Climbers who survived a massive avalanche in the French Alps that killed nine of their colleagues said on Friday they were tossed around by a wave of snow that hit without a sound.
Local officials, meanwhile, insisted it would have been impossible to foresee Thursday’s deadly avalanche.
One survivor, Danish climber Thomas Dybro, 30, said he was deeply shaken by what happened and that he would not be returning anytime soon to Mont Blanc.
“All of a sudden big pieces of ice fell down right next to us ... and then a split second after that it all came down, and hit us and blew us away,” he recalled. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck and did ten rounds [of boxing].”
Three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and a Swiss climber were killed, while 14 other people were injured in the avalanche on one of the most popular routes to the summit of Mont Blanc, western Europe’s highest peak at 4,810m.
Daniel Rossetto, a 63-year-old mountain guide, said the avalanche hit silently as he led two Danish climbers up the mountain, tossing them around like a washing machine. Luckily, they were on the edge of the massive slide and all three survived.
“Big chunks of snow fell onto us, so we were swept. We all fell together and that’s it. It’s quick, but it’s always too long,” he said. “It’s a lot of impact. It’s a 40 degree slope and we fell about 200 to 250 meters.”
Early summer storms had left behind heavy snow, but the weather had cleared enough in the past several days to encourage many guided and independent teams of climbers to set out. The avalanche on the north face of Mont Maudit hit two hours after 28 climbers had left a high-altitude climbing hut.
Britain’s ambassador to France, Sir Peter Ricketts, said the climbers “were doing nothing imprudent” and there were “no indications of an avalanche” ahead of time.
The area where the wind-slab avalanche occurred typically sees between four and 10 accidents per day this time of year, but rarely something so serious, said Jean-Louis Verdier, the deputy mayor of Chamonix and a mountain guide himself.
On busy days, up to 80 people a day can be on that route.
There had been no specific alerts for avalanche risks, he said, and usually such risks are only detectable when a climber is there to examine the snow firsthand. In this case, he added, it was impossible to detect a weak layer in the snow beforehand because the snow had been compacted by strong winds.
The head of the Chamonix mountain search and rescue service, Jean-Baptiste Estachy, echoed that view.
“You can’t predict when it is going to detach, and this one wasn’t expected and it couldn’t have been predicted,” he told a press conference in the Alpine town of Chamonix.
He and other authorities say the avalanche at 4,000m was caused either by the collapse of a serac — an ice cliff — breaking off above the climbers or by a climber inadvertently setting a slab loose.
At the hospital, Frederic Champly, a doctor, said seven of the 28 climbers hit by the avalanche survived unscathed.
“One of the climbers who was ahead, by sticking his ice axe in the snow, snapped off the slab that had accumulated for two or three days up there, and the slab set off and swept all the rope teams,” he said, recounting what the climbers had told him.
It does not matter what caused the avalanche, said British mountain guide Stuart Macdonald, director of the Avalanche Academy in Chamonix.