Ski deaths guide 'may have made mistakes': Radio not used to keep in contact

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The Independent Online
THE HEAD of the French ski school that arranged the off-piste expedition in which five British doctors died admitted last night that their guide may have made mistakes.

Philippe Caillot, head of the Snow Fun Ski School, said that Hugo Ferrier, the instructor-guide who also died in the avalanche, had failed to give his group's route or to use his radio to keep in contact.

The admission came as the sole survivor, Dr Christopher Ackner, criticised Mr Ferrier, who had been hired privately by the doctors for a week, for not following safety procedures. The six skiers died under tons of snow as they crossed a slope on a high ridge in a large off-piste area near the Alpine resort of Val d'Isere.

Dr Ackner, 44, was the last in the party of seven to cross and that saved his life. He survived by digging a snow hole and waiting in sub-zero temperatures for a rescue operation which began 24 hours after the avalanche.

Mr Caillot said that the guide had hesitated for up to 10 minutes before attempting the slope of virgin snow, which then gave way and crashed 300 metres down the mountainside, burying the group. 'He took a decision about where to go. Perhaps the inquiry will decide it was a wrong one . . .'

Of the guide's failure to use the radio, Mr Caillot said: 'Perhaps he was enjoying himself with his group of skiers and he didn't think to use the radio to tell us where he was.'

Mr Caillot added that even if the alarm had been raised earlier, lives would not have been saved because the skiers died of suffocation within minutes. 'This was a catastrophe - nobody knew the chain of events that was about to happen.'

Jean-Lou Costerg, leader of the ski patrol which rescued Dr Ackner soon after they were informed that the party was missing, said he was also unhappy at the delay. He emphasised that rescuers had little initial idea of where to search and said that Mr Ferrier, 30, did not follow guidelines which say off-piste instructors should give an approximate itinerary.

'The problem is moniteurs (guides) are their own bosses. We just issue guidelines. And since the accident we have repeated those guidelines once again most forcefully,' he said.

Dr Ackner, who left hospital in Bourg St Maurice yesterday, said he had assumed that 'basic information and safety precautions had been taken, naive though that might have been.'

The police inquiry is likely to focus on the safety procedures and routine 'mountaincraft' used by the ski school. Although the weather had been fine, the days prior to the accident had seen winds of more than 60mph (100kph), creating conditions with a high avalanche risk. Some guides in the area said they would not have ventured far off-piste in such conditions.

The doctors who died were Jeremy Gillingham, 44, and his wife Annie, 44, from Bridgend near Perth; Jan Hofmeyr, 38, who worked in Reading, Berkshire; Howard Fleet, in his late forties, from Little Kingshill in Buckinghamshire, a consultant paediatrician at High Wycombe General Hospital; and Claire Webber, 33, of Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, who worked at Bourne End, High Wycombe.

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