Latest British avalanche victims were fundraising for hospice

 

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The Independent Online

Two Britons killed in an avalanche in the French Alps were fathers of young children and had been raising funds for a local hospice.

Steve Barber, 47, and John Taylor, 48, lived in the same street in Upper Poppleton, a village to the north-west of York. They both had children at Poppleton Ousebank School.

The third British man who lost his life after being hit by a massive wall of snow yesterday was Roger Payne, one of the UK's most respected climbers and former general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council (BMC).

A total of nine climbers were killed as they traversed Mont Maudit - translated as Cursed Mountain - in the Mont Blanc range near Chamonix. Among the other victims were three Germans, two Spaniards and one Swiss climber.

They were part of a 28-strong group which left a climbing hut to attempt the route, described by local guides as the second most popular to the top of Mont Blanc, in the early hours of yesterday morning.

A church service is to be held in Chamonix tomorrow afternoon in memory of the dead climbers, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said.

Parents at Poppleton Ousebank School were told in a letter from headteacher Estelle O'Hara: "It is with great sadness that I write to inform you that two of the climbers killed in yesterday's avalanche in the French Alps were parents from Poppleton Ousebank - Steve Barber, father of Frankie in Year 5 and John Taylor, father of Emma in Year 5 and Louise in Year 3.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to both Donna Rogers and Karine Taylor who have both lost their life-long partners.

"Children have been informed and school staff have been supporting them throughout the day, providing a caring shoulder and answering any questions that children may have.

"We would ask that people respect the families' privacy at this sad time. We understand that the climb was to raise money for St Leonard's Hospice and so we will be collecting on their behalf."

Leader of the City of York Council's Conservative group, councillor Ian Gillies, who represents Upper Poppleton, said: "Devastated doesn't cover it, really.

"I'm sure the people in the village and the wider community will provide the support the families need, not only now but for weeks to come."

Councillor James Alexander, Labour leader of City of York Council, added: "I am deeply saddened by the news that two Poppleton residents lost their lives in Thursday's avalanche in Chamonix, France.

"I would like to offer their families and friends my condolences and offer any support and assistance we can provide at this difficult time."

All those believed to have been missing have been accounted for, but police are continuing to search the area.

Two other Britons - including climber Dave Compton, 41, from Ellesmere Port - reported missing following the avalanche were confirmed safe and well after presenting themselves to police in Chamonix yesterday evening.

Mr Valls said: "The avalanche was caused by heavy snow, which was triggered by a strong wind. This was a major danger on a mountain which has been covered by snow. The risk is known.

"We know that the climbers tried to navigate to traverse the mountain initially and it is difficult to foresee such kind of avalanche. We were unable to realise that such a thing would have happened."

British Ambassador to France Sir Peter Ricketts said: "Our thoughts are with the families of the victims of this accident.

"Unfortunately we had three British victims that were killed. We would like to thank the French authorities for the work they have done, the professional support we have received.

"My consular team is here to support the families of the victims who have come here to Chamonix."

He added: "This is a shock. There is a feeling of sadness here in Chamonix. One of the victims was a very well-known and experienced guide, based here in Chamonix."

The alarm was raised at 5.20am local time by one of the injured climbers. French authorities were told that a "slab" avalanche had hit several groups of mountaineers who were roped together on the northern face of Mont Maudit at 13,123ft (4,000m). The mass of snow was 6ft (2m) deep and 328ft (100m) long.

Several dozen gendarmes and other rescuers along with two helicopters were sent to the scene to pull the dead and injured from the mountain. Nine people, from Switzerland, Germany and France, were taken to hospital in Sallanches with minor injuries.

The mountaineering world has paid tribute to Mr Payne.

Dave Turnbull, the current chief executive of the BMC, said he was "shocked and saddened" by the tragic death of the avalanche instructor and mountain guide.

He said: "Roger was one of the UK's most enthusiastic and respected climbers, with a track record of Alpine and Himalayan mountaineering stretching back to the 1980s."

He confirmed that Mr Barber and Mr Taylor were also members of the BMC.

British mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington also paid tribute, saying that Mr Payne, who had taken part in more than 20 expeditions to the world's highest and most challenging peaks, was "a very special person".

Mr Payne, a former president of the British Mountain Guide, was originally from Hammersmith in West London, but is understood to have been living in Leysin, Switzerland, with New Zealand-born wife Julie-Ann Clyma, who is also an experienced mountaineer.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has sent his condolences to the friends and families of those affected, saying he was "very saddened" by the tragedy.

The Mont Blanc massif is a popular area for climbers, hikers and tourists but a dangerous one, with dozens dying on it each year.

Janet Morley, director of fundraising at St Leonard's Hospice in York, said: "In May, St Leonard's heard from his partner Donna that Steve Barber intended to do an ice-climb on Mont Blanc and had chosen to raise funds for St Leonard's Hospice in York as an important local charity.

"As far as we are aware he had no direct link with the hospice, so we were very pleased to hear that he recognised the important part the hospice plays in York and the surrounding area, and we were looking forward to the photographs he promised to bring back from this adventure to use on the hospice's website.

"We are devastated to hear of Steve's death and the deaths of John Barber and Roger Payne, as well as of the other victims. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends today."

Daniel Rossetto, a 63-year-old mountain guide who survived the avalanche, said the experience was like being "in a washing machine".

Mr Rossetto was leading two Danish climbers up the mountain and believes the trio survived because they were at the edge of the falling slab of snow.

He told France's Le Parisien newspaper: "We were on the edge of the avalanche - that was our fortune - while the other climbers were held under by masses of snow."

He described being tied up "like a sausage" in his rope and added that when the avalanche hit, it was "without sound, just a gust".

Mr Rossetto said: "You are trapped inside, it tosses you around. With each shock, you ask yourself if it's going to get worse. It's like I was in a washing machine."

He said he did not expect the death toll to be so large and added: "I think the mountain forgives no one."

Mr Taylor was director of resources at housing organisation the Vela Group.

Chief executive Cath Purdy described him as "a kind, gentle man" who had been pursuing his passion when he was killed.

She said: "This is an enormous tragedy and all John's many work friends have been left absolutely devastated by his death.

"He died doing something that he loved, climbing was his real passion. He was planning a charity expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in February next year.

"Everyone at Vela shares with me an absolute sense of loss and sadness. Our thoughts and prayers are with John's wife Karine and his two children at this incredibly sad time, and we will offer them any support they need.

"John was a kind, gentle man, who was well-loved and always had time for his many friends."

She added that Mr Taylor, who had more than 20 years' experience in the housing and construction industries, was "instrumental" in creating the Vela Group. He had also worked as a mentor for the Prince's Trust and Teesside University's Diversi-tees scheme.

Mr Taylor and Mr Barber lived almost opposite each other in the quiet Pear Tree Avenue in Upper Poppleton.

Neighbours said they were shocked by the news but most said they did not want to talk.

Flowers were delivered to Mr Taylor's detached home.

One man who lives in Pear Tree Avenue said both families had lived in the street for a number of years.

Upper Poppleton is a quiet, affluent commuter village about five miles to the west of York.

Mr Barber's friend, Richard Norton, told the York Press: "He was just the nicest, quietest person and had a really dry sense of humour - he might not say much, but when he did, it was always really witty.

"A group of about 12 of us used to go out and I saw him about a month ago. One thing I remember about him was that he was always so smart - it was effortless for him - and he also never seemed to get any older.

"I could not believe it when I heard the news and my thoughts go out to his family."

PA

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