Forecasters and the rescue services warned of continuing danger yesterday after avalanches claimed the lives of three climbers. Two of the climbers were killed when they were were swept away as they ascended Ben Nevis and the third died in hospital a few hours after being rescued from Liathach ridge at Torridon in Wester Ross.
The fatalities brought to six the number of people killed in 24 hours after much of the UK was gripped by freezing weather conditions for the second week running. The biggest loss of life came in northern England, where three men from Preston were killed on a snowy Pennine stretch of the M62 near Huddersfield on Tuesday night when the car they were travelling in collided with a barrier. They were named last night as Bilal Bholat, 24, Imran Bodi, 27, and Alnoor Rajani, 31.
A series of accidents brought long delays to many roads, with the A14 in Suffolk, the A5 in Shropshire and the A628 in Greater Manchester all closed after accidents. In Blaenavon, South Wales, tragedy was narrowly averted when a large tree fell on to an empty car.
The bodies of the climbers killed on Ben Nevis were discovered in deep snow that had plunged hundreds of metres down the mountain, burying the pair in a gully on the north face of Britain's highest mountain. The Northern Constabulary said formal identification will take place once the next of kin had been informed, and a report will be submitted to Scotland's procurator fiscal.
The avalanche was one of three reported yesterday in the Highlands. But the build-up of surface hoarfrost – a condition more commonly associated with the Alps – brought on by days of freezing meant that the weather posed a threat to those who ventured up the higher peaks.
Mark Diggins of SportScotland Avalanche Information Service said the prolonged cold spell had resulted in the build-up of fragile frost crystals that caused fresh snowfalls to become unstable.
"The crystals can be quite dangerous if buried by further falls of snow as they form a very, very weak layer. They are a bit like soap flakes and create a very slippery surface," he said.
The third climber to die had been caught by an avalanche at Liathach ridge. He was located by a friend who called him on his mobile phone but police said last night that he had died in hospital.
Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team leader John Stevenson said: "It was extremely dangerous for the rescuers, and we had spotters out to watch for any of the team getting into trouble." Later in the day, two climbers were found and airlifted to safety in a third search after an avalanche on Beinn an Dothaidh near Bridge of Orchy in Argyll.
Fatal avalanches, although rare in the UK, are not unprecedented. Three people were killed during a cold snap in January this year at Buachaille Etive Mor at Glencoe.
Yesterday, fresh snow swept across Wales, northern England and Scotland. Those in the south who escaped further falls endured another rainy, gloomy day.
Between midnight and 3pm, the AA had attended about 9,000 breakdowns on the roads. A spokesman said the service was expecting to have been called out 14,000 times by the end of yesterday, although this is significantly fewer than the 18,000 call-outs made to AA mechanics on Tuesday.
Forecasters were predicting a cold night for many areas tonight, with temperatures at midnight likely to dip below freezing in many areas. Those attending Hogmanay events in Scotland, where the weather will be coldest, were advised to wrap up warm and refrain from drinking too much.