Two Israelis are among at least nine - and possibly as many as 18 - people who are missing and feared dead in a mountain climbing disaster in the Peruvian Andes. The group, which also included four Germans, two Peruvians and an Argentine, is believed to have been hit by an avalanche on Monday. News of the disaster only reached Israel early yesterday morning.
Unaccounted for were Ofira Zucker, 21, and Guy Ben-Ze'ev, 23. Two other Israeli hikers, both apparently observant Jews, decided not to attempt the ascent of Mt. Alpamayo, one of the highest and most difficult in Peru. The mountain is part of the Cordiera Blanca range near the city of Huaraz, some 300 kilometers northeast of Lima.
Israel's ambassador to Peru, Uriel Noy, told Haaretz that the embassy had received reports that the bodies of two climbers, a man and a woman, had been discovered on the mountain. The bodies are assumed to be those of the Israeli climbers, although there has been no verification of the identification.
Noy said a seven-member rescue team had set off for the avalanche site, located 5,800 meters above sea-level, and was expected to arrive there some time during the night, Israel time. The rescue team is equipped with satellite-based phones and will communicate its findings from the scene.
Communication with the group was lost yesterday, with the climbers remaining stranded on the mountain. The Peruvian police commander of the mountain region, Col. Louis Grata, said that three groups of individuals - numbering at most 18 climbers aged 25-45 - had been injured in the disaster.
Officials said rescue teams braving high winds would try to reach the climbers.
"There was an accident on Alpamayo mountain. We don't know exactly what kind of accident occurred - whether it was an avalanche or whether ice collapsed," said David Perez, head of the mountain rescue service in the district of Ancash. "We do not know if there have been any fatalities; but in an accident of this kind, there are always injuries," he added. "What we do know is that there are several Argentines, Venezuelans, Germans and Israelis involved."
Rescue helicopters were unable to reach the site because of strong winds, and search teams were expected to take 20 hours to reach the missing climbers on foot.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem was immediately inundated with phone calls from worried parents of hikers in Latin America, and it took hours before the identities of the two missing Israeli climbers were confirmed.
There have been cases in the past of Israeli mountain climbers losing their lives on climbs. In 1996, Tal Strum, 31, of Afula, and Ilia Kariborotzki, 25, of Be'er Sheva, died in the French Alps when ice broke under foot and they feel 500 meters into a crevice. In 1999, Mor Carmi, 25, was killed on Mt Etna in Sicily when hit by a bolt of lightning. Last year, Guy Kramer, 33, of Kochav Yair, was also killed in Italy. He was climbing in the Dolomites mountain range in northern Italy and fell 150 meters to his death during a descent.