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KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) -- Rescuers were searching through piles of snow and ice on the slopes of Mount Everest on Saturday for four Sherpa guides who were buried by an avalanche that killed 12 other Nepalese guides in the deadliest disaster on the world's highest peak.

Krishna Lamsal, a Nepal Tourism Ministry official at the base camp, said the bodies of the 12 guides were pulled out and brought down Friday. Weather was fine Saturday morning, but conditions could quickly deteriorate and hamper the search efforts, he said.

The avalanche swept down a climbing route when the group of Sherpa guides were making their way up to the higher camps to fix ropes and dig a path for their foreign clients ahead of next month's peak season for scaling the summit.

The avalanche struck an area known as the "popcorn field" for its bulging chunks of ice at about 6:30 a.m. Friday.

An injured survivor told his relatives that the path up the mountain was unstable just before the snow slide hit at an elevation just below 19,000 feet (5,800 meters). As soon as it occurred, rescuers, guides and climbers rushed to help.

Four survivors with serious injuries had to be airlifted to hospitals in Katmandu. Others with less serious injuries were being treated at base camp.

The avalanche struck just as hundreds of climbers, guides and support crews were at Everest's base camp preparing to climb the summit when weather conditions are at their most favorable early next month. They had been setting up camps at higher altitudes, and guides were fixing routes and ropes on the slopes above.

One injured guide, Dawa Tashi, lay in the intensive care unit at Grande Hospital in the capital late Friday after being evacuated from the mountain. Doctors said he suffered several broken ribs.

Tashi told his relatives that the Sherpa guides woke up early and were on their way to fix ropes but were delayed because of the unsteady path. Suddenly, mounds of snow came tumbling down on the group and buried many of them, according to Tashi's sister-in-law, Dawa Yanju.

The Sherpa people are one of the main ethnic groups in Nepal's alpine region, and many make their living as climbing guides on Everest and other Himalayan peaks.

More than 4,000 climbers have summited Everest since 1953, when it was first conquered by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Hundreds have died attempting to reach the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak.

The worst recorded disaster on Everest had been a fierce blizzard on May 11, 1996, that caused the deaths of eight climbers, including famed mountaineer Rob Hall, and was later memorialized in a book, "Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer. Six Nepalese guides were killed in an avalanche in 1970.

Earlier this year, Nepal announced several steps to better manage the heavy flow of climbers and speed up rescue operations. The steps included the dispatch of officials and security personnel to the base camp at 17,380 feet (5,300 meters), where they will stay throughout the spring climbing season that ends in May.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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