Wall of snow kills four in Highlands

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The Independent Online
THE BODIES of four climbers killed in the worst avalanche disaster in the Scottish Highlands were recovered yesterday.

Three others from the party of former Venture Scouts survived despite being buried for almost 16 hours in snow before rescuers reached them earlyyesterday.

Last night, questions were being asked as to why the expedition at Aonach Mor in the shadow of Ben Nevis went ahead despite warnings of a serious avalanche risk.

Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, said a detailed investigation would be carried out. "The loss of four young lives is a terrible reminder Scotland's mountains - so often celebrated for their beauty - hold a treacherous partnership with the weather."

Mountain rescue experts described their astonishment that three of the party had survived being entombed for so long under three feet of ice. Existing views on the chances of people staying alive through such a huge avalanche would have to be changed, they said.

A hand sticking out through the snow, caught in the torch beam of one of the searchers, led to the survivors being rescued. They were taken down by a ski lift to hospital at Fort William, where they were found to have hypothermia but no serious injuries. It is believed the climbers managed to dig pockets in the snow covering them, creating breathing spaces. One told how she breathed through her hand to stop choking.

The climbers were all from Kent and had known each other for several years. All six were members of the Dartford Scout Fellowship, having been close friends since joining the Scouting movement and then the Venture Scouts as youngsters. They were described last night as "fun-loving" people who lived life to the full. The dead were named as Emma Ray, 29, and Paul Hopkins, 28, both from Wilmington; and Matthew Lewis, 28, and Ian Edwards, 30, both from Dartford. The survivors are Steven Newton, 24, from Dartford; his girlfriend Sarah Finch, 25, of Longfield; and their local guide, Roger Wild, from Fort William.

Mr Wild is one of the country's most experienced mountaineers and ran an outdoor pursuits school. He is also a member of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team.

The area had been battered by a force-nine gale and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service had issued a category-three warning, signifying a "substantial risk" of an avalanche, when the party set off on Tuesday morning for the 4,006ft Aonach Mor. At about 3,500ft they were engulfed by a wall of cascading snow.

Mr Wild's wife, Fiona, raised the alarm by contacting the mountain rescue team after he failed to return by 10.30pm on Tuesday.

At a news conference in Dartford, the Rev Richard Arding, the vicar of Wilmington, read a statement on behalf of the families. It said: "We are all very distressed that these young people were so tragically lost while they were living life to the full and doing what they enjoyed most."