At least five mountaineers who went missing in the Himalayas after attempting an Indian peak described as harder to climb than Everest have died in an avalanche, officials have confirmed.
A group of eight climbers, which included Sydney mountaineer Ruth McCance, disappeared on an expedition to India’s second-highest peak, Nanda Devi.
Indian air force pilots searching for the missing climbers discovered five bodies at the site where footprints were seen leading into the path of an avalanche on Sunday.
Photographs taken during an aerial search on Monday show four British climbers, two from the US and one each from Australia and India on the ground of the unnamed, previously unclimbed peak, along with avalanche debris.
Officials are consulting with the Indian army on how to retrieve the bodies.
Amit Chowdhary, spokesman for the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, said he was “pretty much certain” that the five climbers were struck down by an avalanche.
“There is no movement, therefore, it’s probably practical to presume that the possibilities of anyone being alive in this kind of massive avalanche is very, very weak.
“We were hopeful of being able to find some kind of life, but now things don’t look good at all,” he added.
Dr Vijay Kumar Jogdande, a civil administrator in the northern state of Uttarakhand, said the bodies were identified using high-resolution photographs taken from a military helicopter on Monday.
The search operation was suspended for the day because of heavy snowfall and high winds and will resume on Tuesday to try to find the other three mountaineers.
Government officials are now working with the Indian army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police on how to retrieve the bodies from a summit on Nanda Devi East.
It was not immediately clear why the expedition led by Scottish adventure company Moran Mountain chose to summit the unclimbed peak.
India does not allow climbers on the Nanda Devi peak; they are allowed only onto its slightly lower twin Nanda Devi East, which together stand in the centre of a ring of peaks.
Still, climbers describe it as diabolically difficult. It’s avalanche-prone and has frightening terrain with razor-thin edges and 914-metre (3,000-foot) plunges.
“In comparison with Nanda Devi East, Everest is a picnic,” Kohli said.
“Those who climb Everest wouldn’t even be able to place a foot on it. Only the most technically competent can attempt it.”
Ms McCance’s husband, Trent Goldsack, earlier said “a lot of people are saying a lot of prayers for her at the moment”.
“There’s always hope,” Mr Goldsack told AAP on Monday afternoon.
Ms McCance didn’t travel to Nanda Devi to seek thrills, but rather for spiritual nourishment, Mr Goldsack said before it was reported the bodies had been spotted.
“It was not about ticking a box, it was not about wearing a T-shirt that said ‘I’ve climbed a virgin peak’ or ‘I’ve climbed this mountain or I’ve climbed that’,” he said.
“It was about the seeking of the wild places and enjoying and taking nourishment from that – that was the reason for her.”
British climber Martin Moran, who was leading the group, on May 25 sent a message saying the advance team of eight were camped and preparing to ascend the summit known only as Peak 6447m, the British Association of Mountain Guides (BMG) said in a statement on Monday.
When British deputy leader Mark Thomas, who had remained lower down the mountain with three others, didn’t hear again from the advance team, he went to search for them, BMG understands.
He found a very large avalanche had hit the route Mr Moran’s team was expected to have taken.
The Moran family said they’re deeply saddened by the “tragic events” and described it as a “harrowing time” for all involved.
“As a family, we share the same emotions that all next of kin are experiencing in not knowing the whereabouts or wellbeing of those closest to us,” the statement, released online on Monday, said.
The focus will now shift to a ground search, which will come from a different path than the climbers took as the area is dangerous.