Tributes have poured in for the climbers killed in a “catastrophic” avalanche in the French Alps.
Nine, including three Britons, were killed after the disaster on Mont Maudit, in the Mont Blanc range, near Chamonix.
They included avalanche tutor Roger Payne, whose website states he was from London but had been living in Leysin, Switzerland.
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.”
Christian Trommsdorff, vice president of the French Guides Association, said: “We don’t know exactly how it was triggered. It is at fairly high altitude there, so it is a snow avalanche.
“It was triggered by either the people who are climbing themselves or by some ice fall above, we don’t know yet.”
As the sheet of snow and ice thundered down the steep slope, several other climbers managed to turn away from the slide in time, regional authorities said.
Two other 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 was hampered however by the possibility of further avalanches.
Early summer storms had apparently left behind heavy snow which 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 and regional authorities had warned climbers earlier this summer to be careful because of an unusually snowy spring.
Mont Maudit is 4,465 metres high and part of the Mont Blanc range. It means Cursed Mountain in French.
The area is one of the most popular with climbers in the Alps.
Chamonix-based mountain guide Richard Mansfield said the route where the accident happened was the second most popular to the top of Mont Blanc and it was not unusual to have 100 people a day use it.
He said: “It’s a very beautiful area and a common route but it can have very serious consequences, particularly due to avalanches.”
Mr Mansfield, who runs mountainadventureguides.co.uk, said the slopes on Mont Maudit face away from the prevailing wind which means snow is pushed over, forming slabs which can easily be set off by a passing climber, causing an avalanche.
He said the climbing group would be roped together as they used this route, usually just one and a half arm spans apart.
British climbers last night expressed their concerns and condolences on mountaineering website forums.
Ali, on UKClimbing.com, said: “Thoughts with all those affected, and a reminder that the Alps are a beautiful place, but sadly can also be a deadly place.”
Doghouse said: “Thoughts go out to everyone.”
And Trangia said: “Terrible news. So sad. My thoughts are with all concerned.”
Speaking from Chamonix, British climber Felicity Smith said: “You’re taking a chance every time you go into the mountains. One can never be 100 per cent sure. It’s very, very difficult to predict something like this.
“The helicopters have been going constantly since 6am in the morning. Everyone is very aware of it.
“This is a particularly big avalanche. There was one in 2008 but every week, I’m afraid to say, someone dies in Chamonix doing high mountain activities.”
The spokeswoman for the Préfecture de la Haute-Savoie said the local gendarmerie were alerted at 5.25am yesterday that two groups of climbers were in trouble on the northern face of Mont Maudit at 4,000m.
She said nine people were taken to hospital in Sallanches with minor injuries and a chapel had been established in the hospital in Chamonix to help families involved in the tragedy.