Red arrow in photo points to Peak 6477. The big peak on the  right is Nanda Devi East, the lowest point of the ridge line descending from it is Longstaff Col, the peak after that and just before 6477 is an unnamed peak, the series of high points continuing leftward from 6477 is Nanda Khat. This picture was taken from Kuchela Dhura (Photo: courtesy Dhruv Joshi)

Following a group of mountaineers on an expedition to Nanda Devi East in Uttarakhand, reported missing at the end of May 2019, authorities had launched a search and rescue operation. The team was suspected to have been hit by an avalanche while attempting an unclimbed peak in same region. Just over a week into the timeline of events, five bodies were spotted in the snow today.  

In continuing search operations on Monday (June 3) for the eight climbers reported missing near Nanda Devi, aerial photographs clicked from low flying helicopter have revealed five bodies in the snow.

“ We now fear the team may have perished in the avalanche,’’ a senior official of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) told this blog Monday evening. At the time of writing, aside from aerial flights undertaken, there was nobody on the ground yet, at the site of mishap. Efforts are being made to retrieve the bodies, those familiar with the ongoing operations said. The missing climbers were part of an expedition led by British mountain guide, Martin Moran (for the earlier sequence of events please refer At A Glance / June 2019 on this blog).

Going by the chronology of events as reported in the media, it is now just over a week since the suspected time of mishap. The last contact / conversation with the team, appears to have been on May 25. They were expected to be back at camp on May 26; that didn’t happen. The authorities were alerted on May 31. By evening June 2, media reports quoted authorities as saying the prospects of finding and rescuing the missing climbers, seemed bleak.

Earlier in the day CNN had reported that a helicopter crew spotted a backpack in the snow on the unnamed peak, the climbers intended to attempt. Coupled with signs of avalanche noticed in previous sorties, this had strengthened the view that the climbers were indeed caught in one. The backpack was at an elevation of around 5500m (roughly 18,045 feet). The CNN report quoted District Magistrate Vijay Kumar Jogdande as saying that chances of the climbers surviving are almost zero now. The report also said that adverse weather was hampering search operations.

Monday’s more precise search was possible thanks to four members of the climbing team, who hadn’t ventured up with the others, being airlifted from their camp near the mountain, to Pithoragarh on June 2. The four included Mark Thomas, deputy leader of the expedition, who had earlier gone to check on his fellow team members upon being informed that they hadn’t returned to camp as scheduled. As per previously published news reports, Mark had come across an empty tent and signs of avalanche beyond it. The search operation was expected to leverage his insight on potential location of the team and calibrate the search accordingly. Monday’s helicopter sortie had Mark aboard. Also providing inputs was Dhruv Joshi, mountaineer from Almora who had been deputy leader of an expedition to climb Nanda Khat in 2010 and was familiar with the landscape.

It was understood Sunday evening (and separately confirmed today morning) that Peak 6477 (approximately 21,250 feet), the unclimbed, unnamed peak, which the missing climbers intended to attempt, is close to Nanda Khat (6611m / 21,690 feet). It is on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary, on the ridge line continuing from Nanda Khat and going towards Longstaff Col (19,390 feet). On the map, this high point carries no name and is identified merely by its elevation – 6477. This put the area of search closer to Nanda Khat and Traill’s Pass (5312m / 17,428 feet) than Nanda Devi East (also called Sunanda Devi), which is beyond Longstaff Col.

The Traill’s Pass area resembles a trijunction on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. It links the Pindari valley to Lawan Gad in the Johar region. Three mountain ridges converge in the vicinity of Traill’s Pass. There is that part of the sanctuary wall leading to Longstaff Col and onward to Nanda Devi East. There is the portion of the sanctuary wall leading to the peaks of Nanda Khat and Panwali Dwar (6663m / 21,860 feet). There is the ridge coming down from Changuch (6322m / 20,741 feet) with Nanda Kot (6861m / 22,510 feet) beyond; both peaks not directly situated on the sanctuary wall but on a long tongue of mountain extending out from it. Peak 6477, is not described as an easy climb. It has steep slopes on either side.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)       

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