French avalanche hit with little warning

2012-07-13 14:44

Chamonix - It was nearly impossible to foresee the deadly avalanche on Mont Blanc, officials said on Friday, as survivors of the slide that killed nine climbers described being tossed and trapped by a wave of snow that hit without a sound.

Three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and a Swiss climber were killed, and 14 people were injured in Thursday's accident below the summit of Western Europe's highest peak. A memorial ceremony is scheduled for Saturday afternoon in the Alpine town of Chamonix.

A French guide made the call early on Thursday morning to raise the alarm about the avalanche.

Early summer storms left behind heavy snow that combined with high winds to form dangerous overhanging conditions on some of the popular climbing routes.
Regional authorities had warned climbers to be careful, but authorities said there was no warning of Thursday's slide.

Rare accident

Britain's ambassador to France, Sir Peter Ricketts, said the climbers "were doing nothing imprudent" and there were "no indications of an avalanche" ahead of time.

The area sees between four and 10 accidents per day this time of year, but rarely something so serious, said Jean-Louis Verdier, deputy Mayor of Chamonix and a mountain guide who knows the road taken by climbers.

"We didn't get any alerts of avalanche risks, but we do not always see that risk, and only when we are on [the ice sheet] we unfortunately realise that there is an avalanche danger," he said.

"But yesterday, nothing alerted us, nothing indicated that that drama could happen."

The avalanche hit a group of climbers who were some 4 000m high on the north face of Mont Maudit, part of the Mont Blanc range.

Authorities say the avalanche have been caused by a sheet of ice breaking off above the climbers or by a climber inadvertently setting a slab loose.

Survivor Daniel Rossetto, a 63-year-old guide quoted in France's Le Parisien newspaper, described being tossed and trapped by the snow and tied up "like a sausage" in his rope.

Rossetto, who was leading two Danish climbers up the mountain, said the three of them may have survived because they were on the edge of the falling slab instead of the centre.

"We were on the edge of the avalanche - that was our fortune - while the other climbers were held under by masses of snow," he was quoted as saying. "Where we were, I didn't see the wind slab."

Trapped inside

When the avalanche hit, he said, it was "without sound, just a gust. ... You are trapped inside, it tosses you around. With each shock, you ask yourself if it's going to get worse. It's like I was in a washing machine," he said.

He was quoted as saying he didn't expect the death toll to be so large. "I think the mountain forgives no one," he said.

The dead included the former head of the British Mountaineering Council, Roger Payne, and clients he was leading up the Trois Monts route to the 4 810m summit of Mont Blanc, the group said on its website.

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 global epicentre for serious alpine climbing, hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924.