Avalanche that killed nine 'set off by climber'
A climber trying to scale Mont Blanc may accidentally have caused a slab of ice to snap off 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 as darkness fell last night.
As a sheet of snow and ice thundered down the steep slope, several other climbers managed to turn away from the slide just 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 nightfall.
Three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and one Swiss climber were known to have died, the prefecture of the Haute-Savoie region said.
Officials noted the numbers of those involved in the drama may vary because some climbers may have struck out on their own. A group of 28 were known to have left a 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 centre 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 5.25am yesterday to the avalanche, which hit a group of climbers -- people from Switzerland, Germany, Spain, France, Denmark and Serbia -- who were some 4,000m high on the north face of Mont Maudit, part of the Mont Blanc range.
A block of ice 40cm thick broke off and slid down the slope, creating a mass of snow that was 2m deep and 100m 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 Francois of the Haute-Savoie police told reporters.
It was not immediately known if the climber who sparked the avalanche lived or died.
According to recent tweets from climbers, high winds have led to overhanging ice slabs forming on the slope.