Nine climbers - including three Britons - have been killed after an avalanche hit the Mont Blanc range in the French Alps, French authorities have confirmed.
The avalanche, which struck near to the French Alpine ski resort of Chamonix, happened at around 5am this morning. Rescuers were alerted to the incident about twenty five minutes later.
The early-morning climbers were ascending Mount Maudit - which translates as 'cursed peak' - and is considered one of the most dangerous climbs in Europe.
Mont Maudit is 4,465 metres high.
The bodies of three Britons have been found along with those of two Swiss nationals, two Germans and two Spaniards.
Up to 28 climbers were taking part in the expedition at the time of the avalanche. Four people who were missing, were later accounted for.
Gendarmes and other rescuers along with two helicopters worked to pull the dead and the injured from the mountain.
Richard Mansfield, a Chamonix based mountain guide, said the route where the accident happened was the second most popular to the top of Mont Blanc and that it was not unusual for a 100 people a day to use it.
He said: “It's a very beautiful area and a common route but it can have very serious consequences, particularly due to avalanches.”
The slopes on Mont Maudit face away from the prevailing wind which means snow is pushed over forming slabs, he said.
“These can easily be set off by a passing climber, causing an avalanche.”
The climbing group would most likely have been roped together as they used the route up the mountain - usually one-and-a-half arm spans apart.
Christian Trommsdorff, vice president of the Foreign Guides Association told the BBC:
“Unfortunately this morning there's been a big slab avalanche.
“We don't know exactly how it was triggered.
“It is at fairly high altitude there, so it is a snow avalanche.
“It was triggered by either the people who are climbing themselves or by some ice fall above, we don't know yet.”
Speaking to the BBC from Chamonix, British climber Felicity Smith said: "You're taking a chance every time you go into the mountains. One can never be 100% sure. It's very, very difficult to predict something like this.
"The helicopters have been going constantly since 6am in the morning. Everyone is very aware of it.
"I'm afraid it is something the town is used to.
"This is a particularly big avalanche. There was one in 2008 but every week, I'm afraid to say, someone dies in Chamonix doing high mountain activities."
Foreign Secretary William Hague said tonight: "I am very saddened by today's tragedy in Chamonix, and I send my deepest condolences to the friends and families of those affected.
"We are in very close contact with the French authorities and our ambassador and consular officials are heading to Chamonix to provide consular assistance.
"We will offer whatever support and assistance we can. I would also like to thank the French rescue services for their efforts in these difficult circumstances."