Nine Dead, Two Missing in France Avalanche

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

CHAMONIX, France (AP) - A climber trying to scale Mont Blanc may
accidentally have caused a slab of ice to snap off Thursday high in
the French Alps, sparking an avalanche that swept nine European
climbers to their deaths, authorities said. A dozen climbers were
injured and two were still missing by nightfall.

As a sheet of snow and ice thundered down the steep slope,
several other climbers managed to turn away from the slide in time,
regional authorities in Haute-Savoie said.

Two climbers were rescued as emergency crews using dogs and
helicopters scoured the churned-up, high-altitude area in a frantic
search for the missing. Their quest, hampered by the possibility of
further avalanches, was called off by nighttime.

Three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and one Swiss
climber were known to have died, the prefecture of the Haute-Savoie
region said.

The dead included the former general secretary of the British
Mountaineering Council, Roger Payne, the council said on its
website. Current BMC head Dave Turnbull praised Payne as one of
Britain's most notable climbers with expeditions from the Alps to
the Himalayas.

An initial report of four missing was lowered to two, and
officials noted the numbers of those involved in the drama could
vary because some climbers may have struck out on their own. A
group of 28 were known to have left a mountain refuge for the
ascent.

Close to 90 people were involved in the search.

Among the dozen injured was an American, the only known
non-European. A seriously injured Swiss citizen was transported to
a Swiss hospital.

Early summer storms apparently left behind heavy snow that
combined with high winds to form dangerous overhanging conditions
on some of the popular climbing routes around Mont Blanc, the
highest mountain in western Europe. Regional authorities had warned climbers earlier this summer to be careful because of an unusually snowy spring.

The Mont Blanc massif is a popular area for climbers, hikers and
tourists but a dangerous one, with dozens dying on it each year.
Chamonix, a top center for climbing, hosted the first Winter
Olympics in 1924.

Some of the climbers were with professional guides, others were
climbing independently.

Police said they were alerted around 5:25 a.m. Thursday to the
avalanche, which hit a group of climbers - people from Switzerland,
Germany, Spain, France, Denmark and Serbia - who were some 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) high on the north face of Mont Maudit, part of the Mont Blanc range.

A block of ice 40 centimeters (16 inches) thick broke off and
slid down the slope, creating a mass of snow that was 2 meters (6
feet) deep and 100 meters (328 feet) long, according to a statement
by the prefecture.

"The first elements that we have from testimony are that a
climber could have set loose a sheet of ice, and that sheet then
pulled down the group of climbers below. I should say the incline
was very, very steep on this northern face," Col. Bertrand
FranEcois of the Haute-Savoie police told reporters.

It was not immediately known if the climber lived or died.

According to recent tweets from climbers, high winds led to
overhanging ice slabs forming on the slope. Several days ago
Chamonix saw a monsoon-like downpour which turned to snow at 3,000 meters (9,850 feet) high.

Jonas Moestrup from the western Danish city of Randers heard
about the accident as he was on his way down from Mont Blanc.

"Three days ago, we ascended it (Mont Maudit). It was shocking
to hear, it could easily have been us," he told the Danish news
agency Ritzau by telephone. "It is scary and tragic."

Still, he noted the allure of those foreboding, majestic Alpine
peaks.

"It's part of the thrill that something can go wrong," he told
Ritzau.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls flew over the site later
Thursday, describing it as "a particularly spectacular block of
ice." He said the climbers appeared to be an experienced group,
and that the churned-up snow had made the search particularly
difficult.

French investigators will examine the circumstances of the
deaths.


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