updated 12/6/2005 8:07:19 AM ET 2005-12-06T13:07:19

With the harsh Himalayan winter grounding helicopters, the World Food Program has begun recruiting mountaineers to reach quake survivors at high altitudes.

The Oct. 8 earthquake that killed more than 87,000 people also destroyed the homes of 3.5 million people in northwest Pakistan and Pakistani Kashmir.

About 400,000 people affected by the earthquake live in high-altitude villages that are extremely difficult to reach by foot, creating one of the most challenging relief efforts ever.

Some areas are so remote the damage is only now being surveyed, two months after the quake. In these areas, the U.N. food agency has been relying on helicopters to deliver aid but the onset of the Himalayan winter is making that increasingly difficult.

Last week helicopters were grounded for two days because of the cold. That leaves the agency with little choice but to try to reach the villages by ground.

But because many are accessible only by mule tracks or other difficult paths, the agency has turned to experienced mountaineers for help.

Food for 1 million survivors
"We know the real harsh winter will be compounding the problems of people, especially those living in the highlands, but we will reach them," WFP official Ahmed Jamal said.

"We will provide food to about 1 million survivors throughout the winter season no matter at what height they are living," he said.

The Pakistani army and other aid agencies also have employed mountaineers to assess quake damage and get supplies to those who lost their homes.

On Saturday, the WFP appealed for urgent funds, saying the relief effort is the most difficult the agency has ever faced.

WFP has accepted responsibility for feeding 1.3 million people, while 3 million are getting assistance from the government and 150,000 from the Red Cross.

Officials say they fear another disaster as the brutal winter settles in.

Pakistan's army, helped by aid workers, has built 35,000 shelters and thrown up more than 61,000 tents, but only 15 percent have been winterized, army spokesman Maj. Farooq Nasir said Monday.

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