CHAMONIX, France — They set out before dawn, hoping to conquer a mountaineering classic: Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest peak. But below the prized summit, a climber is thought to have accidentally caused a slab of ice to snap off, triggering an avalanche Thursday that swept nine climbers to their deaths and injured a dozen others.
As the sheet of snow and ice thundered down the steep slope, several other climbers managed to turn away from the slide in time, regional authorities in Haute-Savoie said.
Two climbers were rescued as emergency crews using dogs and helicopters searched the churned-up, high-altitude area for the missing. Three Britons, three Germans, two Spaniards and one Swiss climber lost their lives.
Early summer storms left behind heavy snow that combined with high winds to form dangerous overhanging conditions on some of the popular climbing routes around Mont Blanc. Regional authorities had warned climbers to be careful because of an unusually snowy spring.
"It was too dangerous. Everyone has been waiting for something to happen there," said Swedish web designer Michael Andersson, who three days before turned back at roughly the same spot where the avalanche occurred. "But nobody could think it would be this big or this many people."
The dead included the former head of the British Mountaineering Council, Roger Payne, and clients he was leading up the Trois Monts route to the 15,782-foot summit of Mont Blanc, the group said on its website.
Initial reports said four climbers were missing, but by nightfall all were accounted for, including two who had turned back before the avalanche. Among the dozen injured was an American, the only known non-European.
Current British Mountaineering Council head Dave Turnbull said the mountaineering world was "shocked and saddened" by the loss of Payne, one of Britain's most notable climbers, with expeditions from the Alps to the Himalayas. He and his wife, Julie-Ann Clyma, were internationally certified mountain guides based in Leysin, Switzerland.
The Mont Blanc massif is a popular area for climbers, hikers and tourists. But it's dangerous, with dozens dying on it each year.
Police said they were alerted around 5:25 a.m. to the avalanche, which hit a group of climbers who were some 13,100 feet up the north face of Mont Maudit, part of the Mont Blanc range. It was apparently triggered by a climber accidentally breaking loose a 16-inch-thick block of ice that slid down the slope, unleashing the mass of snow, officials said.
It was not immediately known if that climber was among the dead.