KATMANDU, Nepal An avalanche swept down a climbing route on Mount Everest early Friday, killing at least 13 Nepalese guides and leaving three missing in the deadliest disaster on the world's highest peak.

The Sherpa guides had gone early in the morning to fix ropes for other climbers when the avalanche hit them just below Camp 2 at about 6:30 a.m., Nepal Tourism Ministry official Krishna Lamsal said from the base camp where he is monitoring rescue efforts.

Rescue workers pulled out 13 bodies from under mounds of snow and ice and were working quickly to find the three missing guides in case the weather conditions deteriorate.

Two Sherpas who were injured were taken by helicopter to hospitals in Nepal's capital, Katmandu.

The avalanche is affecting mountain climbers from Seattle. Alpine Ascent International, a premier mountain climbing expedition company, currently has a group of climbers at the base camp.

Our climbers have been up there for a few weeks acclimating to the climate, said Gordon Janow of Alpine Ascent International. We found out late last night about the avalanche and we have been in contact with our group.

None of the climbers with Alpine Ascent were involved in the avalanche, but five guide sherpas working with the climbing company were on the slope when the avalanche hit.

The company said those five sherpas were among those who died.

The relationship with guide sherpas and mountain climbers is very important, and critical to a safe and successful summit.

Janow said it's a tight-knit community and they're still processing the tragedy.

We've known and worked with these sherpas for years, said Janow.

The avalanche hit an area nicknamed the popcorn field for its bulging chucks of ice and is just below Camp 2, Ang Tshering of the Nepal Mountaineering Association said. Camp 2 sits at an elevation of 6,400 meters (21,000 feet) on the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) mountain.

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As soon as the avalanche hit, rescuers and climbers rushed to help.

Hundreds of climbers, guides and support crews are at Everest's base camp preparing to climb to the summit when weather conditions will be at their most favorable early next month. They have been setting up camps at higher altitudes, and guides have been fixing routes and ropes on the slopes above.

The Sherpa people are one of the main ethnic groups in Nepal's alpine region, and many make their living as climbing guides on Everest and other Himalayan peaks.

More than 4,000 climbers have summited Everest since 1953, when it was first conquered by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Hundreds have died attempting to reach the peak.

The worst recorded disaster on Everest had been a snowstorm on May 11, 1996, that caused the deaths of eight climbers. Six Nepalese guides were killed in an avalanche in 1970.

Earlier this year, Nepal announced several steps to better manage the heavy flow of climbers and speed up rescue operations. The steps included the dispatch of officials and security personnel to the base camp at 5,300 meters (17,380 feet), where they will stay throughout the spring climbing season that ends in May.

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