THREE climbers died yesterday after being caught by an avalanche which swept down one of Scotland's most iconic and dangerous mountains.
The climbers were attempting to tackle Buachaille Etive Mor, above Glencoe, despite warnings of a "considerable" avalanche risk in the area.
Nine climbers in two separate parties were involved in the incident, which sparked one of the biggest search and rescue operations – amid atrocious weather conditions – in the Scottish mountains for years.
Two helicopters, sniffers dogs and Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team were involved in the three-hour operation. As well as the three dead – one man from Scotland and two men from Northern Ireland – a fourth man last night remained in Belford Hospital, Fort William, although his injuries are not thought to be life-threatening. The remaining five escaped unharmed.
Last night, the leader of Glencoe mountain rescue gave a compelling account of the tragic scenes encountered at the avalanche site. John Grieve revealed the avalanche was caused by a 10th climber dislodging a huge sheet of snow, which crashed down on the nine, sweeping them 500ft downhill.
Grieve said the climber avoided being swept away by digging in with his ice axe. He then alerted the emergency services about the incident, which happened during an ascent of the mountain's Coire na Tulaich corrie at around midday.
Grieve told Scotland on Sunday that the surviving climbers were still desperately digging their friends' bodies from out of a foot of snow with their ice axes when the rescue team arrived.
One man who survived the tragedy last night spoke of how he had to dig his injured friend out of the snow.
Jim Coyne, 50, Lindsayfield, East Kilbride, said he and David Barr, 53, of Paisley, were on the mountain when a slab of snow came away from the peak.
Barr reportedly suffered an injured shoulder in the avalanche. Coyne said: "We were just below the summit when it happened. It was a massive avalanche, a huge slab of snow which just came away. We were engulfed and I managed to dig my way out. As I tried to get my bearings I saw an arm sticking out of the snow. It was Davie. I dug for 10 minutes using just my hands to get him free."
Tom Richardson, 54, an experienced climber from Sheffield, was on the mountain when the avalanche struck, and also alerted emergency services after narrowly escaping it.
He said: "I followed the tracks of two groups up the hill and overtook them. Just after that the avalanche started. I was caught in the avalanche, but was able to come down on top of the snow. I rode down on top of the avalanche. The rest were covered in the snow."
A spokeswoman for Northern Constabulary said last night that the next of kin of those killed had been informed.
The Glencoe area is famed for its stunning scenery and is popular with skiers, climbers and walkers. Buachaille Etive Mor, is one of Scotland's most iconic mountains, known for its distinctive pyramid shape.
Bob Kinnaird, head of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, said the avalanche risk on the mountain yesterday morning was placed at three plus on a range of one to five.
Its warning stated: "Snowpack stability will remain poor on all steep North-North-West through North to East aspects above 850m where avalanches are likely. Weak cornices will continue to grow over these locations and be prone to collapse."
Kinnaird said: "The slopes were pretty loaded with snow and so there was a distinct possibility of this happening. What we do not know is whether this group had picked up on the avalanche risk. We understand the avalanche occurred near the top and it is possible there has been an error of judgment."
Hamish McInnes, a pioneering mountain rescuer, said: "The conditions are quite bad there with heavy snow showers, and a big accumulation of snow on the hills, which increases the avalanche risk. Category three is fairly dangerous. I would be pretty wary. They possibly thought that if they were going up an easy route it was going to be all right, but often the easier routes are more dangerous for avalanches than the steep routes because the snow accumulates in the corries and gullies."
David Campbell, manager of Glencoe Ski Centre, said: "It's a well known area for climbers, but it's not an area for inexperienced climbers."
As darkness fell on Buachaille Etive Mor last night, other climbers descended to tell of horrific conditions and horrific sights. Graeme Sinclair, 24, a Glasgow engineer, said: "It was absolutely awful up there. We watched for an hour as the mountain rescue teams tried to dig several groups of climbers out of the snow."
Sarah Kelly, 25, a Glasgow dentist who witnessed the scene, said: "It's awful. They must have been under the snow for over an hour."
Richard Champman 36, from Nottingham, said: "We got about 600m up and conditions were really bad. We set back and realised there were people ahead of us who were stuck."
Avalanche risk appears to have decreased over the past decade, due in part to a long series of milder winters. The last fatal avalanches on the mountain were in 1995, when Buachaille Etive Mor claimed at least six victims.
• Rescuer tells of horror: 'There were hundreds of tons of snow'