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Since 1st March, 1999
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Avalanche toll rises to 2

Gangtok, Oct. 21: The death toll on the slopes of Mount Thingchinkhang in West Sikkim has risen to two, according to porters who have reached Thangshing, situated below the base camp.

The district collector of West Sikkim, S. Pradhan, said he had been informed that one of the dead mountaineers was Mangesh Deshpande. Officials at Gyalshing, the district headquarters, said one of the porters had identified him. “There is word of another casualty, but poor weather conditions are delaying rescue operations and we are yet to get any more definite reports. Attempts to reach the spot are still on,” the officer said.

Four climbers, accompanied by the porters, had scaled the 19,712-feet peak on Sunday but were hit by an avalanche during their descent just 500 metres from the top.

The rescue operations were hampered by bad weather, heavy snowfall and cloud. The weather did not allow the two helicopters of the Indian Air Force to make any sorties.

The avalanche and one of the deaths were reported yesterday when a porter reached Yuksom.

All the team members are from Mumbai. Records with the West district officials had identified the mountaineers as Mangesh Deshpande, Sadasivan Sekar, Shantanu Pandit, Parag Pendharkar and Anju Paniculam. Anju had stayed back at the base camp at 14,000ft after she fell ill and could not make it to the summit.

While Pendharkar and Deshpande are from Pune, Paniculam and Sekar are from Mumbai. The 46-year-old Pandit lives at Vashi in Navi Mumbai. All five are members of Mumbai-based mountaineering group called Chakram Trekkers.

Kiran Deshmukh, the vice-president of Chakram Trekkers, told The Telegraph: “According to information received, two of them are believed to be killed in an avalanche, but we still don’t know which of the five (sic). There is no confirmation of their death. The other three members of the group are expected to reach the Down Camp by tomorrow afternoon. I think the picture would be clearer (then).”

Deshmukh said he had last spoken to the team on October 12 when they were at Sokha, a village about 10,000 feet above sea level, on the way to the summit. “That was the last place where mobile phone range is available. They said the weather was not that clear, but we all know that in the Himalayas, the weather changes within a few minutes. This group has done tougher expeditions like Lungser and Chamsher Kangri in Ladakh,” he said.

Paniculam works with a corporate company and lives in Mulund and is amazingly fit. “Pandit is known as a stickler for safety and drafted excellent safety manuals for the group. We are in touch with their families and authorities in Sikkim. The families are very anxious, and it won't be advisable to speak to them right now until more concrete information arrives,” said Sameer Karve, an organising committee member of the group.

The West Sikkim collector said: “The rescue operations will start in full swing once the weather clears. Officials from the tourism department and district administration along with expert Sherpas had left Yuksom and Thangshing for the base camp. However, communication links with them are very poor.”

Yuksom is 138km from Gangtok. Pradhan said the injured climbers and porters were stranded at a height of over 18,000 feet and the rescue team would try to reach there before nightfall today. Two helicopters are scheduled to make sorties tomorrow. Climbers from Sonam Gyaltso Mountaineering Institute are also joining the rescue team and so are Sherpas from Darjeeling.

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