Those who had been climbing directly behind the avalanche victims in France protected the survivors from the strong winds and carried them to a rescue helicopter. ITV's Lewis Vaughan Jones reports.
CHAMONIX, France -- Two climbers were still missing Thursday after an avalanche swept down a mountain in the French Alps, killing at least 9 climbers and injuring 12. A search using dogs and a heat-sensing helicopter was called off until the weather improves.
"The conditions are still perilous. At this stage, the mountain is not safe," French Interior Minister Valls told reporters.
The most deadly avalanche in the Alps since 2008 struck a popular climbing route in the Mont Blanc range near the border with Switzerland.
Officials earlier said four people were missing but later revised that to two.
The dead included three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and one Swiss, the head of the Haute-Savoie gendarme service, Bertrand Francois, told a press conference.
About 38 climbers were on Mont Maudit, which means Cursed Mountain, at an elevation of about 13,000 feet when the avalanche hit without warning in fine weather conditions, Francois said. Maudit is one of two access points to the famous Mont Blanc peak.
That included 28 climbers in two separate climbing teams tied together with ropes, as well as independent climbers, he added.
Klemen Gricar / Mountain Tracks
A guide with Mountain Tracks took this photo shortly after the avalanche as rescuers reached the scene.
The gendarme service said it was alerted around 5:25 a.m. Thursday to the avalanche by a survivor. A block of ice some 16 inches thick apparently broke off and slid down the slope, creating a mass of snow that was 6-feet thick and 150-feet long.
"The first elements that we have from testimony are that a climber could have set loose a sheet of ice, and that sheet then pulled down the group of climbers below. I should say that the incline was very, very steep on this northern face," Francois told reporters.
A team with Mountain Tracks, a guide company based in Britain, was among the first to reach the scene.
"Mountain Tracks had a group of climbers with our guides on the mountain at the time of the accident," the company said on its Facebook page. "They were not directly involved but helped in the initial rescue."
Regional authorities had warned climbers this summer to be careful because of an unusually snowy spring, but authorities had not expected avalanches Thursday as conditions were good, said Jean-Louis Verdier, mayor of the ski resort town of Chamonix.
Maxppp/Gregory Yetchmeniza / EPA
An avalanche victim's body is moved in Chamonix on Thursday.
"We had no more reason than usual to be alarmed," Verdier told Reuters TV. "It's a steep mountain face. There are big plates of snow we know of where an avalanche can easily occur. But this morning we had no reason to expect an avalanche of this size and such a tragedy."
According to recent tweets from climbers, high winds led to overhanging ice slabs forming on the slope. Five days ago, they tweeted that Chamonix saw a monsoon-like downpour that turned to snow at about 10,000 feet.
In 2008, eight Swiss, German and Austrian climbers perished in an avalanche nearby.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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