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Sherpa who scaled Everest 19 times feared dead on climb

Chhewang Nima hit by avalanche near summit of Baruntse in Himalayas

A famed Sherpa guide was last night feared dead after being struck by an avalanche while nearing the peak of the 7,129m Mount Baruntse in eaastern Nepal.

Chhewang Nima was leading an expedition of seven people, which included some British climbers, up the mountain when he was struck by the avalanche as he was fixing ropes, his agency said last night.

The accident happened when he was less than 100 metres from the summit. The other members of the team dug the snow but were unable to find him.

Mr Nima, a married father of two boys aged about 10 and 12, is well-known among the professional climbing circuit and well-respected within his own community for his achievements in scaling the world's highest mountain.

He made his last ascent earlier this year, fixing ropes for less experienced groups to make the climb. The only climber who has scaled Everest more times than Mr Nima is Apa Sherpa, who set a record of 20 in May this year.

The poor weather conditions prevented a rescue mission from being launched yesterday, said Jeevan Ghimire of the Sherpa Shangri-La Treks and Expeditions agency for whom Mr Nima has worked for 15 years. Mr Ghimire said it was possible that because of Mr Nima's skills and experience he may still be alive. "He knows how to survive," he told the BBC.

A rescue helicopter was due to begin searching for the missing climber today. But harsh weather conditions, the high altitude and the fickle weather will make any rescue difficult, said Samir Patham of Adventure Pulse.

"As the accident occurred at an altitude of 23,100ft (7,045m), it would be extremely difficult to conduct a search and rescue," Patham wrote in an email. "Only rescuers who have acclimatised to the reduced oxygen content at that height can be deployed."

Expeditions to Mount Baruntse can cost between £2,500 and £4,500 per person, and turning around without summiting is therefore an expensive decision, Mr Patham said.

During an expedition to the Mount Everest base camp two weeks ago, Mr Patham met another group who were planning on scaling Mount Everest but were reconsidering the decision because of the heavy snow.

Mr Nima's employers said that the 43-year-old was a strong and safe climber and able to earn larger sums as a guide because of his achievements and his abilities to keep his climbing partners safe.

On Mount Everest alone, about 250 people have died trying to climb the mountain since it was first scaled in 1953.

A typical Nepali guide earns around 1,000 Nepali rupees (£9) a day, whereas one who has climbed Mount Everest can make five to six times that amount. "If he has climbed Mount Everest then he and his family would be pretty well-off compared to the others," Mr Patham said.

Mr Nima, who grew up poor in the north-east of Nepal and had little education, was able to send his children to a private school in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, on the proceeds from his climbing work. His wife runs a small teashop in the mountains.

During the summer, when he was not climbing in the Himalayas, Mr Nima travelled to the United States for extra training. "He wanted to see more and learn more how to be a good guide, to be a safe climber," Mr Ghimire said.