THE leader of the mountain rescue team involved in the Glencoe tragedy last night spoke of the horrific and desperate scenes they encountered on arrival at the avalanche site.
John Grieve told how two of the climbers had already been dug out of the snow and how their friends were vainly battling to bring them back to life.
The 65-year-old veteran of mountain rescues, in an exclusive interview with Scotland on Sunday, said: "The first two guys had been dug out by the time we got there. One of them had had his boot sticking out of the snow.
"They dug him out with their ice axes. Then they started probing the snow with ice axes for the other climber and dug him out too. They had already started to resuscitate him when the helicopter lifted him. There was a guy there with a broken shoulder, and he walked off the hill with his friend. He didn't wait to be rescued."
"Obviously it was a terrible experience for the climbers and they were very shaken.
"It was really bad up there. It was snowing heavily, but there was a gap in the weather. It was really hairy up there and really soggy. Nearly all avalanches are slabs of snow coming down, but here there were no big, dry blocks. The conditions were very difficult."
Grieve went on to describe how helicopter crews braved the atrocious conditions to take the casualties and rescuers off the mountain.
He said: "We first of all had an RAF helicopter that came in. It lifted two of the casualties and took them to the hospital. Within another five or 10 minutes a Navy helicopter came from Prestwick and took four of us in, but at first because of the turbulence he couldn't get in. He had several attempts, four or five attempts, with several frightening moments."
Grieve, who has worked as a mountain rescue volunteer for 40 years, works in the team with his brother Richard, who will be 70 this year, and son Robbie, 35.
He said the nine caught in the avalanche appeared to consist of two parties, one made up of seven friends, both Scottish and English, and a pair of climbers.
"The snow up there is under tremendous tension," said Grieve. "All it takes is something to break that tension and its causes an avalanche, something as simple as walking across it.
"That's what happened. A guy was walking up the hill and the snow below him broke off under his feet. He had his ice axe with him and was able to put his ice axe into the snow and hold on, so he did not go down with the avalanche. He's obviously feeling bloody shocked about this.
"It was the guy at the top who came down and told us what had happened. He's feeling pretty grim. It's not his fault in any way, but he's a bit upset about it."
Grieve said the avalanche swept the victims downhill for 500 feet.
"It wasn't a particularly big avalanche, but it came surprisingly far down, and there would have been hundreds and hundreds of tons of snow. We've been up in that gully when people have been buried in 30 feet of snow. But these guys were buried in just a metre. That's enough, though."
Grieve praised the surviving climbers for the efforts they made to save the victims.
He said: "These guys did fantastically well. They saw their friend with his boot sticking out and did their best to resuscitate him and then used their ice axe to dig the other guy out when he was buried in the snow. They were really good on the hill, they were all friends. They're pretty shaken up now, but they did exceedingly well, they were all very well equipped."
He added: "I've been up this gully many, many times. We've had three triple fatalities here over 30 years.
"But I'm still not sick of going up there to save people because I've been in an avalanche, I know what it's like. There were four of us, my three friends were killed and I was the only survivor. That was 1970, on Ben Nevis. So I know what these survivors are going through now. They'll be feeling it now. The worst thing when it happened to me was talking to the families because we were very close friends."
Grieve said the incident meant they had lost more people already in 2009 than the whole of last year.
"We had two fatalities last year, one of them in that same place, because we know just how snowy that gully can get. The gully Laggan Garbh means rough hollow. We can get as many as 13 dead here in a year, but this year we've only been out six or seven times."
Fatal attraction to snow-covered slopes
THE last fatal avalanches on the mountain were in 1995 when the imposing Buachaille Etive Mor claimed at least six victims, writes Jeremy Watson.
In February that year, an experienced climber from West Yorkshire spent the morning giving his son and a friend an ice-climbing lesson, but it was on the descent down the distinctive gully that tragedy struck.
A climber is believed to have triggered an avalanche high above them, sending a wall of snow crashing down on to the party. It took mountain rescue teams weeks to retrieve the bodies.
Even as they lay concealed, three climbers from Manchester were recovered from the mountain after being swept away when an avalanche began beneath their feet in March. A year earlier, Dimitris Andrikopulos, 23, a Greek student at Aberdeen University, and a companion were swept away by an avalanche. His companion escaped.
In January, 2001, a 28-year-old climber and his father lived to tell the tale despite being swept 300ft down the mountain after one of their party dislodged a snow overhang near the 3,345ft summit.
In 2002, a mountain instructor and his student were airlifted to hospital after being swept 100ft down the mountain. Both survived.
Buachaille Etive Mor, with its pyramid shape and steep flanks, is one of Scotland's most impressive mountains. In summer there are relatively easy scrambles and classic mountaineering routes.
In winter, the mountain is a magnet for climbers that people worldwide travel to. But the nature of the slopes coupled with its accessibility just off the main A82 through Glencoe mean that more accidents appear to happen here than anywhere else in Scotland.