World-renowned U of T professor missing after avalanche strike in Himalayas

Indian authorities have launched a search and rescue mission after a University of Toronto professor was struck by an avalanche during an expedition in the Himalayas.

Peter Wittek, 37, was part of a six-person team attempting to summit Trisul, a 7,120-metre peak in the Indian state of Uttarakhand.

Friends of Wittek have been told that he was inside a tent on the mountain before being swept away in the avalanche at around 7 p.m. Sunday evening.

“I still don’t really want to accept it … it’s a very difficult thing to survive on a mountain,” said Wittek’s friend and colleague Tomas Babej.

Wittek, a Hungarian national, has been an assistant professor at the U of T since 2018. He is considered one of the world’s leading experts in quantum-enhanced machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“Everyone is extremely disturbed by this news,” added longtime friend Malini Mitra. “We’re hoping and praying for his recovery.”

The other five members of the crew were not hit by the avalanche.

One of the climbers scrambled to the mountain’s base camp to activate an SOS distress beacon after the avalanche hit.

They have since been relaying information about the search to Wittek’s friends and family around the world.

Wittek ‘thrilled’ about expedition

Mitra described Wittek as a skilled and cautious mountaineer with experience on some of the world’s most famous peaks. He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, the world’s highest mountain outside Asia.

Friends say he had been training for around a year before the expedition on Trisul, a formidable trident-shaped range that was first scaled in 1907. The trek was Wittek’s first time climbing a 7,000 metre peak.

“He was definitely thrilled about the challenge,” Babej said.

According to local media, Indian authorities say it could take up to three days before they reach the location where Wittek was last seen. Mitra has been told the rescue effort will include helicopter assistance by the Indian Air Force.

In a statement provided to CBC Toronto by a group of friends and colleagues, Wittek’s family thanked the Indian rescuers for their efforts.

“I believe that Peter is waiting for us to find him and he has the skills and the spirit to survive until we do,” wrote Wittek’s brother Gergő Oberfrank, who lives in Hungary.

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