Avalanche victims all 'good skiers': Mountain experience and fitness aids survivor who tells medical partner that he is 'shocked, but lucky to be alive'

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the victims of Saturday's avalanche at Val d'Isere was a woman doctor who only decided at the last minute to join her husband so that she could go skiing.

Ann Gillingham and her husband Jeremy, a conference assessor, both 44, came from Bridgend on Tayside. Her father-in-law, Professor John Gillingham, said yesterday that his first thought on learning of his son and daughter-in-law's deaths was one of 'disbelief'.

Professor Gillingham, a retired specialist in neurological surgery at Edinburgh University, said: 'They have been skiing for many years - since they were seven or eight years of age. They would have been very aware of any potential dangers.'

Dr Gillingham and his wife were both general practitioners and he also lectured at Dundee University. Their son Mark, 18, is a student at Edinburgh University, and daughter Melissa, 16, is a boarder at Strathallan School in Perth. They were skiing at Glenshee in the Highlands yesterday when Prof Gillingham broke the news to them.

Another of the victims, Jan Hofmeyr, 38, a partner in a Reading surgery, was to due to be joined by his wife Janet, a physiotherapist at Battle Hospital in Reading, for the second week of his stay.

She left home yesterday morning and heard the news of his death when she arrived in Geneva, from where she phoned Jan's father, John, 77, at his home in Goring on Thames, Oxfordshire.

Dr John Hofmeyr said: 'Janet phoned us just after noon today and it came totally out of the blue. Obviously it came as a great shock to us. He was a good skiier and had been to Val d'Isere three or four times before and had been skiing every year since he was a schoolboy.'

Dr Hofmeyr was an all-round sportsman who excelled at hockey at London University, where he qualified in 1970 after training at the Royal London Hospital. His two children, Paul, 6, and Kathy, 4, were being comforted by relatives.

The fourth victim, Dr Claire Webber, had a practice based at Pound House in Bourne End, near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Her father, Howard, 66, a retired businessman, said: 'She was devoted to her profession and she was also a great sportswoman. She particularly loved skiing.'

A medical colleague said: 'She was totally professional, the sort of woman you could ring up at four o'clock in the morning and she wouldn't grumble.'

Dr Webber, 33, was single and shared a cottage with her brother Mark in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. She qualified at London University and trained at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington.

The fifth victim, Dr Howard Fleet, who was in his late forties, was a consultant paediatrician at High Wycombe General Hospital. He leaves a wife and two children, who live at Little Kingshill, Buckinghamshire.

Susan Harding, administrator at High Wycombe General Hospital, said: 'I'm sure his former colleagues and patients will be devastated by this news. He was a very well respected and an excellent doctor - one of the most popular people in the organisation.'

The French guide who died was Hugo Ferrier, 30, who had been instructing ski parties in Val D'Isere for a number of years.

Dr Christopher Ackner, who survived the avalanche, is one of eight partners at a surgery in Penryn, Cornwall. He suffered shock but no serious injuries and is due to leave hospital in Bourg St Maurice today. He got in touch with the surgery yesterday to reassure colleagues he was all right and added that he was 'lucky to be alive'.

Dr Michael Ellis, one of his partners, said that Dr Ackner, in his 40s, had been skiing for about 30 years, and was very experienced and fit, which helped to save his life. 'A lot of the partners go skiing, myself included, but none of us is in his league,' he added. Dr Ackner, who is married with two young children, Ben and Emily, has been a partner in the Penryn surgery for about seven years. His wife, Dee, had spoken to him from their home near Falmouth, Dr Ellis said.

Two climbers died in separate accidents as gales swept the Welsh and Scottish mountains. Colette Fleetwood, 29, of Bristol, suffered fatal injuries in a fall on Snowdon.

In Scotland, Richard Gleed, 21, from Altringham, Cheshire died after he plunged through a snow hole and landed in a freezing mountain stream in Glencoe.

(Photographs omitted)