New Delhi (AFP) Aug 12, 2010
Traumatised foreign trekkers caught in flash floods that killed 185 people in the Indian Himalayas recounted Thursday a week of "hell" battling rockfalls, raging mudslides and constant fear.
Exhausted and still clearly in shock, a group of mainly French tourists flew into New Delhi from Ladakh region, where a sudden, intense cloudburst one week ago turned their mountain trekking holiday into a battle for survival.
"There were mudslides and rocks tumbling down the mountains," said David Bressac, a mountaineering guide with a Franco-Indian tour agency.
"It was horrific. The mudslides were moving at an incredible speed," said Bressac, his eyes red from lack of sleep and a large rucksack flung over his shoulder.
On August 5, Bressac, 22, had been leading a group of nine people on a hike from the main Ladakh city of Leh through the surrounding Markah Valley, one of the region's most popular high-altitude treks for foreign adventure tourists.
"One of the group had altitude sickness and he and I had turned around to head back to Leh when the rains hit," he told AFP.
Heavy rainfall is rare in Ladakh and last week's downpour was so strong that it triggered cascades of water and rock down the sides of the mountains and into the valleys, where the flow grew more intense -- and more deadly.
"We had mud flowing up to our hips," Bressac said. "And we needed each other's help just to keep upright and make our way out of there.
"It lasted one or two hours. And after that we were stuck for five days. It was hell," he said.
The floods washed away large sections of road -- including major highways -- in the area, leaving many tour groups stranded and awaiting rescue by the Indian army, which has a strong presence near Ladakh's border with China.
According to Indian officials, 185 people were killed in Leh and surrounding areas, and hundreds remain missing a week later.
Among the dead were three French nationals, a Spaniard and an Italian, officials told AFP.
Bressac said numerous stranded trekking groups got together for added safety and some of them had terrifying stories of members who had been killed or gone missing, like one French 18-year-old carried away by a river of mud.
"In the end, there were about 100 of us taking shelter in a village. We had no food, no water and no means of outside communication, and there was a constant sense of panic," he said.
"Eventually we got hold of a satellite phone and we managed to get out a message on August 8 that we were stuck. The helicopters came early the next morning. It was an enormous relief."
Two friends from Paris, Philippe Vassal, 29, and Sebastien Poumeyrol, 30, recounted a narrow escape after the flash floods tore through their campsite.
"Out tent, which miraculously we had just got out of, was swept away in the first mudslide," said Vassal.
"We spent the night sheltered behind a small stone wall and then the next two nights sleeping in a barn," he said.
They eventually decided to try and walk back to Leh, which proved a nerve-wracking experience.
"We crossed over one peak and there were landslides everywhere. Eventually we were picked up by an army truck that brought us back," said Poumeyrol, a student of Tibetan.
The two friends said a number of the local guides, who are often quite young, had appeared completely overcome by the scale of the disaster.
"They just aren't used to that kind of rainfall in the mountains. Nothing like that had happened for 50 years," said Poumeyrol.
Armentia Araceli, a Spanish retiree from Madrid, found herself stuck in Leh after her trek was cancelled in the wake of the floods. She spent the week with other volunteers clearing mud from schools and other buildings and helping the search for victims.
On Wednesday evening, local residents and a large number of tourists held a candlelight march through the devastated streets of Leh in memory of those who died.
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Rescuers racing against a potential new deluge on Wednesday hurried to drain an unstable lake formed by China's worst mudslides in decades, as the death toll surged past 1,100. More than 10,000 soldiers and rescuers combed through the mountains of mud that buried a remote area of the northwest province of Gansu at the weekend, killing 1,117 people by the latest count and leaving more than 60 ... read more
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