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Mont Blanc avalanche: 'Scary and tragic' (+video)

Nine hikers in France lost their lives in an avalanche on Mont Blanc in France, home to the first Winter Olympics in 1924. The dead include one of Britain's most famous climbers. 

By John HeilprinAssociated Press / July 12, 2012

Rescue efforts have been halted until Friday to the avalanche site in Chamonix, French Alps. An avalanche in the French Alps swept nine European climbers to their deaths on a slope leading to Mont Blanc. The expedition caught in the avalanche that was about 4,000 meters (13,1000 feet) high on the north face of Mont Maudit, part of the Mont Blanc range.

(AP Photo)

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CHAMONIX, France

They set out before dawn, hoping to conquer a mountaineering classic: Mont Blanc, Western Europe's highest peak. But below the prized summit, a climber is believed to have accidentally caused a slab of ice to snap off, triggering an avalanche Thursday that swept nine climbers to their deaths and injured a dozen others.

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An avalanche swept over a group of foreign climbers in the French Alps on Thursday, killing at least nine people in the deadliest such disaster in the region in a decade.

As the 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. Three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and one Swiss climber were among the dead.

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

"It was too dangerous. Everyone has been waiting for something to happen there," said Swedish web designer Michael Andersson, who three days before turned back at roughly the same spot where the avalanche occurred. "But nobody could think it would be this big or this many people."

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 15,782-foot (4,810-meter) summit of Mont Blanc, the group said on its website.

Initial reports said four climbers were missing, but by nightfall all were accounted for, including two who had turned back before the avalanche. Among the dozen injured was an American, the only known non-European. A seriously injured Swiss citizen was transported to a Swiss hospital.

Current British Mountaineering Council head Dave Turnbull said the mountaineering world was "shocked and saddened" by the loss of Payne, one of Britain's most notable climbers, with expeditions from the Alps to the Himalayas. He and his wife, Julie-Ann Clyma, were both internationally certified mountain guides, based in Leysin, Switzerland.

"It's pretty shocking. I mean, the guiding community here is pretty tight-knit — there's probably about 400 guides in Chamonix. Everybody will have known somebody who was in the hut last night," said Stuart Macdonald, a British guide who directs Avalanche Academy Ltd. in Chamonix and knew Payne.

"Everyone's really feeling it," McDonald said.

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