Expatica news

Missing climbers in Alps avalanche feared dead

25 August 2008

CHAMONIX — Mountain rescue workers on Sunday suspended their search for eight climbers, five Austrians and three Swiss, missing in an avalanche in the French Alps, because of worsening conditions.

As one rescue worker described the aftermath of the accident as like a "scene from the apocalypse", police said the search had been halted because of the risk of another avalanche.

Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, after visiting survivors of the accident and rescue workers at the resort of Chamonix, said there was "no longer any chance of finding someone alive".

The minister described the avalanche near western Europe’s highest peak Mont Blanc as "gigantic" in scale and "without hope of escape" for the climbers.

A major avalanche swept down a mountainside near Mont Blanc early Sunday morning and injured eight people — four French nationals and four Italians. Police revised an earlier estimate of 10 people missing to eight after two Italians turned up safe.

Helicopters and rescue teams had spent the whole of Sunday scanning the Alpine snow for signs of life at the site, which is popular with hikers in the Mont Blanc range spanning France’s border with Italy.

The avalanche, 200 metres long and 50 metres wide, struck at an altitude of 3,600 metres during what police described as "excellent" weather conditions around Mont Blanc.

The climbers were on the 4,250-metre high Mont Blanc du Tacul when they were hit by a massive wall of snow around 3:00 am (0100 GMT).

It appeared to have been caused by a block of glacier ice that broke free and rolled down the mountain, a regular event in both winter and summer in these mountains, according to locals.

Climbers of high mountains such as Mont Blanc du Tacul often begin their ascent hours before dawn, and a mountain guide raised the alarm around 3:15 am.

The commander of the Chamonix PGHM mountain rescue services, Regis Lavergne, said he believed the avalanche swept the eight missing men 1,500 metres.

"We have found indications on the surface such as bags, socks, and ice-axes," he said.

One survivor, Italian guide Marco Delfini, said he saw "a wall of ice coming towards us and then we were carried 200 metres."

Another survivor who fractured his ankle said his group was three-quarters of the way up the mountain when the guide suddenly shouted: "Run fast! Run fast!"

"There was absolutely no noise, it was very disturbing. We only had time to swerve to the right before being mowed down," Nicolas Duquesne said from hospital in Sallanches.

The 30-year-old Frenchman added that he had to "swim" through the snow to escape death.

Mountain guide Goulven Cuzon, 41, who took part in the early morning rescue operation and helped treat the injured, described the devastation.

"When I say scene from the apocalypse it’s because there were a lot of injured, it was cold, it was dark, it was stressful," he told AFP.

Some of the eight rescued — who were aged between 26 and 37 — had to be dug out of deep snow, while others had managed to free themselves.

The rescue team sent in to search for survivors included 14 mountain guides, firefighters, and mountain police officers.

An Italian rescue helicopter was also sent in to back up the two French choppers involved in the operation.

Around 30 people have died in this year’s summer season in accidents in the French Alps, most of them in the Mont Blanc range, and a further 60 have perished in the Italian and Swiss Alps.

[AFP / Expatica]