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Survivors say they were tossed about by Mont Blanc avalanche; Authorities say no warnings seen
CHAMONIX, France (AP) A survivor of the French Alps avalanche that killed nine climbers said he and others were tossed around by a wave of snow that hit without a sound and trussed him up "like a sausage" in his climbing rope.
Local officials, meanwhile, insisted it would have been impossible to foresee Thursday's deadly avalanche.
Three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and a Swiss climber were killed and 14 people were injured on one of the most popular routes to the summit of Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest peak at 15,782 feet (4,810 meters).
The avalanche on the north face of Mont Maudit hit two hours after 28 climbers had left a high-altitude climbing hut.
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.
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 particular 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.
There had been no specific alerts for avalanche risks there, 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 made compacted and hard 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 news conference in the Alpine town of Chamonix.
He and other authorities say the avalanche at 13,100 feet (4,000 meters) high 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.
"It actually doesn't matter what caused it," British mountain guide Stuart Macdonald, director of the Avalanche Academy in Chamonix, told The Associated Press. "In hindsight, what we know is that it was unstable snow. It doesn't matter what triggered the avalanche and we might never find out."
Macdonald said while the slopes of the two peaks along the route leading to Mont Blanc are renowned for their avalanche risk, there had been hardly any snow in Chamonix during the past week. He said photographs of the accident site showed clear evidence of multiple slides across the slope and deep unstable layers within the snowpack.
One survivor, Danish climber Thomas Dybro, 30, was deeply shaken by what happened.
"You will not see me down here again. Not the next couple of years," he told AP after he was discharged from the hospital.
Yet guides were still setting out with clients Friday, although poor weather limited many to lower heights.
Survivor Daniel Rossetto, a 63-year-old guide quoted in France's Le Parisien newspaper, described being rolled down the mountain by the slide as he was leading two Danish climbers. All three survived.
"We were on the edge of the avalanche that was our luck while the other climbers were held under by masses of snow," he was quoted as saying.
When the avalanche did hit, he said, it was "without sound, just a gust."
"You are trapped inside, it tosses you around. With each shock, you ask yourself if it's going to get worse. It's like I was in a washing machine," he said.
Rossetto didn't expect the death toll to be so large.
"The mountain forgives no one," he told the newspaper.
A memorial was to be held Saturday in Chamonix.