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.
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 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 epicenter for serious alpine climbing, hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924.
Police said they were alerted around 5:25 a.m. to the avalanche, which hit a group of climbers who were some 13,100 feet high on the north face of Mont Maudit, part of the Mont Blanc range. It was apparently triggered by a climber accidentally breaking loose a 16-inch-thick block of ice that slid down the slope, unleashing the mass of snow, officials said.
It was not immediately known if that climber was among the dead.