Three climbers die when avalanche strikes Highlands

'It was massive... a huge slab of snow which just came away. We were engulfed,' says eyewitness

Three mountain climbers were killed in an avalanche in the Scottish Highlands, police said last night. The three, two men from Northern Ireland and a third from Scotland, died yesterday after being trapped under an avalanche on Buachaille Etive Mor in Glencoe, near Fort William.

A fourth climber was seriously injured. Five others escaped injury. It is believed the climbers were members of at least two separate teams in the same area when the avalanche struck.

One man who survived the accident said he had to dig his injured friend out of the snow. Jim Coyne, 50, from Lindsayfield, East Kilbride, said he and David Barr, 53, of Paisley, were one of three parties on the mountain when a slab of snow came away from the peak. Mr Barr reportedly suffered an injured shoulder in the avalanche.

Mr Coyne said: "We were just below the summit when it happened. It was a massive avalanche, a huge slab of snow which just came away. We were engulfed and I managed to dig my way out. As I tried to get my bearings, I saw an arm sticking out of the snow. It was Davie. I dug for 10 minutes using just my hands to get him free."

A helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth, which had been on exercise in the area, was the first to reach the spot on the Coire na Tulaich area of the mountain, and took the first two climbers aboard. A second rescue helicopter, from the Royal Navy station at HMS Gannet, near Prestwick, was also scrambled and took the Glencoe rescue team and search dogs to the scene. The rescue team struggled through blizzards to locate the injured climbers.

Experts said people had died in the area in previous incidents. Mike Pescod, a mountain guide based in Fort William, said he had been out with climbers on the same mountain yesterday, but chose a different route down because the snow was so unstable. "Why on earth did anyone go up there today?" he asked last night. "It has been snowing all week, and the mountain is very loaded and avalanche-prone today. This pass is known as somewhere that collects snow and is a hazard for avalanches. It's a spot where climbers have died before."

The Sport Scotland website rated the risk of avalanches in Glencoe as "considerable". Yesterday's risk was rated as category three, on a scale of one to five. David Campbell, the manager at the nearby Glencoe Ski Centre, said the area was popular with climbers. "It's a well-known area for climbers," he said, "but it's not an area for the inexperienced. This is a really major incident."

Bob Kinnaird of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service said it was not known whether the victims had read yesterday's warning. He told the BBC it was "a massive exaggeration" to suggest that people should not have been on the mountains after a category three avalanche warning was given.

The Fort William area is known for its beautiful scenery. Buachaille Etive Mor, which reaches a height of 3,352ft, is known for its distinctive near-pyramidal shape.