* Accident hits guides making path for climbers
* Search called off for the night
* About 100 climbers cut off above avalanche
(Adds eyewitness, climber accounts, compensation)
By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU, April 18 An avalanche sweeping down
Mount Everest killed at least 12 Nepali guides on Friday in what
may be the deadliest single incident on the world's highest
The avalanche struck a perilous passage on the main route to
the summit as sherpas were preparing the way for climbers at the
start of the season. Nepal's tourism ministry listed the 12 dead
and four others missing, presumed buried in the snowslide.
Scottish film maker Ed Wardle put the death toll at 16 -
including five from his own party - with more badly injured.
"One of the most horrific sites I ever saw on Everest was
seeing the bodies being airlifted on long lines below the
helicopters," he told Britain's Channel 4 News.
It was Everest's first major avalanche of this year's
climbing season, when hundreds of foreign and Nepali climbers
will attempt to reach its 8,848-metre (29,029 ft) peak.
The Himalayan Guides, a Nepali hiking group, said six of its
sherpas had gone ahead of climbers they were accompanying in
order to fix ropes and crack snow and ice to carve out a route,
when they were caught in the avalanche and died.
"They were very strong and skilled climbers. It is a natural
disaster and no one could do anything about it," Ishwari Paudel,
the owner of the company, said in Kathmandu. The other victims
were working for other mountaineering parties.
More than 4,000 climbers have scaled Everest's summit since
it was first climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
Sherpa in 1953. The route they took along the South Col was the
one hit by the avalanche on Friday.
The search for the missing was called off for the night and
will resume on Saturday, Lakpa Sherpa of the Himalayan Rescue
Association told Reuters from Base Camp.
"The atmosphere at Base Camp is now of shock and of
grieving," film maker Wardle told Channel 4, adding that "many
of the expeditions here will pack up and go home."
"For this number of people to die at the very beginning of
the season is completely unacceptable. We came here looking for
adventure, to celebrate Everest, but for something like this to
happen makes the whole thing seem pointless."
CLIMBERS CUT OFF
The avalanche that hit at around 6:30 a.m. left dozens of
other climbers who had reached more advanced camps on the
mountain unable to return to Base Camp, mountaineer and blogger
Alan Arnette wrote from the scene.
"An estimated 100 sherpas or Westerners were estimated to be
above the impact area and are cut off from returning to Base
Camp until a new route can be put in," Arnette wrote, adding
that this could take days.
The avalanche struck at the Khumbu Icefall, a treacherous
passage between Base Camp and Camp 1 riddled with crevasses and
columns of ice known as seracs, Adrian Ballinger of
California-based Alpenglow Expeditions told Reuters.
"In many ways it's always the most dangerous part of the
mountain to climb, because the ice is constantly moving, there's
so many crevasses and seracs where you need to use ladders and
ropes to get through the very technical terrain," he said.
Above stands a feature called the West Shoulder that can
shed avalanches on a "pretty regular basis", said Ballinger.
"Whenever we're in it, and whenever anyone's in it, we're
very conscious of moving as quickly and as efficiently as
possible because there is this sort of uncontrolled risk."
A travel blog for 67-year-old Ed Marzec, a Californian
attempting to become the oldest American to climb Everest,
reported that he was among tourists preparing to set out when
the avalanche happened.
"We've just heard from Ed. He is safe and sound at Base
Camp," said the update.
"Asha, a sherpa on Ed's team, has been lost in the
avalanche," the update continued. "He was a member of the
pioneering Sherpa group who went up to first camp to set ropes.
He has a wife and two young children, ages one and three."
The tourism ministry said it would make payments of $400 to
the families of each of the victims to cover funeral costs.
Nearly 250 people have died on Everest, which is on the
border between Nepal and the Chinese region of Tibet.
A rising number of tourists has raised concerns about safety
and environmental damage, although Nepal still plans next year
to cut fees for those wishing to do the trek.
The government has issued permits to 334 foreign climbers
this season, up from 328 for the whole of last year. An equal
number of guides also climb to help the foreign mountaineers.
Overcrowding is a problem near the summit, where climbers
wait their turn to scale or descend a steep rock formation
called the Hillary Step, but Paudel of the Himalayan Guides said
of the accident: "It had nothing to do with the overcrowding."
Authorities are installing two ropes - one to go up and one
to come down - in an effort to ease congestion at the Hillary
Step, located in Everest's "death zone" because of its thin air.
The climbing season usually ends in late May when rainy
season winds and clouds push up from the south to cloak the
Himalayas, making high altitude climbing virtually impossible.
(Additional reporting by Emmett Berg in San Francisco; Writing
by Shyamantha Asokan; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Robin