British climbers killed by avalanche in French Alps

British mountaineer Kenton Cool told the BBC he was ''shocked and saddened'' at Roger Payne's death

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A respected climber was among three Britons killed in an avalanche, which left a total of nine dead, near the French Alpine ski resort of Chamonix.

Roger Payne, former chief executive of the British Mountaineering Council, was working as a guide when the avalanche struck on the slopes of Mont Maudit.

Mr Payne, originally from west London, was described as one of the UK's most respected and enthusiastic climbers.

The next of kin of all three climbers killed have been informed.

The current chief executive of the British Mountaineering Council, Dave Turnbull, said on its website: "Roger was one of the UK's most enthusiastic and respected climbers with a track record of Alpine and Himalayan mountaineering stretching back to the 1980s.

"Our thoughts are with Roger's friends and family - in particular his wife, Julie-Ann."

In an obituary on the site, Ed Douglas said there were few areas of the mountaineering world Mr Payne had not influenced for the better.

"The overriding impression he leaves is of an unwavering and infectious enthusiasm for the mountain life," he said.

British mountaineer Kenton Cool said Mr Payne's death would send shockwaves around the mountain guide community.

"I've known Roger for many years, and I'm shocked and saddened to hear about this tragic accident. He was an inspiration and I was very proud to be part of the British Mountain Guides under his guidance."

Map of avalanche site

The British ambassador in Paris, Sir Peter Ricketts, said the two British climbers who had been reported missing had taken a different route and returned to Chamonix, where they informed the local police that they were safe.

Police said there was no-one still missing after the avalanche.

The alarm was sounded at 05:25 local time (04:25 BST) by an injured climber on the route, which is popular with tourists trekking towards nearby Mont Blanc.

The others killed were reported to be from Spain, Germany and Switzerland.

Sir Peter and other embassy staff have travelled to the area from Paris to provide consular assistance.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was "very saddened" by the incident and sent his deepest condolences to the friends and families of those affected.

"We will offer whatever support and assistance we can. I would also like to thank the French rescue services for their efforts in these difficult circumstances," he said.

The Foreign Office had set up an emergency number for people worried about friends and relatives, which is 0207 008 1500.

'Catastrophic'

Officials said 28 people had set off from a climbing hut to attempt the route on Thursday. Some had been supervised by professional mountaineering guides but others had been climbing independently.

People waiting to be rescued from Mont Maudit, 20 minutes after the accident Rescue teams used helicopters and heat-seeking devices to try to locate any missing people, before the search was called off for the day.

They are believed to have reached 4,000m (13,120ft) when the avalanche struck.

Nine people were airlifted to hospital in Sallanches with minor injuries.

Visiting the area, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls described the avalanche as "catastrophic" and said his thoughts were with the victims.

At a press conference he paid tribute to the rescuers and said an investigation was under way.

Avalanche blackspot

Chamonix mayor Hean-Louis Verdier told Reuters news agency the avalanche was completely unexpected.

"We had no more reason than usual to be alarmed," he said.

Mont Maudit

Rescue teams on Mont Maudit
  • Third-highest peak in the Mont Blanc massif range at 4,465m
  • Translates from French as cursed mountain
  • Popular route for tourists heading to Mont Blanc
  • First ascent of Mont Maudit completed in 1878
  • Southern side is steeper than the gentle northern snow slopes

"It's a steep mountain face. There are big plates of snow where an avalanche can easily occur. But this morning we had no reason to expect an avalanche of this size and such a tragedy."

Mountaineer Seamus Smith told the BBC he had been in the same area two weeks ago and rain had caused the snow and ice to fragment, making the whole area treacherous and prone to avalanche.

Christian Trommsdorff, of the French Guides Association, said the weather had been windy, which always increased the chance of "icefall".

Mr Cool said the area was known as something of an avalanche "blackspot".

"Every few years there is a big avalanche... it would be a huge wave of snow," he said.

The French authorities described the avalanche as "the most deadly" in recent years.

Mont Maudit - meaning the cursed mountain - is the third-highest peak in the Mont Blanc massif range, rising to 4,465m.

The last major avalanche in the Alps was in 2008, when eight Swiss, German and Austrian climbers perished.

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