Avalanche 'triggered by loose sheet of ice'.
A CLIMBER trying to scale Mont Blanc may have accidentally caused a slab of ice to snap off high in the French Alps, sparking an avalanche which swept nine European climbers to their deaths, authorities said.
A dozen other climbers were injured and two were still missing by nightfall.
As a sheet of snow and ice thundered down the steep slope, several other climbers managed to turn away in time, regional authorities in Haute-Savoie said.
Two climbers were rescued as emergency crews using dogs and helicopters scoured the churned-up, high-altitude area in a frantic search for the missing.
Their quest, hampered by the possibility of further avalanches, was called off as it grew dark.
Three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and one Swiss climber were known to have died, the prefecture of the Haute-Savoie region said.
The dead included the former general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council, Roger Payne, the council said on its website.
An initial report of four missing was lowered to two, and officials noted the numbers of those involved in the drama could vary because some climbers may have struck out on their own. A group of 28 were known to have left a mountain refuge for the ascent.
Close to 90 people were involved in the search.
Among the dozen injured was an American, the only known non-European. A seriously injured Swiss citizen was transported to a Swiss hospital. Early summer storms apparently left behind heavy snow that combined with high winds to form dangerous overhanging conditions on some of the popular climbing routes around Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. Regional authorities had warned climbers earlier this summer to be careful because of an unusually snowy spring.
Some of the climbers were with professional guides, others were climbing independently.
Police said they were alerted around 5.25am local time to the avalanche, which hit a group of climbers - people from Switzerland, Germany, Spain, France, Denmark and Serbia - who were some 13,100ft (4,000m) up on the north face of Mont Maudit, which translates as Cursed Mountain and is part of the Mont Blanc range.
A block of ice 16in (40cm)) thick broke off and slid down the slope, creating a mass of snow that was 6ft (2m) deep and 328ft (100m) long, according to a statement by the prefecture.
It hit several groups of mountaineers who were roped together.
"The first elements that we have from testimony are that a climber could have set loose a sheet of ice, and that sheet then pulled down the group of climbers below. I should say the incline was very, very steep on this northern face," Colonel Bertrand Francois of the Haute-Savoie police told reporters. It was not immediately known if the climber lived or died.
According to recent tweets from climbers, high winds led to overhanging ice slabs forming on the slope. Several days ago Chamonix saw a monsoon-like downpour which turned to snow at 9,850ft (3,000m).
French investigators will examine the circumstances of the deaths.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "I am very saddened by today's tragedy in Chamonix, and I send my deepest condolences to the friends and families of those affected."
RESPECTED CLIMBER KILLED A RESPECTED climber was one of three Britons killed in a major avalanche in the French Alps.
Roger Payne was a mountain guide and former general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council.
Dave Turnbull, the current chief executive of the BMC, said: "The mountaineering world is shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic death of Roger Payne, former BMC general secretary and former president of the British Mountain Guides.
"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."
* Gendarmes unload a victim of the avalanche from a helicopter at Chamonix rescue base, French Alps