The Alps and their glaciers have attracted tourists and sports enthusiasts for centuries. But three Britons in 10 days have joined an annual death toll of about 100 people killed hiking, climbing or skiing among Europe's highest peaks.
The latest feared dead is a British climber who used his mobile phone to call for help after becoming stranded in a blizzard on the French side of the range. Rescue teams used tracker dogs yesterday as they resumed the search for Brian Ellis, a 53-year-old teacher from Ilfracombe, Devon. He had managed to leave a message at the hostel where he had been staying. "Help me, I'm stuck, oh God," he said – and then the line went dead.
Mr Ellis has been missing since Tuesday after going hiking in the Massif de Belledonne. Rescuers believe he became lost in a blizzard on one of the better-known trails.
A spokesman for the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) en Montagne said that a 40-strong party had resumed the search for Mr Ellis and hoped to use one or two helicopters, as well as the dogs. Asked what chances there were of Mr Ellis still being alive, he said: "Very small after four days – but we have a little hope." A search and rescue helicopter was sent to look for him on Wednesday, but bad weather prevented it taking off on Thursday.
Mr Ellis, the head of physics at Ilfracombe Secondary School, set out from his hostel in Chamrousse, near Grenoble, at 9am on Tuesday and was due to arrive at his destination, the Refuge de la Prat, the same evening. He phoned the hostel on his mobile phone just before 7pm and left his desperate message pleading for help but it was not picked up until an hour later, when a full-scale search was launched.
Two other British climbers have died in the French Alps within the past seven days. A 27-year-old man from Cheshire died after falling 1,000ft (305 metres) on Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc, last Monday; on Thursday last week a 41-year-old from Essex was killed when several tonnes of ice collapsed on the Glacier du Bossons, near Chamonix.
But Doug Scott, a Briton with more than 30 years' experience climbing around the world, insisted: "The accident rate in the Alps is comparatively low compared with the number of people who go there." In the summer season, as many as 200 people ascend Mont Blanc every day.
The search for Mr Ellis has been intense but by yesterday afternoon had proved fruitless. "We have had more than 30 rescuers calling out, whistling and scouring the area over the last two days but they have found nothing," a spokesman for the CRS said. "This man has been missing for three days and I'm afraid his chances of survival are diminishing."
Although the trail he was using is well-known, the weather had worsened at 2,000 metres (6,561ft), the spokesman said. "There were high winds, with hail and a lot of snow. He could have fallen through a hole in the snow, or there could have been an avalanche. But we just don't know what has happened. We haven't seen any tracks or any sign of him at all."
The climbing season is year-round in the Alps – as are the deaths of climbers and skiers. Bad weather is one of the most common causes of death when climbers go on two- or three-day trips with the minimum of gear, and are caught on difficult ground in a blizzard. In the summer months, it is often dangerous to be on rockfaces in the middle of the day, as the sun melts the snow which has been holding together groups of rocks. Rockfalls commonly kill people crossing on the slopes below.
Every year more than a million Britons visit the Alps to climb, hike and ski, with up to 10 million people visiting in total. Mr Scott said: "This is the playground of Europe and, unlike the US, once you're past the village boundary you can climb to your heart's content. In the US it's so regimented you have to sign in and out of parks all the time. The Alps is free of rules and regulations."