Five survive 900ft fall on Ben Nevis

Key points

• Death seemed certain as avalanches swept down UK's highest peak

• Climbers halted by single ice screw after first avalanche before second hit

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• Climber tells of swimming on top of snow; all injured, none critically

Key quote

"I could see the cliffs below and didn't know which direction it would take us. It felt like we were falling forever and being bashed about. Luckily my rucksack took most of the punishment" - Jamie McDowall, mountaineer

Story in full FIVE climbers escaped with minor injuries after they were swept 900ft by an avalanche which struck as they neared the summit of Ben Nevis.

The two separate parties were climbing the north face of Britain's highest mountain when the snow gave way above them.

One of the climbers, James McDowall, from Chester, took a photograph of his climbing partner with a digital camera just minutes before the avalanche struck.

Despite plunging almost the full height of the face they had been scaling, the climbers were able to dig themselves out of the snow and walk away.

The avalanche which hit on Saturday was one of several that caught climbers at the weekend.

Mr McDowall and his climbing partner, also from Chester, were just a few metres beneath the top of number two gully when the build-up of overhanging snow at the top, known as a cornice, gave way and caused the whole slope to slide.

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They fell past the second party of three climbers, from Sheffield, and were halted by a single ice screw. But within minutes the avalanche started again and all five were swept down the gully, bouncing off small cliffs on the way.

The avalanche stopped just yards from sending the group into a frozen lochain. All five managed to stay on the top of the cascading snow and were only partially buried.

The climbers were badly battered and bruised and had lost pieces of equipment ripped from their hands. But they managed to walk the five miles to their cars where they reported the incident.

Mr McDowall, 24, a systems analyst, said he thought he was going to die.

"It's unbelievable that any of us survived at all. My partner was near the top but the rope didn't stretch far enough and he had to stop just a few metres below. Then we heard the cornice collapse and the whole slope started to go.

"Our rope stopped us near the party and we thought we would be better to keep going up as going back down would be more dangerous, but then the whole lot went. I just thought, 'This is it now'. It was a hell of a ride.

"I could see the cliffs below and didn't know which direction it would take us. It felt like we were falling forever and being bashed about. Luckily my rucksack took most of the punishment."

Mr McDowall said he helped his chances of survival by using a swimming motion to try to stay on top of the moving snow. He suffered a badly swollen leg but no other injuries.

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Once at the bottom, the five climbers were left partially buried in a tangled mess of ropes and limbs. One of the party had a rope caught around his neck which had to be freed. The climber went to hospital for an X-ray on his badly swollen neck while another had damaged his shoulder.

They contacted Lochaber Mountain Rescue to tell them what happened and reported their missing equipment, including ice axes, at the police station in Fort William.

Mr McDowall said when they had checked the avalanche forecast it had given a category two warning but this was later upped to category three which indicates a "considerable" risk.

Last night Lochaber Mountain Rescue team leader, Terry Confield, said: "This is a serious slide and they are extremely lucky to have escaped with relatively minor injuries."