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Search suspended in Nepal avalanche; three missing feared dead

From Manesh Shrestha, for CNN
September 24, 2012 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Rescue coordinators believe three missing climbers are dead, suspend operations
  • NEW: "The mission is over for now," rescue coordinator says
  • Eight people are confirmed dead in the Sunday avalanche on Manaslu
  • A French survivor says he found himself "neck deep in snow"

Kathmandu, Nepal (CNN) -- Searchers on Monday suspended efforts to find three mountaineers still missing in Nepal after an avalanche swept down Manaslu mountain, sending climbers -- some still in their tents -- tumbling hundreds of feet down the world's eighth-highest peak.

"The mission is over for now," rescue coordinator Mingma Sherpa said Monday.

Rescuers think the climbers might be dead. If true, the death toll from the Sunday incident would be 11. For now, officials have confirmed eight deaths: four French citizens, one German, one Italian, one Nepali and one Spanish.

Twelve climbers were injured, said Binod Singh, a Nepali police spokesman.

3 still missing after deadly avalanche
'Virtually zero' chance for missing

The avalanche, which struck around 5 a.m. Sunday, was most likely caused by a piece of ice the size of six or seven football fields that fell from a glacier above the camp, said Christian Trommsdorff, vice president of the National Syndicate of High Mountain Guides in Chamonix, France.

One of the survivors, Frenchman Arnaud Manel, said Monday that he was in a tent with two other people when large amounts of snow began to fall on it. He said he managed to break the icy tent open and get out, and then rolled for what he thought was about 200 meters (655 feet) in the snow.

"When I stopped rolling, I was neck deep in snow," said Manel, a 42-year-old surgeon. "I was only wearing a T-shirt. I couldn't breathe."

He said enough of the snow around him melted to allow him to clamber out. He said that he managed to save one friend, but that another, buried deeper in the snow, died.

Another survivor, American Glen Plake, was inside his tent reading Bible verses when the avalanche swept 300 meters (985 feet) down the mountain, according to Trey Cook, the editor in chief of EpicTV.com. He spoke with Cook by satellite phone.

EpicTV.com makes films about skiing, climbing and other adventure sports.

Plake said that when he stopped moving, he was still in his sleeping bag, in his tent and was still wearing the headlamp he'd been using to read.

Plake lost a few front teeth and suffered an eye injury, Cook said.

Plake had planned to descend from the summit on skis without the aid of oxygen, according to Cook.

The avalanche struck two camping areas for mountaineers, one at 6,600 meters (21,650 feet), and another about 500 meters (1,640 feet) below, according to Yograj Kadel of Simrik Air, which participated in the rescue efforts.

The mountain is 8,163 meters (26,780 feet) high.

Cook said Plake told him that the avalanche destroyed all 25 tents at one of the camping zones and bashed and moved 12 tents in the other.

Two French expeditions were on the mountain when the avalanche struck, a French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said. Two French climbers were among the missing, she said.

Among those confirmed dead was Marti Gasull of Spain, described by the nonprofit Pro-Language Platform in Barcelona as one of the leading Catalan language activists in the country.

"He had a passion for the mountains. He was committed to the Catalan culture and language and admired for his human side and his commitment to our country," the group said in a posting on its website.

Kenton Cool, a mountain climber from England who reached the summit of Manaslu in 2010, told CNN that the weather during the post-monsoon season can be unsettled. His friends on the mountain told him that in the past 10 days or so, there had been "quite high levels of snow on the mountain," he said.

Teams normally wait for new snow to settle before leaving camp.

Cool, who said Manaslu had a "fearsome reputation," predicted that searchers will have a hard time finding some of the people still on the mountain. The area where the avalanche happened is the site of large crevasses.

"It will be hard to know exactly where everyone was," he said. "It will be hard to find the bodies, let alone retrieve them."

According to Nepal tourism officials, 231 foreign mountaineers from 25 teams were attempting to climb the mountain in the autumn season that ends in November.

Avalanche disaster revives fears about Nepal's crowded mountains

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