Toronto professor missing after avalanche hits climbing group in India

A University of Toronto professor is missing in India after an avalanche struck during an expedition trip he was on.

Peter Wittek was climbing Mount Trishul, a Himalayan peak in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, India, with five other mountaineers on Sunday when the avalanche occurred.

His brother, Gergo Oberfrank, said Wittek was resting in his tent at the time, situated at a peak of approximately 5,900 metres above sea level.

All but 37-year-old Wittek were able to escape.

“There was another person who was struck by the avalanche, but that person dug out and he or she survived,” Oberfrank told Global News by phone on Wednesday.

“My brother is still missing.”

Peter Wittek appears in this photo provided to Global News by his brother.

The expedition trip was made up of climbers from Vietnam, Mauritius, Singapore and Hungary.

According to a team manager who asked to remain anonymous, one of the climbers activated an SOS distress beacon on Sunday evening, alerting emergency services to the incident.

A rescue team has been sent to the area, but it could take days to reach Camp 2, where Wittek was last seen.

“They’re still waiting for the search and rescue team to arrive,” the manager told Global News by phone. “It has been three days since he has been reported missing.”

Helicopters have been sent to the mountain to look for the missing climber, but poor weather conditions have impacted efforts.

The five other climbers are at base camp, waiting to return to their home countries.

The team manager said the trip took more than a year to plan.

“It doesn’t happen often,” he said. “There have been multiple training trips, as well as climbing technical sessions, to get the team prepared.”

The district magistrate of Chamoli, Swati Bhadoriya, told local media the rescue mission is underway. Bhadoriya described the climb as “one of the toughest peaks in the world.”

Wittek was athletic and an experienced climber, according to his brother.

“Apart from his research, he’s done a lot of marathons and climbed a lot of mountains,” Oberfrank said. “He was always looking for challenges.”

Wittek is a Hungarian national but moved to Toronto in April 2018. His girlfriend also lives in the city.

A spokesperson for the University of Toronto confirmed to Global News that Wittek is missing and employed as an assistant professor at the school.

He is the academic director of U of T’s Quantum Machine Learning Program in the Creative Destruction Lab.

He also spoke at Amazon’s re:Invent conference in 2018.”He has inspired me tremendously,” said Tomas Babej, a friend and professional partner.

Babej said Wittek supervised his master’s thesis and is now an advisor to his company.

“His dedication to his work, his never-ending strive to learn, it’s very inspiring to me.”

Babej said climbing was just one of the many adventurous hobbies Wittek has taken up over the years.

“That guy is always trying to live life fully,” he said. “If it wasn’t surfing it was salsa dancing.”

Oberfrank said his heart aches for his brother.

“I am under extreme pressure,” he said. “Whatever I have to do that can affect the outcome, I will do.”

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