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Rescue chopper unable to reach bodies on Himalayan mountain

NEW DELHI (AP) — Indian officials on Wednesday were reconsidering a plan to retrieve five bodies believed to be members of a team of international climbers that went missing on a notoriously dangerous Himalayan mountain that a rescue helicopter was unable to reach.

All eight of the climbers who disappeared May 26 on Nanda Devi East are presumed dead, and the five bodies photographed by air Monday are thought to be from the missing expedition, said Vijay Kumar Jogdande, an official in Uttarakhand state, where the mountain is located.

The mountaineers, led by veteran British climber Martin Moran, had set out to reach the top of an unclimbed, unnamed 6,477-meter (21,250-foot) ridge, but lost contact with their base camp after an avalanche swept through a section of the mountain.

Nanda Devi East is a twin peak of Nanda Devi, India's second-highest mountain, and the two are connected by a razor-sharp 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) ridge at an elevation of 6,666 meters (22,000 feet). Indo-Tibetan Border Police, who are responsible for rescues in the range where the peaks are located, called off the operation because of the high elevation, which a helicopter was unable to reach after three attempts, spokesman Vivek Pandey said.

Officials had devised a plan to use helicopters and a ground team to retrieve the bodies, spotted at an altitude of 5,000 meters (16,404 feet), and to search for the three other mountaineers. Pandey said the rescue team returned to the town of Pithoragarh on Wednesday afternoon to reconsider its strategy.

"It is not feasible to hover in the air and land near the site of the avalanche where bodies can be seen," according to a status report seen by The Associated Press.  The report said the challenges include the "bowl-like" geography of the terrain, wind turbulence and the risk of further avalanches. It recommended an expedition on foot, though it would take the rescuers a week to acclimate first.

The mountaineers began their ascent on May 13, according to Moran Mountain, Moran's Scotland-based company. The team includes four Britons, two Americans, an Australian and an Indian liaison officer. Before attempting to reach the peak of Nanda Devi East, the team had set out to climb the slightly smaller ridge.

Maninder Kohli, a mountaineer who runs a trekking company from New Delhi that has taken groups to Nanda Devi East base camp, said the snow level in the Indian Himalayas this year has been abnormally high.

"Apparently the walk-up to the base camp alone was a tedious task because of the snow accumulation," he said. Kohli said the typical route to the peak is along the southeast ridge, which Polish mountaineers used on the first documented ascent in 1939.

Moran and another mountaineer made an unsuccessful attempt over an unproven northeastern route in 2015.

Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, India, contributed to this report.

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