8 climbers feared dead after Mont Blanc avalanche

An avalanche swept down a major summit in the Mont Blanc range before dawn today, leaving eight climbers missing and presumed dead along a trail often used to reach western Europe’s highest peak.

“There’s no chance of finding anyone alive,” French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said while visiting the area.

The avalanche was set off at around 3 a.m. by the fall of a massive block of ice on the Mont Blanc du Tacul, one of the peaks in the Mont Blanc range, at an altitude of some 11,800 feet, the Haute-Savoie regional government office said in a statement.

Authorities deployed a vast search mission, involving four helicopters, dozens of rescue workers, doctors, Alpine guides and sniffer dogs, said the statement.

The regional government at first said 10 climbers -- including five Austrians and three Swiss -- were believed missing, but that figure was lowered to eight after two Italians thought to be among them had already returned to Italy.

Seven people were hospitalized -- not eight as originally indicated -- and of those, only three were staying overnight. Most suffered broken bones or sprains, and a guide who was injured was treated for a broken vertebra but has no risk of paralysis, rescue team leader Jean-Yves Moracchini said.

The search was suspended because of the risk that the warm weather could melt other ice blocks and trigger another slide, the statement and local police and government officials said.

Mont Blanc du Tacul is on one of the routes that climbers often use to reach the top of Mont Blanc, which is western Europe’s biggest mountain at 15,780 feet.

The famed mountain that straddles the French-Italian border draws thousands of visitors each year, and the area is known for hiking, skiing and mountaineering.

Mont Blanc du Tacul is usually scaled by seasoned climbers, who either want to reach its summit or carry on to the Mont Blanc peak. In summertime, they often climb through the night because cold temperatures keep the snow and ice hard, reducing the chance of sinking -- and lowering the avalanche risk.

Climbing to the Mont Blanc du Tacul peak can be done in a day, while proceeding to the Mont Blanc summit would generally add at least another day of climbing.

Avalanches intermittently hit the celebrated Mont Blanc range, where dozens of climbers die every year. Moracchini said there have been about 100 deaths in the French Alps this year, of causes as diverse as falls, heart problems as well as snowslides.

Two French climbers in a Swiss sports club died in an avalanche on Mont Blanc in August 2006. In another in July 2005, a British soldier was killed while taking part in an altitude training course on Mont Blanc du Tacul.

In Pakistan earlier this month, 11 people were killed along K2 -- the world’s second-highest peak -- when an avalanche swept climbers away just below the 28,250-foot summit.