At least nine climbers have been killed and another four are missing after one of the deadliest avalanches in recent years tore down a Himalayan peak obliterating everything in its path.

One tented camp nearly 7,000 metres above sea level was levelled and a second, 500 metres further down, was damaged. The identity of the casualties on Mount Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world at 8,163m, remains unclear, but they are thought to include up to four Frenchmen, a Nepalese guide, a German, a Spaniard, and an Italian.

Basant Mishra, a police official, told Reuters that the bodies of a German climber and a Nepalese guide had been recovered from slopes of the mountain, which lies about 60 miles (100km) north-west of Kathmandu. "Rescue pilots have spotted seven other bodies," he said.

Helicopters were dispatched to the remote area to look for those missing after the early morning accident, but cloud and fog complicated the rescue efforts, Mishra said.

According to Le Parisien newspaper, a source at the French ministry of foreign affairs said, "There were several groups ascending, among them two French groups." Four French climbers are believed to have died, but the ministry has refused to make any confirmations.

The Dauphiné Libéré newspaper named three of the missing and presumed dead as Rémy Lécluse and Gregory Costa, who had intended to descend the mountain on skis, and Ludovic Challéac, a guide from the French ski resort of Chamonix. Two French climbers have been flown by helicopter to Kathmandu for treatment.

Organisers of one US expedition said they had received a call from their lead guide on Manaslu saying there had been a large avalanche on the upper mountain in the Camp Three area.

Their expedition's team was lower down on the mountain but had moved up to help with the rescue, Gordon Janow of Alpine Ascents said.

"[The] weather was good. [It] was a large serac [ice cliff] that fell," he told the Guardian.

Glen Plake, a celebrity in the world of extreme sports known for his mohican and boundary-pushing skiing, narrowly escaped the avalanche, according to French website EpicTv.

Plake, 48, said he was in his tent reading his Bible when he heard a roar. Within moments, the tent had been carried hundreds of metres down the mountain's slopes.

"It's a war zone up here," Plake told the site.

Hundreds of foreign climbers flock every year to Himalayan peaks in Nepal, which has eight of the world's 14 highest mountains, including Mount Everest. September marks the beginning of the autumn, post-monsoon climbing season, which runs through November.

Manaslu was particularly popular this year after Chinese authorities restricted access to Cho Oyu, another 8,000m peak.

The deaths will undoubtedly provoke further argument about whether big Himalayan mountains favoured by large, fee-paying or sponsored expeditions are becoming too crowded and too commercialised.

Several climbers high on the mountain were aiming to be the first-ever to ascent Manaslu without oxygen and ski down. Two teams with around 20 climbers appear to have been waiting at Camp Three for the weather to clear when the avalanche struck.

Massive snow falls have made conditions treacherous on and around Manaslu recently. Several climbers had expressed concerns over the avalanche risk before heading up the mountain last week.

One Nepalese official said the popularity of Manaslu, first climbed in 1956, was not a problem.

"Yes, base camp might have been a bit crowded but the route higher up was not. This is a natural disaster. Not man-made in any way," he said.

Authorities in poverty-stricken Nepal are sensitive to charges that too many permits for climbing mountains are sold to foreign expeditions. However, the permits generate much needed hard currency.

Dawa Steven Sherpa, a well-known Nepalese mountaineer, said the avalanche might have been caused by heavy snowfall last week.

"The incident might have taken place as snow hadn't yet settled properly," he said.

Ang Tsering Sherpa, former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association who has climbed Manaslu several times, said the mountain was regarded as one of the easiest of the 14 peaks that top 8,000m but the accident was not linked to the number of climbers.

"Such avalanche takes place normally if it's too hot or if there is heavy snow fall. Climate change, of course, had some effect but avalanches are uncertain and there is no any exact reason for any one avalanche."

A history of recent Himalayan avalanches

5 May 2012 At least 13 people died in Nepal when a slide of snow and ice from Mount Annapurna caused a river to burst its banks and flood the surrounding area, including the town of Pokhara. The Regional Meteorological Office said the flood was caused by a disruption in the "snow blanket in the mountains".

30 September 2011 A leading Russian climber, who had scaled many of the world's highest peaks, died in an avalanche on a "simple snow slope" in the Himalayas. Sergei Cherezov was attempting to climb the 7,059-metre-high Tulagi peak with several others.

4 June 2011 Japanese climber Masue Yoshida, 63, and Kumar Rai, her Nepalese guide, were killed in an avalanche while trying to climb the 5,844-metre-high Naya Kanga peak in north-central Nepal. © Guardian News and Media 2012

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