THE survivor of an avalanche in Glencoe that killed four of his friends paid tribute to them last night, as police named three of the victims.
The group had been climbing on Bidean Nam Bian when the avalanche struck at about 2pm on Saturday, sweeping four to their deaths and seriously injuring a 24-year-old woman.
The sixth walker, a man, suffered only minor injuries, after escaping the accident using his ice axe.
Mountain rescuers said the four who died fell about 1,000 feet and ended up buried in thick snow.
Andy Nelson, from the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, said they were found in snow up to two metres deep.
He said the slide would have unfolded “in a split second” and “they would have been travelling at a speed that was impossible to stop.”
Northern Constabulary last night named three of the four victims.
Christopher William Bell, from Blackpool, was a student who was studying for a PhD in ocean mapping in Oban.
Junior doctor Una Rachel Finnegan, 25, was from County Antrim in Northern Ireland, but lived in Edinburgh.
Tom Chesters, 28, was a PhD student at Hull University, living in Leeds.
The family of the fourth victim has requested that her name be held back until extended next of kin are informed.
Police last night said the injured woman had suffered serious head injuries and had been transferred to the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, where she remained in a critical condition last night.
The surviving male member of the avalanche, who asked not to be named, issued a statement saying the party had been “experienced winter walkers”.
He said: “Yesterday, five of my friends and I were descending a mountain in Glencoe in an area known as Church Door Buttress when the party was swept away by a snow avalanche.
“It is with much sadness and deep regret that some of my friends have died as a result.
“All in the group loved the mountains and are experienced winter walkers,” he said. “Can I ask that the deceased families and I are allowed to grieve in privacy at this difficult time.
“My sincere thanks go to members of the public, the mountain rescue teams and the other emergency services who assisted.”
It is believed the party were descending from a peak on the south side of the valley when the snow-covered slope they were crossing broke away, engulfing five of them and sending them hurtling down the mountain.
Chief Inspector Derek Paterson said police were still investigating the events surrounding the accident and it was too early to speculate on the cause of the avalanche. He added that avalanches were “very rare”, and accounted for just 2 per cent of all mountain incidents.
The four bodies were winched off the hill by helicopter, and Chief Inspector Paterson said: “From the time the alarm was initially raised to the time the fifth – injured – casualty was being recovered was two and a half hours.”
The community in Glencoe yesterday tried to come to terms with the tragedy.
Those who died were remembered at a morning prayer service, led by lay preacher Dr Jeoff Headden, at St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Church.
Church warden George Grant, 76, said: “There have always been mountain tragedies here.”
But Mr Grant, who has lived in Glencoe all his life, added: “Over my lifetime there has not been a mountain tragedy of this scale, not that I can recall.
“We said prayers for the victims and their families. There have been many, many accidents, but it’s the number [of fatalities] that is different.”
In the bar at the Clachaig Inn, climber John Rushby, 43, of Bradford, said: “Our condolences go out to the families.
“It could happen to any one of us, it’s a freak and random thing.
“Its important to say that the avalanche conditions were relatively benign; it was a normal day on the hills.
“There was nothing in the avalanche warning.
“It’s just very, very unfortunate; it’s a freak accident.”
Explaining why climbing is such a popular sport, Mr Rushby, added: “Its just stunning up there; it is absolutely beautiful. It’s the most beautiful place on earth, and that is why we do it.”
His climbing companion, Steve Dunne, of Silsden, West Yorkshire, said: “Its very sad, they were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday described the accident as “an appalling tragedy”, saying “to lose four people from a party of six is truly devastating”.
He thanked the police and mountain rescue teams, adding: “Our immediate thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who have been lost.”