At least two climbers are dead and two more injured after getting caught in an avalanche on Ben Nevis amid brutal 80mph gales caused by Storm Gareth.
The incident at Number 5 Galley on Britain’s tallest mountain was reported to police at 11.50am and a mountain rescue team accompanied by at least two helicopters were immediately dispatched.
But around 3.20pm it was announced that two people had lost their lives and two more had been injured amid perilous conditions on the 4411foot-high peak.
A mountaineer who witnessed the incident described seeing ‘huge powder clouds’ cascading down Number 5 gully, and said other climbers had aborted their expeditions because of the weather conditions.
An avalanche took place on Ben Nevis (pictured in a file photo) at around 11.50am, a Police Scotland spokesman said
Writing on the UK Climbing Forum, he said: ‘Was outside the CIC (Charles Inglis Clark Memorial) hut when the avalanche came down number 5 gully.
‘Huge powder clouds. Guys at the CIC hut who had attempted a climb earlier, and had aborted because of the conditions weren’t aware of anyone else out climbing today on the Ben.
‘Didn’t suspect anything until the Coastguard heli started buzzing around and when we got down to the car park the Lochaber team control vehicle had just showed up.’
A report from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service warned the risk of avalanches would be high in the area.
The report said: “As the freezing level rises during the night, there will be a brief period of high instability with avalanches occurring on many steep North, North-East and East aspects above 2,900 feet.’
Police Scotland said: ‘We are coordinating a mountain rescue response following reports of an avalanche on Ben Nevis this morning.
‘Police were informed that the avalanche had occurred in Number 5 Gully area at around 11:50am.
We can sadly confirm that two people have died and two people have been injured.
‘Volunteers from Lochaber and Glencoe Mountain Rescue Teams remain at the scene and were assisted by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Scottish Ambulance Service.’
The Scottish Ambulance Service were also alerted to the incident shortly after 12.20pm and sent an air ambulance, three ambulances and a trauma team to the peak.
A spokesman said: ‘We received a call at 1222 hours today to attend an incident in Ben Nevis.
‘We dispatched three ambulances, a Helimed resource and our trauma team to the scene.’
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was ‘absolutely tragic news’.
She tweeted: ‘My thoughts are very much with the bereaved and injured. And my gratitude as always for the work of our emergency services, Mountain Rescue and Coastguard.’
There have been eight deaths on Scotland’s mountains this winter – but none thought to be due to avalanche.
During the winter of 2012-13, eight people died because of avalanches.
A 21-year-old Bristol University student died after she fell from a ridge she had been climbing on New Year’s Day.
A map showing the location of Ben Nevis, which is the highest peak in the British Isles
On December 16, Patrick Boothroyd, 21, from West Yorkshire, died after a 1,500ft fall.
The latest mountain victim of this winter was a climber rescued after spending a freezing night on a Highland peak on Saturday.
At first it was feared that the 57-year-old and his 49-year-old companion had been caught up in a massive avalanche in Glen Coe.
But it later emerged that they were found several hundred yards away from where it was thought they had been climbing.
Police Scotland said that both climbers were part of a larger group from Nottinghamshire.
The older man was airlifted to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary where he died.
His companion was taken to Belford Hospital in Fort William where his condition is described as ‘stable and non life threatening.’
They had both been climbing Boomerang Gully on 3658-ft high Stob Coire nan Lochan. It was feared they had been caught up in a large avalanche in the gully which was recorded on Friday – they day of their ascent.
A six hour search – involving nearly 20 members of Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team and a Coastguard helicopter – ended in dangerous conditions at 2am on Saturday with no sign of the pair.
Previous Ben Nevis deaths: Patrick Boothroyd, 21, pictured in the Dolomites in September, died after a 1,500ft fall on December 16
But a massive resumed search, involving four mountain rescue teams, and two helicopters found the men – the first at noon and the other 30 minutes later.
John Stevenson, leader of Lochaber MRT, said: ‘The conditions are very treacherous at the moment. We have gone from no snow – even on the top of Ben Nevis – to fresh snow, making it very avalanche prone, especially the areas where there is wind slab.
‘If you have got caught up in an avalanche – after about 15 minutes you are in trouble, but people have survived for many hours, depending on the snow and finding an air pocket. But you have to be very lucky. The trouble with Scottish snow is that it is usually wet and can freeze like concrete around you.’
Ironically the fewest number of main winter avalanches have been officially recorded in Scotland’s mountains.
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service said that a lack of snow had produced less than 60 snow slides by the end of February – the lowest in the organisation’s 30 years.
Mark Diggins, co-ordinator of the SAIS, said by this stage he would have expected more than 200 avalanches. But by today there have been just 74.
‘It’s very low, but it reflects the winter we have had with little snow,’ he said.
‘It has been a very warm winter. It has also been the driest winter in over 70 years. However winter is back at least this week with low temperatures, especially with added wind chill.
‘January and February is usually the peak time for avalanches, so this winter is very low.
‘The changing conditions have made forecasting more challenging because the dynamics are changing with more extremes of weather.
‘We would usually get 250-300 avalanches a season. The most we have had is over 350 – but not this year.’
The SAIS began on December 14 and ends on April 15.
Previous deaths: Two students were scaling Tower Gully on Ben Nevis when an overhanging ledge of snow collapsed and knocked them down the mountain (file picture)
The country’s vital winter avalanche service for walkers and climbers still warned of the risk of human-triggered snow slides.
It said 20 people in total were caught up in such avalanches during its 2017/18 season.
Some walkers and climbers came close to white death on Scotland’s mountains last winter, according to its report.
They had ‘very lucky escapes’ after being caught in avalanches.
The service recorded 261 avalanches during its 2017/18 season.
Of this number, 230 were natural and/or cornice triggered. Cornices are large overhanging ledges of snow.
Thirty avalanches were triggered by people who were walking, skiing or climbing in the mountains.
There were no fatalities due to avalanche activity recorded during the season, SAIS said.
But it added: ‘Some avalanche occurrences were minor, in that small releases occurred, but others were more significant and resulted in people being carried down by the avalanche, some with very lucky escapes.’
Every winter, SAIS assesses avalanche hazards and provides daily information on the stability of snowpack in the six mountain areas.
The areas are Lochaber, Glen Coe, Creag Meagaidh, Southern Cairngorms, Northern Cairngorms and Torridon.
Hillwalkers, climbers and skiers use the information to help them plan trips.