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Ben Nevis avalanche survivor recalls moment his three friends were swept to their deaths

Mathieu Biselx described how the party of four experienced climbers from France and Switzerland were flung down a steep gully on Ben Nevis by a torrent of heavy snow

A climber who survived a devastating Scottish avalanche which killed three of his friends has spoken from hospital of the terrifying moment they were swept to their deaths.

Mathieu Biselx described how the party of four experienced climbers from France and Switzerland were flung down a steep gully on Ben Nevis by a torrent of heavy snow.

"It’s terrible, they’re not here anymore. They won’t see their families again," he said.

Disaster struck when the men, all members of the Club Alpin Suisse de Sion, were caught on the mountain as Storm Gareth blew in on Tuesday.

The four climbers were hit by a "massive" avalanche at around 11.50am as they made their way up Gully No. 5 on the north-eastern side of the peak, sparking a huge search and recovery operation in what rescuers yesterday described as "brutal conditions".

Two of the men were French nationals aged 41 and 32, while the third fatality was a Swiss man aged 43.

Photo courtesy of Jean Gill of Eoin Donnelly walking on Ben Nevis on Tuesday prior to an avalanche which "wiped out" a climbing party, killing three of them

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PA

Speaking from his hospital bed M. Biselx, 30, a keen skier and climber from the Alpine town of Sion who studied economics and business at Cardiff University, said: "We were not very high and all of a sudden we heard a noise. 

"One of us yelled: ‘Avalanche’. We got into a safe position but in two seconds we were swept away by heavy, compact snow. I felt myself fly through the rocks."

When he came to a standstill his body was trapped under the snow but his head was free. 

He said: "My head was out of the mass. I called my friends, I shouted. No response. Then I realised the magnitude of the drama.”

He added:  "My three friends proposed this trip because I have been going through a difficult time on a personal level. We had dreamed of this trip for weeks. My three closest friends are dead…It’s horrible.

"We knew the dangers. We consulted guides but it wasn’t sufficient. We clearly had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a miracle I am still alive. 

“I think of my friends and their families. It goes round and round in my head."

M. Biselx, who is president of Club Alpin Suisse de Sion, said he was seriously injured in both legs. He also hurt his back, shoulder and an arm.

Donald Paterson, deputy team leader of Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) points to gully five on the north ridge of Ben Nevis where an avalanche took place.

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Donald Paterson, deputy team leader of Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team (MRT), said one of the climbers died "pretty instantaneously", while another could not be saved despite receiving CPR for half an hour.

A third climber died as he was being taken down the mountain. M. Biselx was flown to Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, where he was being treated in intensive care.

Mr Paterson said the men would have known little about what was happening, such was the brute force of the snow.

He said: "It was described as huge, from the avalanche forecaster, who spotted it from a side angle. He spotted a plume of snow in the air, so (they would have been) partially airborne at some point.

"Obviously, the volume of snow was massive. The people involved would not have known anything about it, because it happened so quickly. It is literally your luck on the day."

Two other climbers who decided to turn back from Ben Nevis less than an hour before the avalanche have described the terrifying conditions on the mountain.

A view of the North Face of Ben Nevis mountain in Scotland. A young climber is being treated for serious injuries after an avalanche on the UK's highest mountain "wiped out" a climbing party, killing three of them

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Eoin Donnelly, 20, and Jean Gill, 20, from Co. Kildare in Ireland, only decided to turn back less than 40 minutes before the avalanche struck.

Ms Gill said: "When we started it wasn’t too bad, we got near to the lake and it was so windy – there were hailstones blowing into our face.

"We basically had to change our plans and turn around because it was getting too dangerous, because the wind was so strong it was really hard to walk with it blowing against us."

Mr Donnelly added: "Once you got to the point the ground was frozen over so you wouldn’t have been able to cross without crampons or proper climbing gear. We crossed a guide with a group of hill-climbers and he was like ‘these people want to go up there, but there’s no chance.’

"Even an experienced climber with climbing gear would be crazy to go."

The pair only learned there were fatal casualties the next morning.

Mountain rescuers fear climbers may be fooled into thinking the danger on Ben Nevis has now passed and have warned them to stay away as high winds and fresh snow continue to create "high risk conditions".

Police Scotland Inspector Isla Campbell speaks to the media at Fort William Police station. A young climber is being treated for serious injuries after an avalanche on the UK's highest mountain "wiped out" a climbing party, killing three of them

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PA

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) has said natural avalanches will take place in the next few days, but that the weight of a single person could also trigger one, with devastating consequences.

John Stevenson, the Lochaber Mountain Rescue team leader, said: "Sometimes people think that because there has been an avalanche it is now safe – it isn’t.

“The high winds are moving fresh snow all about. You just don’t know what is above you. The mountains are always going to be there – there is no shame in turning back.”

The SAIS – which yesterday [WED] issued its second highest alert for climbers in the Lochaber and Glencoe areas and ‘considerable’ risk in the Cairngorms – has expressed its frustration that some appear willing to ignore its warnings.

SAIS co-ordinator Mark Diggins said: “It’s extremely rare for us to issue a high warning. You maybe get it once a year. We put it out because we know an avalanche will occur that day.

“We’re not urging people not to climb but they really need to avoid going to the worst places when the weather is this bad. They need to avoid the worst parts at all costs.

“It’s really emotional because we work hard in providing information. I know our forecasters will be pretty sad and upset about it. We provide information and we want people to use it.”

Conditions have been worsened by a combination of gales and a sudden rise in temperature leading to unstable snow conditions, said the SAIS.

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