Footsteps heading into the path of an avalanche have been found in the search for a Sydney mountaineer, who is feared dead along with seven companions in the Himalayas.
Sydney climber Ruth McCance and seven international trekkers were expected to return a week ago after attempting a previously unscaled peak of India’s Nandi Devi sanctuary.
Ms McCance is missing along with British team leader Martin Moran, three other men from the United Kingdom, two people from the United States and an Indian liaison officer and were part of a 12-member expedition.
Indian Air Force helicopters made two reconnaissance missions on Sunday morning.
The first was to take photographs of the area for mountaineers from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation to examine and give advice as to where the group could be.
IMF spokesman Amit Chowdhury had not spotted any people, gear or clothing.
“But they’ve been able to see footsteps going to a certain point and then beyond that is the track of the avalanche. So that’s the news, it’s not looking too good,” he said.
Mr Chowdhury said IMF would remain hopeful until there is absolutely clear evidence.
“Since we have been unable to see anything beyond the footsteps ending where the avalanche came down it’s not possible to make a definite, very certain conclusion that they were indeed in the avalanche, or they were not,” he said.
It’s hoped another aerial reconnaissance will be able to be undertaken on Monday, depending on the weather.
Ms McCance’s husband, Trent Goldsack, said the last time he heard from her was a text message a week ago, which said, “OK at base camp.”
“They basically went dark after they left Delhi, but that was expected. She’s done this stuff before,” Mr Goldsack told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Ever since he had known her, this was something Ms McCance wanted to do, he said.
It comes after 11 people died this year trying to scale the increasingly congested Mt Everest, with claims the long queues to reach the summit were contributing to the danger.
Ms McCance and her team had an “ambition of summiting a virgin peak” when they trekked into the heart of the Nanda Devi sanctuary, adventure company Moran Mountain said in a Facebook post on May 12.
The company referred to the summit as an “unclimbed peak” standing at 6477m, which is India’s second-highest mountain.
The complete trip was expected to take about 24 days.
The company on May 22 wrote the team had reached its second base camp at almost 5000 metres above sea level and “after a recce of the route, they will be making a summit attempt on an unclimbed peak at 6477m”.
The expedition’s British deputy leader, Mark Thomas, remained at the second base camp with three others, according to Mr Chowdhury, but was in radio contact with the group of eight that pushed higher.
But when Mr Thomas didn’t hear anything after May 26 he went up to look for them. He reportedly found a single unoccupied tent.
“Beyond that area, there was evidence of a large avalanche,” Mr Chowdhury said.
“For eight people, there should definitely have been more tents. I would expect at least three more tents to have been there.”
Satellite phones aren’t allowed in the border region without special permission due to security concerns, so at least one team member had to trek down to alert authorities, who were finally notified on Friday.
A rescue team of up to 20 people – including members of the Indian-Tibetan border police and the state disaster management force – left Munsiyari on Saturday morning local time, Mr Chowdhury said.
But it will take them at least three days on foot to reach the avalanche site, which is thought to be at 5200 metres.
Poor weather has so far made it impossible to send a helicopter closer to the site, but it’s hoped two rescue mountaineers may be flown in on Sunday if conditions improve, Mr Chowdhury added.
District official Vijay Kumar Jogdande sounded more hopeful regarding the climbers’ fate when he told German newswire dpa: “We think they might be stuck on the way somewhere”.
Moran Mountain on Sunday posted an update to its Facebook page as the search continued.
“On behalf of Moran Mountain, we are working with the authorities and the British Association of Mountain Guides to gather information regarding the Nanda Devi East expedition team.
“Out of respect for those involved and their families, we will be making no further comments at this time.”
Australia’s foreign affairs department says it’s providing consular assistance to the family of an Australian who “may be among a group of trekkers missing in the Nanda Devi area of India”.