Three Britons feared dead in avalanche

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The Independent Online

A huge search operation was under way yesterday after seven mountaineers, including three Britons, were reported dead in an avalanche in the Russian Caucasus, near the border with Georgia.

A huge search operation was under way yesterday after seven mountaineers, including three Britons, were reported dead in an avalanche in the Russian Caucasus, near the border with Georgia.

The group was not part of a commercial expedition, but appeared to be a team - led by a Russian named Mikhail Zaprizhaski - who had decided to go on their own ski-mountaineering trip, according to the British Mountaineering Council, which represents British climbers.

One of the group from England was Mark Rine, a spokeswoman from Russia's Emergencies Ministry said. No details of the other members were available.

More than 70 rescuers, assisted by Mi-8 helicopters, were searching for the missing climbers, who were last seen climbing the 4,710metre (15,310ft) Uzhba mountain in the Elbrus range of the Kabardino-Balkaria region.

The search was hampered by snow and low temperatures. The British embassy in Moscow said that seven bodies had been spotted from the air but the harsh weather prevented the helicopters from reaching them.

Uzhba, one of the highest summits in the Elbrus range, is an ice-capped peak that is notoriously difficult to climb. Experts said the avalanche could have been caused by ice falling from the top, triggering a snowslide further down.

The avalanche happened on Friday, and was reported by another team of climbers who saw the seven swallowed by the rush of snow. Poor weather and communications held up the news until yesterday.

"This is an unusual time of year to be out there," said Andy MacNae, the council's spokesman, who has wide experience of climbing. "It really is rather early in the year to be out on the hills. We don't know of any official teams who were out there, and we can only guess that the other four people in the group were Russians, and had, perhaps, taken the three on the trip with them," he said.

"The mountain is quite a spectacular peak which is regularly climbed in the summer but it is technically quite difficult, which suggests the group had considerable experience."

Avalanches pose one of the greatest threats to mountaineers at this time of year. Heavy snowfalls can leave apparently innocuous slopes covered in a huge expanse of snow ready to rush downslope without warning. People caught in an avalanche, where the snow can move at speeds of more than 100mph, rarely survive longer than an hour before the combination of injuries, lack of air and cold kill them.

Last October, Ginette Harrison, one of Britain's top female mountaineers, was killed by an avalanche on a Himalayan mountain, Dhaulagiri, the world's seventh highest. Alex Lowe, an American regarded by many as the finest all-round mountaineer of his generation, was also killed that month by an avalanche in the same region.

The Elbrus region is attractive to climbers from around the world because it is relatively cheap to get to and is home to many unclimbed and little-known peaks. But it is principally known as a venue for Alpine-style summer mountaineering rather than snow-climbing because of its remoteness.

Rescuers found a separate group of injured climbers in the upper part of the Uzhba glacier on Monday. One Russian mountaineer, Sergei Sergeyev, had died and four other climbers from the Moscow region were suffering frostbite.

* An Argentine military expedition set out yesterday to try to solve the mystery of a British passenger aircraft which crashed in the Andes 53 years ago.

The British South American Airways Avro Lancastrian - carrying 11 passengers and crew - disappeared on 2 August 1947 during a flight from Buenos Aires to the Chilean capital, Santiago.

No one knew its fate until last month when mountaineers stumbled across wreckage and the remains of three corpses on the 6,865metre Tupungato peak in western Mendoza province.

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