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Kim Willsher in Paris, Peter Beaumont and Ed Douglas, Thursday 12th July 2012 19:23
The avalanche that claimed the lives of nine climbers, including three Britons, on one of the satellite peaks of Mont Blanc unfolded in two deadly parts.
At just before 5.30am on Thursday, ice from a cliff high on Mont Maudit – the "cursed mountain" – appears to have fallen on to the highest of a group of 28 mountaineers of different nationalities, knocking them off.
Their fall set off a slab avalanche 150 metres wide that swept away those following lower down.
It was over in no more than a few seconds, one of the worst European mountaineering accidents in recent memory, above the French town of Chamonix. As well as the dead there were nine injured.
Four people, two Britons and two Spaniards, who were missing immediately after the avalanche, were later accounted for after they presented themselves at a police station in the town.
On Thursday evening, Roger Payne, an experienced mountain guide and former general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council was named as one of the victims. Dave Turnbull, current BMC chief executive, said: "Roger was one of the UK's most enthusiastic and respected climbers with a track record of Alpine and Himalayan mountaineering stretching back to the 1980s. Our thoughts are with his friends and family – in particular his wife Julie-Ann."
A spokesman for the Alpine mountain rescue service, which scrambled a helicopter and sniffer dogs to the area after being alerted by an injured climber, said the incident had probably been caused by snow collapsing in the warm July weather.
Of the 28 people who set out on the route, many were led by guides and roped together. Most were following the popular "three mountains" route to the summit of Mont Blanc, and had begun their ascent in the early hours of the morning when the temperatures were colder and the snow pack and ice cliffs more stable.
As well as the three British climbers, the fatalities were two Swiss, two German and two Spanish climbers.
Chamonix-based mountain guide Richard Mansfield said the route where the accident happened was the second most popular to the top of Mont Blanc. "It's very beautiful and a common route, but it can have very serious consequences, particularly due to avalanches."
The French interior minister, Manuel Valls, said after flying over the avalanche site: "My thoughts are with those victims, with the British and Spanish and German victims, Swiss victims, and my thoughts are with their families who have discovered this painful tragedy. It is a personal one. We have seen many accidents on the Mont Blanc mountain but we should note that the number of victims and those who have disappeared and the injured is very high. This accident is catastrophic."
The foreign secretary, William Hague, said: "I am very saddened by the tragedy in Chamonix, and I send my deepest condolences to the friends and families of those affected. We are in very close contact with the French authorities and our ambassador and consular officials are heading to Chamonix to provide consular assistance. We will offer whatever support and assistance we can. I would also like to thank the French rescue services for their efforts in these difficult circumstances."
The climbers were among a party that left the Cosmiques mountain hut above the popular Vallée Blanche off-piste ski descent after the hut's 1am breakfast sitting. The three mountains route ascends off the glacier and up the north-east face of Mont Blanc de Tacul. It then climbs Mont Maudit before continuing to the summit of Mont Blanc, continental Europe's highest mountain.
The accident took place on a long glaciated slope running from the shoulder of Mont Blanc du Tacul up to the summit of Mont Maudit, which is crossed close to a prominent ice cliff.
According to footage from the accident and accounts of those who arrived on the scene in its immediate aftermath, there was fresh debris from a fallen section of ice cliff close to a large scoured area of wind slab avalanche, which had been deposited by high winds in the previous few days.
Daniele Ollier, an Italian rescuer quoted on the British Mountaineering Council's website, said the initial ice fall hit climbers who were higher on the Maudit face, then the slab avalanche hit the climbers below, sweeping them for 200 metres.
One of the first people on the scene was the British climber and guide Victor Saunders and his client, a doctor, who were following the route.
They gave first aid to the survivors and called the rescue services.
Saunders had opted to leave two hours later than the party hit by the avalanche after having second thoughts about leaving so early, deciding he would be happier judging the avalanche risk in daylight.
When Saunders reached the shoulder of Mont Blanc du Tacul, he saw at once that something was wrong. Instead of moving purposefully towards the Col du Maudit, the climbers he saw were still near the bottom of the face, apparently uncertain where to go and what to do.
Saunders and the doctor helped recover bodies, treat the injured and help the rescue services load them aboard helicopters.
There have been several deaths in the Alps this summer. This month five German climbers fell to their deaths in a single incident in Switzerland.
The 4,465-metre Mont Maudit is widely considered one of the world's most dangerous climbs. The dead climbers were believed to have reached an altitude of around 4,000 metres when they were swept away.
Dr Nathalie Vriend, of the Natural Environment Research Council in Cambridge, said large snow avalanches could reach heights of 100 metres and reach speeds of up to 100mph. She said: "There are on average 150 avalanche deaths per year in the world. Without additional survival gear, 50% of the avalanche victims that are buried in a large avalanche suffocate within 20 minutes."
The Mont Blanc range claims more than 100 victims a year. The latest tragedy was one of the worst in the region since August 2008, when eight climbers – four Austrians, three Swiss and one German – died in similar circumstances.
Chamonix, a former winter Olympics venue, is one of the world's most famous centres for mountain sports. Eric Fournier, the town's mayor, said: "There was no weather bulletin giving any avalanche warning."