Three elderly Japanese tourists died after becoming stranded on an isolated part of the Great Wall in a raging snowstorm as heavy snowfall hit parts of China, blocking highways and making communications difficult.

The tourists – a 76-year old man and three women, aged 59, 62, and 68  – accompanied by a local guide were on a tour organized by Tokyo-based agency Amuse-Travel Co. to an unrestored section of the Great Wall. They encountered the blizzard on the seventh day of their hike. The tour guide managed to reach safety and sought help from the police.

Search and rescue operations were hampered by impassable roads caused by heavy snow, the heaviest the country has seen in decades, local media reports.

“Many rescuers were exhausted before they reached the area … They risked their lives as well,” Li Jingbo, a spokesman for the local county government said.

The Japanese Embassy in Beijing confirmed the deaths on Monday and said that one Japanese citizen survived with minor injuries.

Amuse-Travel said is was the first time that it had organized a tour for the particular area and did not advise tourists to prepare for snow conditions. “We cannot say it could not be helped, given that three people lost their lives. We are extremely sorry,” a representative of Amuse-Travel said at a news conference.