Six skiers killed by avalanche: Accident went unreported for 24 hours - Sole survivor of British doctors' off-piste trip in French Alps sheltered in snow hole

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The Independent Online
THE DEATHS of five British doctors and their ski guide, swept away by an avalanche in the French Alps, went unreported for 24 hours. A sixth doctor, who narrowly escaped, survived the night in sub-zero temperatures by sheltering in a hole he dug in the snow.

Dr Christopher Ackner, an experienced skier, knew that to move risked setting off another avalanche or dying of exposure outside. Yesterday he told one of the partners in his practice in Penryn, Cornwall: 'I am lucky to be alive.'

His dead colleagues on a week- long visit to Val d'Isere, which combined a medical conference and ski holiday, were named last night as Ann Gillingham and her husband, Jeremy, both 44, from Perth, who had two teenage children; Jan Hofmeyr, 38, a partner in a Reading surgery, married with two young children; Claire Webber, 33, single, from Bourne End, near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire; and Howard Fleet, married and in his late forties, who was a consultant paediatrician at High Wycombe General Hospital.

The avalanche struck on Saturday morning. The six doctors, all accomplished skiers and on the last day of their trip, set off at 9am on a challenging off-piste tour from Tignes to Champagny. Although the weather was bright, and the 100mph winds of the previous day had eased, much of the area was on the second highest state of avalanche alert, known as 'red flag'.

At 11am, beneath a ridge at the Col du Palet, the skiers were swept down the valley by a huge snow slide. The alarm was not raised until 10am yesterday, when the wife of the guide, Hugo Ferrier, told the Snow Fun ski school that he had not returned home. The secretary of the school, who declined to give her name, said last night that Mr Ferrier had a radio linked to the school, but had not been in contact for more than two days.

A taxi he had ordered to collect the party after their run left without reporting that they had failed to turn up. He had left no itinerary or told them when to expect him back.

When the alarm was finally raised, a mountain rescue helicopter from Courcheval flew towards Tignes. In less than an hour it picked up signals from the alarm bleepers worn around the necks of the party. Dr Ackner was found uninjured, but in shock. The rest of the skiers were dead.

Dr Ackner, married with two young children, is expected to be released from hospital in Bourg St Maurice today.

The doctors were combining a skiing holiday with medical lectures every evening. The National Health Service gives GPs pounds 2,100 a year if they attend 30 hours of lectures a year to update their knowledge.

Jean-Lou Costerg, leader of the rescue team, said Dr Ackner had been unable to describe exactly what had happened. He had said 'it was over in a matter of seconds. He was the last in the group and those below him were caught by the avalanche. He had lost his skis and his poles and could not walk off the mountain. He was lucky to survive.'

Last night ski experts said that given the dangers of off-piste skiing, somebody should have been responsible for checking that the party had come down safely at the end of Saturday's run. They were staying at a chalet hotel, La Foret, in Val d'Isere, and were not missed when they failed to show for dinner. The ski school said the guide had been hired privately by the group for the week.

T J Baird, an instructor at another ski school in the resort, Alpine Experience, said it would be accepted procedure for a guide to leave details of his itinerary and inform his school of his return. Bladon Lines, the company which organised the trip for 69 British doctors, said it was 'worried' procedures had apparently not been followed.

Over the weekend three other people died in avalanches in the Savoie area.

Victims and dangers, page 2

(Photograph and map omitted)

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