Survivors tell of 16 hours buried alive

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The Independent Online
A YOUNG couple who survived Scotland's worst avalanche accident this century described yesterday how they managed to stay alive entombed for 16 hours in snow.

The couple and mountain guide Roger Wild were the lucky survivors of an avalanche on 4,000ft Aonach Mor, near Fort William, on Tuesday morning.

Sarah Finch, a 25-year-old embryologist, said she shouted all night but was buried so deep that even as rescuers were digging her out they could not hear her cries.

The avalanche knocked them off their feet and then covered them. "From what I can remember, I think I tried to stand up, but couldn't," said Ms Finch. Her boyfriend, Steven Newton, 24, said he survived by thrashing around until he managed to enlarge a breathing space and slowly free his arms.

Four other members of the party perished beneath the snow. The group of Venture Scout leaders from Kent were on a winter skills course run by Mr Wild, one of the most experienced guides in Scotland, when they were caught in the very trap they were learning to avoid.

In the first direct account of their ordeal Ms Finch and Mr Newton issued a joint statement from their hospital beds. Ms Finch said: "My friend (Emma Ray, 29, one of the dead) booked the holiday and we are quite keen on hill walking, so we decided that while we were in Scotland we would do a winter mountaineering course, basically because we did not have the experience necessary to go up on our own. She booked us up on a mountaineering course that was supposed to last two days and we met Roger Wild on Tuesday morning at the Nevis range [ski resort]. This was about 7.30/7.45am.

"Mr Wild introduced himself and we took the gondola up with the staff, up to the top, and he gave us a briefing and we were also issued with safety helmets, ice axes and crampons. He explained that it would be about a three-quarters-of-an-hour walk to get to the place where we would be doing the ice axe work. Before we started off, he made us put all our waterproofs on and made sure that we were kitted out, which we were, with all the stuff on the kit list.

"After about an hour or so of walking, because it was quite windy, we got to the place where we could start the ice axing, so Roger asked us to put the helmets on, which we all did. We put our rucksacks down in a big pile. Our ice axes were stuck in the ground. He asked us just to stand in a group and chat amongst ourselves for a while, as he was just going a little bit higher up to check out if he was going to find somewhere for us to do the ice axe work.

"He took a couple of paces away from us, and I was facing in the direction of where he was walking, and the snow just came from just behind us really."

Mr Newton said: "It just came towards us but we couldn't move. We were just stuck in the way. We didn't have time to get out of the way."

Ms Finch said: "It just knocked us off our feet and then, in what seemed to be a second wave of snow, covered our heads and then, from what I can remember, I think I tried to stand up, but couldn't.

"I don't know whether I blacked out before that and tried to stand up once it was around me, because it was soft snow to start with. The next thing I remember is being trapped in almost a block of ice, with just a small little space around which I'd dug out to breathe."

Mr Newton said: "I was much the same really, I must have blacked out because I don't remember. I remember waking up and not being able to move any of my limbs, panicking because I am claustrophobic, got snow all around me and in a tiny space. I just thrashed my head around and managed to enlarge the space, and throughout the night I slowly managed to get one arm out and then the other arm out.

"I found an ice axe laid across me in the snow, which I used to try and dig my way out. Towards the end of the night or before we were found, I managed to get a hole to the surface and tried to drag myself out, but my feet were just trapped. I couldn't get my feet loose at all. A bit later I heard voices shouting and that's when the rescue team came.

"I tried shouting during quite a bit of the night and I did hear a female voice sort of early on in the evening. I couldn't decide if it was Sarah or not. I kept shouting out to Sarah, but I couldn't really hear any reply towards the end of the night."

Ms Finch said: "As far as I can remember, I was shouting all night, but the rescue team said I was so deep that even when they were digging me out, they couldn't hear me shouting, so all that had been in vain, but I felt good. I heard somebody shouting, I didn't know who it was, but now I know it was Steve. I heard Roger shouting right at the very end when the rescue team were digging us out, but I didn't hear anything from any of the others there."

Mr Newton, describing his emotions on being rescued, continued: "I was so overwhelmed at getting out, not knowing if there would be another wave of snow coming down while I was trapped in there. It was so frustrating at the time as I had dug my way to the surface and just could not get out to start digging for other people. I just had to lay there and wait."

Before he managed to dig to the surface, Mr Newton's head was about three feet below the snow and his legs perhaps six feet down.

The couple expect to be discharged from Belford Hospital, Fort William, today after treatment for sprains, bruises and mild hypothermia.

Asked if he planned winter mountaineering again, Mr Newton replied: "Not for a while, I don't think. It will take quite a while to come to terms with what has happened; the loss of our good friends. We just want to get home."