PARIS (AP) — A slab of ice broke off Thursday high in the French Alps, sparking an avalanche that swept nine Europeans to their deaths as they tried to climb Mont Blanc, authorities said. Eleven other climbers were hospitalized and at least four are still unaccounted for.
Two climbers in the group were rescued and emergency crews using dogs and helicopters scoured the churned-up snow Thursday to search for the missing. The avalanche came after unusually wet weather and sent climbers hurtling down steep slopes at the height of the summer climbing season.
The dead were from Britain, Germany, Spain and Switzerland, according to the gendarme service in the French mountain town of Chamonix.
A group of 28 climbers from Switzerland, Germany, Spain, France, Denmark and Serbia were believed to be in the expedition caught in the early morning avalanche some 4,000 meters (13,100 feet) high on the north face of Mont Maudit, part of the Mont Blanc range.
Some climbers managed to turn back in time, regional authorities in Haute-Savoie said.
The gendarme service said they were alerted around 5:25 a.m. Thursday to the avalanche. A block of ice that was 40-centimeters (15.75-inches) thick broke off and slid down the slope, creating a 2-meter (6-foot)-thick, 50-meter (160-foot)-long mass of snow.
Several dozen gendarmes and other rescuers worked to pull the dead and injured from the mountain and search for the missing but the risk of a new avalanche complicated the search.
The 11 injured were hospitalized in nearby Sallanches, the gendarme service said.
It appears that early summer storms left behind heavy snow that combined with high winds to form dangerous avalanche conditions on some of the popular routes around Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe.
According to 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 3,000 meters (9,850 feet) high.
Jonas Moestrup from the western Danish city of Randers heard about the accident when he was on his way down from Mont Blanc.
"Three days ago, we ascended it (Mont Maudit). It was shocking to hear, it could easily have been us," he told the Danish news agency Ritzau by telephone. "It is scaring and tragic."
"It is part of the thrill that something can go wrong," he told Ritzau.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls was traveling to the site later Thursday.
The German Foreign Ministry said three Germans were killed and Spain onfirmed that two of the dead were Spanish. The Danish Foreign Ministry says two Danes were involved in the avalanche. One was injured and the other was safe.
Some of the climbers were with professional guides, others were independents. French investigators will examine the circumstances of the deaths.
The Mont Blanc massif is a popular area for climbers, hikers and tourists but a dangerous one, with dozens dying on it each year. Chamonix, a top center for climbing, hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924.
Regional authorities had warned climbers earlier this summer to be careful because of an unusually snowy spring.
John Heilprin in Geneva, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, David Rising in Berlin and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed to this report..