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ACCIDENT

Loved ones mourn at French avalanche site

Relatives of the nine climbers killed by an avalanche in the French Alps gathered at the nearby resort of Chamonix on Friday to pay their respects the day after the tragedy.

The mountaineers who died in the avalanche on Mont Maudit (“Cursed Mountain” in French) in the Mont Blanc massif early on Thursday were three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and a Swiss. Twelve others were injured.

Relatives of Roger Payne, a former general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council, arrived in Chamonix late Thursday, as did Britain’s ambassador to France Peter Ricketts and the Swiss consul.

“We are here to support the families whatever way they like in these tragic times,” Ricketts said, hailing in French the memory of Payne “very well known in Chamonix and in Great Britain.”

The brother of one of the dead Spaniards went early Friday to Chamonix hospital where the bodies are being kept in nine rooms.

“We’re receiving the victims’ families at the town hall with staff and a member of the PGHM,” French mountain rescue group, before taking them to the bodies at the hospital, said town hall security official Jean-Louis Verdier.

“We’re trying to help them understand as best as possible why their loved ones died, so that they can mourn. There was no technical error,” Verdier said.

The avalanche also injured 12 people, one seriously who has been hospitalised in Sion in Switzerland. Six of the injured have already left hospital.

Mont Maudit is the massif’s third-highest peak, rising to 4,465 metres (14,650 feet) and is considered one of the more difficult paths to the summit of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest peak.

Thursday’s accident marked the deadliest climbing disaster in France since August 2008, when eight climbers — four Germans, three Swiss and an Austrian guide — were swept away after blocks of ice broke off Mont Blanc du Tacul, prompting an avalanche.

Some 20,000 climbers attempt to reach the summit of Mont Blanc every summer, with up to 500 a day during peak times.

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SKI

Dad’s ‘miracle escape’ after being buried by avalanche in French Alps

A man out walking with his family in the French Alps has made a miraculous escape from an avalanche after spending more than two and a half hours trapped under snow, rescuers said.

Dad's 'miracle escape' after being buried by avalanche in French Alps
Ski lifts in France are closed, but visitors and locals are free to enjoy other outdoor sports. Photo: AFP

The 50-year-old father was snowshoeing near the high-altitude Val d'Isere ski resort with his wife and two children on Thursday without anti-avalanche safety equipment.

“Thank to the mobilisation of nearly 100 people… the man was found alive after two hours and 40 minutes of searching,” the police for the local Savoie département announced on Twitter.

Because of the depth of the snow, rescue dogs were unable to detect a trace, but the man was eventually dug out by a specialised mountain police team which used a Wolfhound device to locate his mobile phone under the ice.

“I think it's a miracle,” Alexandre Grether from the PGHM rescue team told the France 3 local news channel, adding that the man was found 2.5 metres (eight feet) below the surface.

The chances of survival after more than 20 minutes in an avalanche are usually slim.

“He was protected by a tree, that's what prevented him from being crushed by all the ice that slid down. The snow had surrounded him, but he had a pocket of air,” he explained.

The victim is expected to make a full recovery after suffering a fracture to his hip.

The avalanche risk on Thursday was at its maximum – five on a scale of five – and rescuers urge people to always check the snow conditions before venturing out.

READ ALSO 'Whole season a write-off' – what next for France's ski resorts?

Ski lifts in the Alps, which have seen some of their heaviest snowfalls in years in January, are currently closed because of restrictions imposed by the government to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Visitors and locals are free to enjoy hiking, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing, but occupancy levels in hotels and chalets are way down and business owners and seasonal staff face serious hardships.

The government has promised an economic support package for the sector.

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