The ordeal of 10 Israeli hikers stranded in the remote frozen lakes district of Nepal and under threat from local villagers for allegedly taking food and water came to an end Wednesday morning when the group was airlifted to Kathmandu, a search and rescue operator said.
“Everything’s okay,” Nir Gat, the head of the Magnus Search and Rescue team in that area, said over a poor phone connection from Nepal.
He said the company’s crews had extracted “dozens” of hikers so far, including a group of Danish travelers who were hooked up to ropes and harnesses at an extreme sports facility near the Chinese border when the earthquake struck.
The 7.8-magnitude quake hit Nepal on Saturday, killing over 5,000 people and affecting several million more. Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala reportedly warned that the death toll could reach 10,000.
Israel promptly sent 125 doctors, paramedics and other medical personnel to Nepal earlier this week and opened on Wednesday a field hospital in the capital that will be capable of treating upward of 200 patients daily.
The earthquake caught several hundred Israeli trekkers out on the trails crisscrossing the mountainous country.
The 10-person group in the Langtang Valley, in a region north of Kathmandu, near Tibet, got into an argument with the locals living in the village of Langtang, where 100 people are feared dead from an avalanche triggered by the tremors, Republica, a Nepali media outlet, reported.
The details of the squabble are unclear at this time but the father of Shahar Zakai, one of the Israeli hikers, said Tuesday on Army Radio that the discord had escalated to a clear and immediate danger to the lives of the travelers.
Hilik Magnus, the man who founded the first rescue company for Israeli travelers abroad, confirmed that his men descended into an angry crowd.
According to Yedioth Ahronoth, the villagers pushed hard toward the helicopter until one of the villagers was killed by the spinning tail rotor.
The paper also reported that locals at one point took a pilot hostage, demanding they be airlifted out.
Gat, a reservist in the IDF’s elite alpine unit, indicated that he was able to minimize the conflict by first airlifting several locals to safety in the helicopter provided to the rescuers by the Nepali armed forces.
He and three other rescuers, all of whom have over 20 years of experience operating in the back country, led the group of Israelis to a nearby area, away from the village and in a spot protected from avalanches. The group spent the night out in the open – Magnus urges all travelers to pack as if they would have to sleep outdoors and not in a warm guesthouse – and were picked up in the morning by an additional Nepali-piloted helicopter.
Many of the several hundred Israeli travelers were located thanks to satellite-based emergency notification devices. The small rubberized boxes weigh next to nothing and can, in the event of an emergency, send an SOS signal to several different mobile devices with the exact geographic coordinates of the distressed party. The SOS devices can also be linked to a cellphone, enabling verbal communication.
Magnus, tending to his mother in hospital in Israel and keeping an eye on the operation in Kathmandu, said that Amit Rubin, a company rescuer with a long record of service, including in the IDF’s Unit 669, performed “an incredible rescue operation” in an area above the Bhote Kosi River, near China.
Seven Israelis were stranded at the outdoor sports facility and spa, The Last Resort, where tourists can bungee jump and zip along a high ropes course in the forest.
Rubin, he said, traveled along “a destroyed road” in a jeep until he could go no further and finally arrived, two days after the earthquake, on foot at the resort.
He said he found the Israelis in good health but that a group of Danish travelers, perhaps 13 in total, had been on the ropes course at the time of the earthquake and were injured. Rubin organized a team to march the Danes and the Israelis out to the serviceable part of the road and from there to safety.
Magnus did not have all the details of the march and Rubin, at this time, was unreachable in Nepal. The head of the Israeli rescue operations on the ground in Kathmandu, Eyal Naor, said he had several helicopters in the air at this time and could not comment further.