One hand stuck out of snowy waste led rescuers to a miracle in the mountains

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The Independent Online
THE SIGHT, in the flickering torchlight, of an arm sticking out of the snow was all that helped to prevent what happened at Aonach Mor from turning into a disaster of even greater magnitude.

The rescuers had been facing the seemingly hopeless task of searching miles of snow-covered land in the dark for a lost party of climbers. But now, with frantic digging, they managed to scoop out three people, freezing and in shock after being entombed under 3ft of snow for 16 hours, but alive.

Four others, however, were dead. And yesterday, as families of the survivors breathed a sigh of relief and the bereaved mourned, the question of how things could have gone so badly wrong began to be asked.

The climbers were all Kent Venture Scouts, led by Roger Wild, a guide and instructor from Fort William and one of the most experienced mountaineers in the country. The party had gone to Scotland on a winter skills training course.

When the Scouts arrived on Monday at the Lochaber mountains Nevis Range, alongside Ben Nevis, the area was being battered by a force 9 gale. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service had issued a Category 3 warning, signifying there was the " substantial risk" of an avalanche.

The group was staying on The Fingal, a 128ft barge moored on the Caledonian Canal at Gairlochy, north of Fort William, and were said to be in good spirits.

Early on Tuesday morning Mr Wild, who runs his own climbing school and is a member of the Lochaber mountain rescue team, set off with his party for the 4,006ft peak of Aonach Mor.

Lashed by icy winds they climbed 3,500ft towards their destination. At about 10am, they were hit by the avalanche. The experience must have been terrifying, say mountaineers, with the climbers hearing a roar before being engulfed by cascading snow and ice with no hope of escape.

They should all have perished. No one can recall anybody having survived such an avalanche in the Scottish Highlands. The reason some of them did, according to experts, is because they managed to dig airholes in the snow that was covering them.

They may also have used the emergency procedures climbers are taught for such situations, adopting a swimming motion to help to propel the body upwards.

One of the group, Sarah Finch, later told rescuers that she saved herself by frantically clearing the snow from her mouth and nose as the avalanche hit. Unable to move for an hour, she breathed through her hand, which she had clamped over her mouth to prevent choking by the snow.

Mr Wild should have returned home by late Tuesday afternoon. When he failed to do so by 9.30pm his wife, Fiona, contacted the police. They in turn called Terry Confield, leader of the Lochaber mountain rescue team and a friend of her husband.

Mr Wild had left details of his route and itinerary and the team were able to use the gondola ski-lift system of the Nevis Range to get 30 of the rescue party to the site in about an hour.

As well as the Lochaber team, RAF mountain rescue teams came from Kinloss, near Fife, and Leeming in North Yorkshire. The Yorkshire team had been on snow training in the area when they were alerted. A helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth also joined the operation.

The 60-strong rescue party continued for about an hour. Then one of their torches illuminated an arm and the shape of a body in the snow.

John Stevenson, deputy leader of the rescue party, said: "We then began to dig and found the other people. The avalanche had not swept them apart any great distance.

"We could not believe it when three of the people, two men and a woman, were still alive. Although they were very hypothermic, they were still conscious, and one of them managed to speak with a great deal of effort. It was a relief not all of the people had perished, but it is still a terrible tragedy."

Mr Confield said it was the first time in 35 years of rescue work that he had seen anyone escape alive from an avalanche. Flight Lieutenant Patrick Thirkell, from RAF Kinloss, said: "In the 18 years that I have been involved in rescues, I have never come across a case in which avalanche victims have survived for a such a long period of time. Usually, if people are not crushed or smothered to death by the force of the tumbling avalanche, the cold and wet will ensure they will freeze to death.

"I honestly thought we would only be looking at bodies. I think that this case will change experts' opinions on the survivability of avalanche victims."

The climbers were brought down by the ski-lift gondola after it was decided that the helicopter could not be used because of the fierce wind and fears that the rotor blades would triggered another avalanche.

The survivors were transferred by ambulance to Belford Hospital at Fort William. None of their injuries was serious, but they were suffering fromhypothermia.

Consultant surgeon David Sedgwick said: "I would have expected them to have sustained major skull, chest and abdominal injuries. They were in pretty good condition despite being trapped for hours. They are lucky to have survived."

Any investigation into the accident would want to know why Mr Wild chose to go ahead with the expedition despite the avalanche warning. Blyth Wright, co-ordinator of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, said: "The team leader would have known the risks and the information would have been readily available. A Category 3 warning means that an avalanche is most likely to occur. The reports are available in most hotels, guesthouses, pubs, police stations and it is unlikely they would not have been aware of the risks."

Local mountaineers said the climbers were in an area that did not normally suffer from avalanches and that Mr Wild was a proficient guide.

Ian Sykes, manager of the Nevis Range Ski Resort, said: "Roger is a very careful, sensible bloke. Sometimes accidents really are accidents. Where they were was not particularly steep, I just walked up with my hands in my pockets and there was really no scale of avalanche at all. It seems to have been one of those bloody awful things."

Yesterday cloud shrouded Aonach Mor, lifting intermittently to reveal the covering of snow that makes the Scottish hills such a magnet for climbers in winter. Looking up at the peaks, one mountaineer said: "The lesson is how unpredictable nature can be. You can put up ski-lifts, you can do all sorts of things, but you cannot really tame these mountains."