The bodies of nine climbers killed on Nepal's Mount Gurja were retrieved from the mountainside as rescuers tried to piece together what led to the freak accident. Image Credit: AFP

Kathmandu: A rescue team on Sunday began retrieving the bodies of nine climbers killed in a violent storm on Nepal’s Mount Gurja, a freak accident that has left the mountaineering community reeling.

A helicopter dropped four mountain guides at the camp where the South Korean climbing expedition was staying when powerful winds and snow swept through, killing the entire team and scattering their bodies as far as 500 metres away.

“All nine bodies have been found and the team are in the process of bringing them down,” said Siddartha Gurung, a chopper pilot who is coordinating the retrieval mission.

A second helicopter along with a team of rescue specialists and villagers were also involved in the mission, which has been hampered by strong winds as well as the camp’s remoteness in the Dhaulagiri mountain range of Nepal’s Annapurna region.

Bereaved friends and relatives comfort each other as the bodies of Korean and Nepali climbers recovered from Mount Gurja are airlifted to Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu. AFP

The bodies of the climbers — five South Koreans and four Nepalis — will be flown to Pokhara, a tourist hub that serves as a gateway to the Annapurna region, and then to Kathmandu, said Yogesh Sapkota of Simrik Air, a helicopter company involved in the effort.

The expedition’s camp was destroyed by the powerful storm, which hit the area late Thursday or Friday, flattening all the tents and leaving a tangled mess of tarpaulin and broken polls.

“Base camp looks like a bomb went off,” said Dan Richards of Global Rescue, a US-based emergency assistance group that will be helping with the retrieval effort.

Wangchu Sherpa of Trekking Camp Nepal, who organised the expedition, said they sent a helicopter to investigate on Saturday morning after the team did not get in contact for more than 24 hours.

The expedition was led by experienced South Korean climber Kim Chang-ho, who has climbed the world’s 14 highest mountains without using supplemental oxygen.

Mountaineering experts are questioning how the experienced team was so badly hit while still at base camp at around 3,500 metres.

“At this point we don’t understand how this happened. You don’t usually get those sorts of extreme winds at that altitude and base camps are normally chosen because they are safe places,” said Richards.

The team had been on 7,193-metre Mount Gurja since early October, hoping to scale the rarely climbed mountain via a new route.

A sixth South Korean climber was staying at a village lower in the valley when the storm hit, after being forced to a lower altitude by health problems.

Only 30 people have ever reached the summit of Mount Gurja with the last successful ascent recorded in 1996, according to the Himalayan Database.

The freak storm is the deadliest incident to hit Nepal’s mountaineering industry since 18 people were killed at Mount Everest’s base camp in 2015 in an avalanche triggered by a powerful earthquake.

The previous year, 16 Sherpas were killed on Everest when an avalanche swept through the Khumbu Icefall during the busy spring climbing season.

Then in October that year, a blizzard killed more than 40 tourists and their guides in the Annapurna region, a disaster that was largely blamed on poor weather forecasting and lacklustre safety standards in Nepal’s poorly regulated trekking industry.