Nanda Devi is the second-highest peak in India at 25,643 feet.
Nanda Devi is the second-highest peak in India at 25,643 feet. (Photo: DeAgostini/Getty)

Climbers Presumed Dead on Flanks of Nanda Devi East

A helicopter search spotted five bodies in avalanche debris

Nanda Devi is the second-highest peak in India at 25,643 feet.

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A week and a half after they were last heard from, eight mountaineers attempting the unclimbed Peak 6477 on the flanks of 24,389-foot Nanda Devi East in the Indian Himalaya are now presumed dead. On June 3 a helicopter search conducted by the Indian military reported five bodies in avalanche debris close to the expedition’s last known camp at around 17,700 feet. The other three missing climbers are also assumed to have been killed in the slide.

The team, led by Martin Moran via his Scotland-based expedition company Moran Mountain, consisted of two American climbers (Ronald Beimel, Anthony Sudekum), one Indian (Chetan Pandey), three Brits (John McLaren, Richard Payne, Rupert Whewell), and an Australian (Ruth McCance).

According to a statement released by the British Association of Mountain Guides the original team of 12 split into two separate groups upon arriving at base camp on May 18. Moran led one group on an acclimatization climb up Peak 6477 (so called for its height in meters). The other group, let by British guide Mark Thomas, instead went to prep the route to Nanda Devi East. Moran was last heard from on May 25, when he sent a message saying that they’d attempt the summit the following morning. When Moran’s team didn’t return as scheduled, Thomas went to search for them. He found evidence of a large slide on Moran’s intended route. Thomas’ team was ultimately rescued by helicopter due to the high avalanche danger.

Moran and Thomas, both experienced mountaineers who frequently explored the Himalaya, had previously attempted a new route on the northeast ridge of Nanda Devi East in September 2015. In his report for the American Alpine Journal, Moran noted that they reached a new high point of 22,522 feet, but were forced to turn around due to poor snow conditions.

Amit Chowdhury, an official at the Indian Mountaineering Federation who helped coordinate the search efforts, told the New York Times that photographs from the rescue helicopter showed at least five bodies, and that “it now appears that all the climbers were caught in an avalanche quite close to the spot where they had camped for the night.” Chowdhury also said that plans are being made to retrieve the bodies. Another official told The Times that four of the climbers were tied into a rope together and partially covered in snow.

Nanda Devi is the second-highest peak in India at 25,643 feet, but it was briefly regarded as the highest mountain in the world around 1820. The main peak, first climbed in 1936 by a combined American/United Kingdom expedition, has been closed to climbing since the 1980s when the Indian government declared it off-limits as a biosphere reserve. Nanda Devi East, a lower peak connected to the main peak by a ridge, remained open to climbing and has drawn mountaineers since.

The mountain was also the site of a joint mission between the C.I.A. and Indian intelligence service in the 1960s to have mountaineers plant a sensor on Nanda Devi’s summit in order to intercept information about nuclear tests conducted by the Chinese. The expedition to place the device was thwarted by heavy snowfall so the team cached the equipment––including some 10 pounds of plutonium to power a generator––and planned to return the next spring to finish the task. Returning teams could not locate the cache; the location they’d left the gear had been swept away by avalanches.

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