Two brothers were among three men swept to their deaths by an avalanche in the Scottish Highlands.
Eamonn Murphy, 61, and his 63-year-old sibling John, from Northern Ireland, died alongside Brian Murray, from Tayside, when they were buried by the snow slide just 600 feet from the summit of Buachaille Etive Mor, one of the country’s more iconic mountains.
Friends of Eamonn Murphy described him as a man with boundless enthusiasm and generosity of sprit.
His wife Carol said Mr Murphy and his brother, who each had three grandchildren, had grown up with a passion for hill walking and climbing.
“Both Eamonn and John were about as experienced in the outdoors as it was possible to get and they would not have taken any unnecessary risks or done anything to endanger themselves or any members of their party,” she said.
“They grew up on the foot of the Cave Hill [in Belfast]. That was their playground and they gained their love of hillwalking and the outdoors from there. They went walking whenever and wherever they could, either locally around Cave Hill, around the Mournes, in Scotland, Italy and the Himalayas. That was their passion - they could not get enough of the outdoors.”
John, who leaves a wife Kathleen, son Richard and daughter Geraldine, had recently retired from Customs and Excise. Eamonn had taken early retirement from his post as a vice-principal at a special school for deaf and blind pupils and had spent the last eight years pursing his passion for painting.
Ivor Coburn of the Ulster Watercolour Society, said: “Eamonn was always bouncing with unabashed enthusiasm, keen as mustard. No matter what he did, he did it whole heartedly. His enthusiasm was infectious and he was a good friend. He was doing what he wanted to do and it is so terribly unfortunate. There has been total disbelief from our members. Our annual exhibition is coming up and we will have some sort of memorial, show some of his work.”
Alison McFerran, of the Battletown Gallery, Newtownards, where Mr Murphy exhibited his contemporary watercolours, added: “He had a passion for everything he did. He taught a monthly class for adults and the group just adored him. They are devastated. It has been an immense shock. We are going to miss him dreadfully. He was a very, very friendly man, a warm person. He got along with everyone and treated everyone kindly. He was so enthusiastic and encouraged all his students no matter what their ability was. He always tried to see the good in people.”
Friend Robert Harron, who often framed Mr Murphy’s work, continued: “He was the most amazing man you could ever meet. Just before he went away he came into my shop. He was always excited about his trips.”
Carol Murphy praised her husband’s fellow climbers and the emergency services for their rescue attempts, adding: “Eamonn and John knew their limits and would never have done anything which was too risky. They were both fit men for their age, loved adventure and they both found it invigorating being part of the outdoors….It seems that this happened without warning and there was nothing more that anyone could have done to prevent it. They died doing what they loved best."
She continued: "Going to the Dolomites in Italy and their Burns weekend trips to Scotland were the highlights of their year…The trip wasn't considered particularly dangerous or even risky - we all expected them to come back."
Last night members of the An Teallach Mountaineering Club, a small, friendly association that hold informal meetings in a remote hut in Glencoe, were said to be traumatised after trying in vain to dig their friends from their icy graves. Member Duncan Little said they were “coping”.
The group of seven, who had gathered for a Robert Burns anniversary meeting, were tackling Coire na Tulaich section of the mountain, at lunchtime on Saturday.
A separate pair of friends Jim Coyne and David Barr, 53, were about 100 feet away while solo climber Tom Richardson, 54, passed both groups on his way to the summit.
Some climbers described a bang as a “huge slab of snow” came away, causing a massive slide of ice and rocks.
While Mr Richardson managed to “surf” the avalanche and alert the emergency services, the others were buried beneath the oncoming tide, three of them swept over a 50 foot cliff.
Hampered by intermittent blizzards, a massive search and rescue operation was launched, involving two helicopters from RAF Lossiemouth and Royal Navy base HMS Gannet.
Five men had managed to pull themselves clear by the time Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team arrived, located two of their friends and were trying to resuscitate them.
“The group were severely traumatised after digging two of their dead friends out of the snow. The boot from one of them had been sticking out of the snow and they desperately dug with their ice axes to try to reach him,” said John Grieve, Team leader. “They gave resuscitation for 30 minutes until the helicopters arrived, but it was too late.”
It took the rescue team a further 20 minutes to track down the third man but he was beyond saving.
“It was horrific to find another body and it was a shame that we could not do anything,” said Mr Grieve.
Meanwhile Mr Coyne, 50, of East Kilbride, having managed to dig himself free spotted his friend David Barr’s arm sticking out of the snow. For ten minutes he burrowed frantically with his hands before eventually freeing his fellow climber. After offering to help the other men, the pair made a tortuous two-hour trip down the mountain where Mr Barr, from Paisley, was hospitalised for injures to his shoulder but later discharged.
“It’s a miracle we survived. We have never experienced anything like this in all our climbs on the mountains,” said Mr Coyne.
Buchaille Etive Mhor, which reaches 3,352ft in height, is popular in summer but only experienced walkers are advised to take it on in winter. The Avalanche Information Service website warned that the avalanche hazard for Saturday was "considerable" on Saturday..
Hamish MacInnes, 78, a founder of the Avalanche Board, said: "There are a lot of avalanches on this particular mountain - this is one of many, but also one of the worst.
"In the steep parts the snow can't accumulate, but these climbers were in a gully where snow can accumulate and that's where the trouble was.
"People have to assess for themselves what the risks are, and luck comes into it too. I think these people have been pretty unlucky."