come to Nepal in October with one goal — cross a mountain pass in a grueling three-week adventure in the Himalayas. This week, one of the most gorgeous passes in Nepal and other nearby trekking destinations turned into graveyards, claiming the lives of 32 trekkers from several countries.

For decades, October has been the best month to trek along the Annapurna Circuit, one of the most popular mountain trails in Nepal and one that requires crossing the Thorung La Pass at an altitude of 5,416 meters. That's 17,769 feet.

On Tuesday, a snowstorm hit several points along the circuit and in nearby areas, killing trekkers and porters, according to the Nepali Times. Dozens are still missing in what's become one of the deadliest Himalayan incidents in a country that is still recovering from the tragedy of an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas last spring on Mount Everest.

Although trekking the Annapurna Circuit to cross the Thorung La Pass may not be as grueling an adventure as climbing Everest, it is certainly not easy and without risks. Most people who attempt to cross the pass do not require any training, but the potential for acute altitude sickness remains, and it has killed both foreigners and locals.

However, the deaths of so many trekkers on this route was unprecedented, as thousands of foreigners usually attempt to trek the circuit in October, which is considered a favorable month for climbing and is not generally known for severe weather that would create dangerous conditions.

Weather and the trail along the Annapurna Circuit were clear, with very little snow until Saturday (I crossed the Thorung La Pass that morning with two friends, and maybe a hundred more crossed through that day). But a cyclone that made landfall in India on Sunday changed things overnight. By that time, hundreds of trekkers were already high up in the mountains, with very limited or almost no access to telephones or news to monitor weather reports.

As search-and-rescue missions continue Friday, here is what we know:

  • Number of confirmed killed: 32
  • Number of bodies recovered: 21
  • Number of trekkers rescued: 259
  • Number unaccounted for: 85
  • Countries whose citizens were killed during the trek: Canada, Nepal, India, Israel, Poland, Slovakia

Based on the latest report out of Kathmandu, 85 of the 345 trekkers who registered at a checkpoint Monday en route to the two closest camps before the pass — Yak Kharka and Thorung Phedi — had not made it to the other side. About 100 trekkers were said to have left the final base camp, also known as High Camp, which provides food and accommodation the night before trekkers begin a sharp, three-hour ascent of about 700 meters to cross the pass.

"We rescued 67 trekkers today, of which 45 were foreigners," said Devendra Lamichhane, chief district officer in Manang, on Thursday. Many trekkers who had already crossed the pass are still said to be missing as Nepal's army and private helicopters continue search-and-rescue missions. Some private helicopter companies are also leading such missions in other affected districts, where locals and trekkers have been reported missing in the blizzard.

According to Capt. Siddhartha Gurung from Simrik Air, private helicopters have flown to Nar Phu village in Manang, from where bodies were recovered, while search missions continue on the Thorung La Pass, Tilicho Lake and Mount Dhaulagiri.

"Almost no one is now left exposed outside, but there could be some stranded in tea houses and hotels," he said in an interview.

On Friday, the Nepalese army rescued 39 more people who were stranded near the pass after the blizzard. Three more bodies were also recovered.

Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times, writes that blizzards and avalanches in the high Himalayas are not uncommon and can prove disastrous during the post-monsoon season that brings cyclones and typhoons in the Bay of Bengal.

This is not the first time blizzards and avalanches have hit the high Himalaya in recent years. Post-monsoon typhoons from the Bay of Bengal have been particularly disastrous. In November 1995, 13 Japanese trekkers and 11 Nepali guides were killed as they slept during a blizzard on the Gokyo trail. In October 2005, 18 Nepali and French climbers were killed in an avalanche on Kang Guru in Manang.

The BBC's Navin Singh Khadka reported that Home Ministry officials said more people could have been saved had there been early systems to warn against snowstorms. But inadequate government resources and the remote nature of the mountain trails add to the difficulties of making such a system work in Nepal.

But on Friday, Nepal's prime minister, Sushil Koirala, pledged to set up a weather warning system so that better information on weather changes can be provided in tourist areas.

“I want to assure that the government will make efforts to establish early warning centers for weather in the important spots across the country, especially in the Himalayan areas and along rivers,” Koirala said in a statement.

The Annapurna Circuit, which has been open for trekking for nearly 40 years, is known as one of the best trekking routes in the world. Shaped like a horseshoe and stretching for approximately 128 miles, the circuit takes about three weeks to complete on foot. But an unpaved road built in the past decade has made the trekking route shorter, as many choose to rent a jeep for a day or two, which cuts the trekking shorter by three to four days.

The circuit passes Mount Annapurna, one of the toughest mountains to climb in the world, with a clear view of some of the highest mountains in the world.

The deaths of trekkers has raised questions about the safety and preparedness on high trails in the Himalayas, as the Nepalese government continues to open new mountain circuits to tourists as well as locals. Tourism continues to remain a dominant source for national income as thousands visit the country to take advantage of the mountain ranges.

Watch a video below in which one of the survivors who was rescued from the Thorung La Pass recounts her story.

This post has been updated.