Dozens of hikers who may have survived deadly avalanches in Nepal could be huddled in waist-deep snow for days as they await rescue crews struggling to make their way through rough terrain.

A rare October blizzard followed by avalanches in Nepal’s remote northern mountains killed at least 12 people, including four Canadians, and it could be days before bodies are recovered. Five trekkers were hit by an avalanche on Mount Dhaulagiri and are now missing.

But because fall marks one of the busiest trekking seasons in Nepal, there are “hundreds of trekkers that are registered,” who remain unaccounted for and could be stranded, reported CTV’s Beijing Bureau Chief Janis Mackey Frayer.

The two-day blizzard, which was triggered by Cyclone Hudhud that hit India last week, was so severe that rescuers are struggling through snow that is at times waist-deep, she said.

One police official told local news agencies that snowfall amounts have hit 91 centimetres in some areas.

Photojournalist Kevin Frayer, who is based in Beijing but has travelled to the region, tweeted that many areas of Nepal’s Himalayan mountains “are so remote that they can be many days’ hard trek in good weather. Very isolated.”

He also noted that air search and rescue in Nepal is “under-resourced,” adding that crews are “experienced, but too few.”

Poor telecommunications in the area are preventing officials from getting a true sense of the magnitude of the situation. Survivors will likely have trouble radioing for help if the blizzard and avalanches have compromised the communications infrastructure.

Canadian Tom Moffatt, who spent a total of 24 months over several trips hiking in Nepal in the 1980s, was caught in a similar storm in 1986.

Hikers stuck on a mountain in the middle of a blizzard will find that “there’s nothing you can do,” Moffatt said in a telephone interview from New Brunswick.

“You can’t get off. There’s just too much snow and you’re caught.”

The mountains have “lots and lots of layers” of snow of varying temperatures, he adds, which means there can be “avalanches any time of the day or night, any time of the year.”

The best thing for hikers to do during a storm is to hunker down and wait it out, he says. When it’s over, the first priority should be getting down, particularly because most helicopters can’t fly as high as the tallest peaks. But at altitudes of several thousand metres, that can be difficult.

“Try and fight anything at 5,400 metres.The air, you take a step or two and you’re exhausted. The blood is literally working sluggishly,” Moffatt says, adding that trying to hike through the heavy snow only adds to the difficulty.

When the blizzard passes and the sun comes out, survivors may also be dealing with snow blindness.

Moffatt used to take glacier glasses, which are not far off from welders’ glasses, when he would trek in the region.

“You get this absolutely white surface reflecting all that UV and everything else,” he said. “And it is just incredibly bright.”

As night fell over the region Wednesday, the Search and Rescue Dog Handlers Academy of Nepal tweeted that “eerie black clouds” were covering the mountains.

The agency also tweeted that blizzards are uncommon during this main trekking season, and are “more common in April.”

The rescue academy tweeted some photos from the scene on Wednesday: