Indian air force pilots have spotted five bodies in the Himalayas while searching for eight mountain climbers who have been missing for a week.
District magistrate Vijay Kumar Jogdande said the bodies were found on Monday before a rescue operation in the northern state of Uttarakhand was suspended because of heavy snowfall and high winds.
Amit Chowdhary, spokesman for the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, said: “Now it’s pretty much certain that the climbers were struck down by this avalanche.”
He added: “There is no movement, therefore, it’s probably practical to presume that the possibilities of anyone being alive in this kind of massive avalanche is very, very weak. We were hopeful of being able to find some kind of life but now things don’t look good at all.”
An operation to find the other three mountaineers will resume on Tuesday. Officials are consulting the Indian army on how to retrieve the bodies.
The discovery comes after officials said hopes of finding the climbers alive were slim.
The team were attempting an ascent of an unnamed 6,477-metre (21,250ft) peak on Nanda Devi, India’s second highest mountain, via a previously unused route. On Sunday, a search by two Indian air force helicopters revealed signs of an avalanche on the peak the group were thought to be on, according to two state officials. The rescue operation was suspended because of poor weather.
The climbers include four people from Britain, two from the US, one from Australia and one from India.
They were attempting to scale a previously unclimbed and unnamed peak, Facebook posts from their expedition company suggested. Concern was raised a few days after they failed to return to camp.
Searches revealed signs of an avalanche on the peak the group were thought to be on, according to two state officials. Jogdande said it was likely the missing team had been caught up in a “huge avalanche”.
He added: “The chances of survival are almost zero now.”
The group had reached their second base camp at 4,870 metres (15,977ft) by 22 May. On 25 May, the expedition’s deputy leader, Mark Thomas, returned to camp with three others. Their fellow climbers were expected to make a summit attempt on an unclimbed peak at 6,477 metres.
When the others did not return as planned, a team member was sent down and informed officials late on Friday. The four were picked up by helicopter on Saturday and were named by India TV as Thomas, Ian Wade, Kate Armstrong and Zachary Quain.
The eight people who remain missing were named by local authorities as Martin Moran, the expedition leader, John McLaren, Rupert Whewell and Richard Payne, all from the UK, Anthony Sudekum and Ronald Beimel from the US, Ruth McCance from Australia, and Chetan Pandey, a guide from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.
Chowdhary said the missing climbers’ location was known up to 26 May. He said they had been in radio contact with the other four expedition team members.
Chowdhary said when the Thomas-led team was no longer receiving radio updates from the other expedition team, Thomas went to look for the missing climbers the next day.
“There was a trail of the climbers there and the trail ended in an avalanche. There was evidence of a very large avalanche,” Chowdhary cited Thomas as having said.
Chowdhary said he spoke with Thomas on Sunday after he and his three associates were brought down from the base camp.
He said that as Thomas accompanied rescuers in the chopper, they were able to spot the trail, but not the missing climbers. “They could see from the helicopter footmarks of the team, but nothing else,” he said.
McCance, from Sydney, is an experienced climber. She explained in a blogpost that she stopped climbing at the age of 30 before resuming at the age of 47. She said: “As much as I loved it and saw others climbing safely and well, I became overwhelmed by the risks involved, so I stopped.”
She added: “I stopped climbing when I was 30 because I had run out of mental and emotional reserves. I didn’t know at the time but I was struggling with a perfect storm of inherited beliefs of ‘don’t push your luck’ and ‘don’t trust yourself’.
“Each time I led a climb successfully, rather than confirming my competence it became another lucky escape from what I believed was an inevitable accident.”
McCance’s husband, Trent Goldsack, said “a lot of people are saying a lot of prayers for her at the moment”.
He added: “There’s always hope.”
Moran, a UK-based mountaineer, is known to have been leading the group of climbers. He was part of the first team to complete a continuous traverse of all the alpine 4,000-metre peaks without using any motorised assistance in 1993.
His family said in a statement they were calling for the search area to be widened. They said that they wanted it to continue until the wellbeing or otherwise of all those in the climbing group became clear.
The casualty rate in the region where the climbers are missing is almost five times higher than on Mount Everest, according to officials.