updated 1/8/2009 9:37:50 PM ET 2009-01-09T02:37:50

An Italian climber and an Argentine guide both died when a storm trapped five mountaineers just below the summit of the highest peak in the Americas, an Italian diplomat said Thursday. The three others survived.

Rescuers reached the alpinists and their guide near the peak, Aconcagua, at 22,000 feet, according to Italian consular official Giorgio Giacomello.

The deaths were confirmed by the Italian consul in the city of Mendoza, Pietro Tombaccini, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone.

Tombaccini identified the victims as an Italian woman and an Argentine male guide and the survivors as two Italian men and one Italian woman. He did not reveal their names.

Communications made difficult
The survivors and about 50 rescuers were descending Aconcagua, making communication difficult.

The group was expected to arrive at the Condor's Nest base camp, at about 16,400 feet, by Friday afternoon and then take helicopters off the mountain, weather permitting.

The survivors "are walking by themselves," Tombaccini said. "That is a good sign."

Guido Loza, director of the Department of Natural Resources for Mendoza province, said the rescuers gave the survivors warm clothing and liquids before helping them trek back up the peak for a descent on an easier route.

Loza said the climbers reached the summit Wednesday only to be hit by an afternoon blizzard common for this time of year. The storm caused temperatures to drop to zero degrees Fahrenheit and reduced visibility to 33 feet.

Rescue crews delayed by storm
The party apparently lost its way and began descending the east face of the mountain, according to Loza. The guide sent out a distress signal, but rescue crews were delayed by the storm.

A sixth member of the group, Italian Antonella Targa, 50, had descended earlier Wednesday with a guide and avoided the storm, he said.

Aconcagua is the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere at 22,841 feet. Typically, two to three climbers die every year, said Juan Pablo Marziane, head of logistics with a climbing expedition company in Mendoza, the usual point of departure. Stefan Geromin, a 42-year-old German climber, died Saturday.

Nearly 4,600 people attempted to summit the Andes' highest peak during the 2007-2008 climbing season, during the Southern Hemisphere summer.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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