KATHMANDU (Reuters) - At least 20 people, including eight foreign hikers and a group of yak herders, were killed in Nepal by unseasonal blizzards and avalanches triggered by the tail of cyclone Hudhud, officials said on Wednesday.
Rescue officials said the death toll could rise as dozens of other foreigners and locals who had been trekking were out of contact due to poor communication links and could have been caught in blizzards.
Two climbers from Slovakia and three Nepalese guides were also reported missing.
The hikers’ deaths come during the peak trekking season in Nepal, home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountain peaks, including Mount Everest.
For the past two days, Nepal has been lashed by heavy rains brought on by the cyclone that has battered neighboring India. The weather triggered blizzards at high altitudes.
The bodies of a Nepali citizen, two Polish nationals and an Israeli hiker were found along a popular trekking route in the Thorang-La area near Annapurna, the world’s 10th highest mountain, said Baburam Bhandari, governor of the district of Mustang, where the incident took place.
Bhandari said the group perished in a blizzard.
“We have rescued five German, five Polish and four Israeli trekkers who were trapped in the snowfall early on Wednesday,” Bhandari told Reuters by telephone, without giving details. One German tourist fractured his leg, he said.
Police said eight Nepalis had died in Mustang, an apple growing area bordering Tibet, which is about 150 km (93 miles) northwest of the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, and is popular among foreign hikers.
Separately, in the neighboring district of Manang, four Canadian hikers and an Indian national were killed in an avalanche, the district’s most senior bureaucrat, Devendra Lamichhane, told Reuters.
“The pilot of a rescue helicopter spotted the bodies in snow,” Lamichhane said. “But it is not possible to retrieve their bodies because it is snowing heavily in the area now.”
Three yak herders were killed after being swept away by a separate avalanche at Nar village in Manang, officials said.
Two climbers from Slovakia and three Nepalese guides were also missing as night fell after an avalanche near the base camp of Dhaulagiri late on Tuesday, tourism department officials said. Dhaulagiri is the world’s eighth-highest peak, at 8,167 meters (26,795 feet).
Army helicopters took 14 injured survivors to local hospitals. Some of the survivors were flown to Kathmandu.
“We have called off the rescue operation today due to heavy snowfall and darkness,” army official Niranjan Shrestha said. “Rescue and search will continue early on Thursday.”
Local television showed soldiers carrying stretchers bearing the bodies of dead hikers to and from rescue helicopters in Mustang.
Nepal’s tourism industry is still recovering from the aftershocks of an ice avalanche that struck the lower reaches of Mount Everest in April, killing 16 sherpa guides in the worst disaster in the history of the world’s highest peak.
More than a tenth of the nearly 800,000 tourists who visited Nepal in 2013 went hiking or mountain climbing, providing a key revenue stream for the aid-dependent nation, which relies on income from tourism for 4 percent of its gross domestic product.
The Annapurna Circuit, a trekking trail that goes around Mount Annapurna and was battered by the blizzards, is one of the most popular hiking routes in Nepal although the avalanche on Everest in April has deterred many climbers.
Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel/Clarence Fernandez/Susan Fenton