By Sankalp Phartiyal
PITHORAGARH, India (Reuters) - Indian authorities said on Tuesday it could take days to recover the bodies of a group of mountain climbers believed killed in an avalanche high in the Himalayas, as four of their colleagues who survived the expedition prepared to leave the mountains.
Eight climbers - four from Britain, two from the United States, and one each from Australia and India - were reported missing on Friday after they failed to return to their base camp near Nanda Devi, India’s second highest mountain.
A huge rescue mission was launched and on Monday an Indian air force helicopter spotted five bodies partially buried in snow high on a slope.
The status of the other three climbers is not known, though officials have said the possibility of their survival is remote, and their bodies could be near the five that have been spotted.
Four other climbers - all British - had broken away from the team trying to reach the summit of a remote, unnamed and unclimbed 6,477 metre (21,250 foot) peak and had gone back to their base camp when disaster struck.
The four were later evacuated by helicopter to a nearby mountain town in Uttarakhand state where they helped with the search for their partners.
On Tuesday, they left a paramilitary-run guesthouse in Pithoragarh town, where the recovery effort is being coordinated, before heading back to India's capital of New Delhi.
"As you can see, we're all OK," one of the survivors from the expedition, Kate Armstrong, told Reuters while loading her bags into a taxi.
The four confirmed survivors were identified as Armstrong, Ian Wade, Zachary Quain and deputy expedition leader Mark Thomas.
Indian officials are discussing how to retrieve the bodies that were spotted from the helicopter.
Vijay Kumar Jogdande, the top government official in Pithoragarh, said a team that would try to reach the bodies still needed clearance from government agencies, including the defence ministry.
"I have requested the permissions," he told Reuters.
"We will discuss the plan with the heads of the concerned agencies. The plan is not prepared right now."
Jogdande said relatives of the missing had yet to arrive in the town and rescuers were still unsure what to do with the bodies of the climbers if they were recovered.
"No one has spoken to me, no one is here. So who will take the bodies, that is also one question," he said.
(Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal in PITHORAGARH; Writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Robert Birsel)