Three Israelis, including Lt. Tamar Ariel, the first female religious navigator in the IAF, were among at least 25 people killed in a massive avalanche Wednesday in Nepal.
In addition to Ariel, 24, from Kibbutz Masuot Yitzhak near Ashkelon, the other Israeli fatalities are Agam Luria, 23, from Kibbutz Yifat, and Nadav Shoham, 30, from Hoshaya, both in the Galilee.
Another Israeli is still missing, and 13 have been hospitalized with minor injuries, such as frostbite. Another 13 Israelis are awaiting evacuation but are not in danger.
Ariel completed the air force course in 2012 and was in Nepal on vacation from active service.
She began her career as a fighter pilot but was injured after ejecting from an aircraft that had gone out of control. She could not serve for a few months due to a back injury, following which the army determined she was fit to resume her service.
At least 85 climbers are still unaccounted for after a blizzard dumped snow and triggered avalanches along a mountain trekking route popular with backpackers, the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal said on Thursday.
Army and civilian rescue workers say the number of missing is based on a register of climbers in the affected area.
Not all of these people were necessarily trapped by the weather and some could have left the area, the rescue workers said.
Gopal Babu Shrestha, treasurer of the association, said 23 people had been rescued, adding that about 15, including 13 Israelis, were recovering in a hospital in Kathmandu.
“This is one of the worst mountaineering accidents that I can remember,” he said.
Shrestha took part in helicopter rescue operations on Wednesday and said he had seen what appeared to be people trapped along the trail, but that rescuers had as yet been unable to reach them.
On Thursday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry sent a number of diplomats from its embassy in New Delhi to Nepal to help the small embassy team in Kathmandu deal with the crisis.
Jonathan Lebel, Israel’s deputy ambassador in Nepal, told Ma’ariv Hashavua, a sister publication of The Jerusalem Post, that the Israelis who had been rescued were dazed.
“Some of them are in trauma,” he said. “Some have no money as they either lost or were forced to abandon their equipment. Money, equipment, and food was given to them.”
Lebel said at least some of the hikers lacked the equipment or clothes to deal with such extreme weather.
He added that the embassy arranged for the injured Israelis to be in the same Kathmandu hospital.
One of the rescued Israelis told Maariv Hashavua that she had set out with a group the night after Yom Kippur.
“When we arrived at the area where we were to start coming down from the mountain, the storm began, something they told us might happen,” she said.
She added that some members of her group did not feel well due to altitude sickness and wanted to remain in place, but some of the Nepali porters pushed them to descend quickly before the storm arrived in the morning.
“Some of the porters agreed to stay a little longer,” she said.
“Those who left first were the ones saved. We left first with the porters who urged us to leave. We started to walk and people just started to suddenly disappear because of the snow. We couldn’t see anything.
The people around you are disappearing. You start to panic. It is freezing cold and all of a sudden you see bodies.”
Rescue officials said the death toll could rise, as dozens of other foreigners and locals who had been trekking were still out of contact either because they were caught in the blizzard or due to poor communication links.
Baburam Bhandari, governor of Mustang District, said the bodies of a Nepali citizen, two Polish nationals and an Israeli were found along a popular trekking route near Annapurna, the world’s 10th highest mountain. Bhandari said they had perished in the blizzard.
Slovak, Canadian, and Indian nationals were also believed to be among the fatalities.
“We have rescued five German, five Polish, and four Israeli trekkers who were trapped in the snowfall early on Wednesday,” Bhandari told Reuters by phone without giving details. One German tourist fractured his leg, he said.
Mustang, about 150 km. northwest of Kathmandu, borders Tibet and is popular among foreign hikers. In neighboring Manang District, three yak herders were killed after being swept away by an avalanche.
Nepal has been lashed by heavy precipitation for the past two days due to the impact of Cyclone Hudhud, which has battered neighboring India. The harsh weather triggered blizzards at high altitudes.
October is Nepal’s peak trekking season, before the onset of winter, when clear skies offer safe access to the mountains and spectacular views, attracting backpackers as well as experienced climbers. It is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountain peaks, including Mount Everest.
More than 12 percent of nearly 800,000 tourists who visited Nepal in 2013 took part in hiking or mountain climbing, a key source of revenue for cash-strapped nation.
Rescue efforts have focused on the highest point of a trail that loops around Annapurna.
The 240-km. circuit takes almost three weeks to complete and is perhaps the most popular walking route in the Himalayas. It is dubbed the “apple pie” circuit because teahouses line the route, offering cold beer and home baking.
The Nepali government, which collects up to $20 per trekker for a permit, came under fire from hiking officials for doing little to improve safety conditions.
“The government is happy collecting money from trekkers but doing nothing for them. It must now spend the cash for making arrangements for weather forecasts and a quick response for rescue when hikers are in distress,” said Keshav Panday, another official of the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal.
Noam Amir and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.