Highlands & Islands

Survivor tells inquiry of fatal avalanche

Buachaille Etive Mor
Image caption The men died while climbing Buachaille Etive Mor in Glencoe

A climber has told an inquiry how he watched his instructor and a fellow client try to stop themselves being swept away by an avalanche in Glencoe.

Instructor Chris Walker, 29, from Cumbria, and Robert Pritchard, 37, of New Malden, south west London, died on Buachaille Etive Mor on 24 February.

Ritchie Birkett, 29, survived being swept 1,500ft (457m) down the mountain.

He told the inquiry in Fort William the men used their ice axes to try to save themselves.

Mr Birkett told the fatal accident inquiry (FAI) they were avalanched during their descent.

He said after reaching the summit, Mr Walker decided to take a different route down than had been planned because of the avalanche risk.

The software developer said: "Suddenly the snow in front seemed to start moving.

"It became loose and I realised it was an avalanche because it was the whole section of the slope.

"I shouted avalanche. They turned around and were instantly taken down. The last I saw of them was trying to do an ice axe arrest in to the snow. They instantly went out of sight."

Other climbers found the bodies of Mr Walker and Mr Pritchard.

The FAI heard that Mr Walker, of Keswick, was a freelance mountaineering instructor employed by Sheffield-based Jagged Globe and had taken two of the company's clients for a winter climb of Curved Ridge.

'Very unusual'

Edward Chad, 42, who ran the Scottish expeditions for Jagged Globe, told the inquiry the risk of avalanche in the area prior to the party setting off was forecast as "moderate".

He said it was graded at level two, on a scale of risk between one and five, and would not prevent climbers from setting out on to the hills.

But Mr Chad said there was a crystallised layer on top of the snow pack, a condition "very unusual" for Scotland.

He said: "Climbers would assess the risk once they are on the ground. Chris had taken the two clients to Curved Ridge and there are two recognised routes to descend.

"In normal conditions I would have expected Chris to descend down Corrie an Tealach. It would be normal practice. However, it is recognised as an avalanche terrain trap.

"The weather deteriorated as the day went on and he decided to take the north west ridge route to descend instead. It would hold less in terms of avalanche traps."

Mr Chad, who has climbed in Glencoe for several years, said he was not aware of any avalanches on that route in the past.

'No fault'

The FAI also heard from the managing director of Jagged Globe, Simon Lowe, 50.

He launched his own inquiry following the men's deaths.

Mr Lowe told the FAI: "I wouldn't change anything on our winter climbing courses in Scotland as a result of this.

"There was no fault found on us or Chris Walker."

The inquiry at Fort William Sheriff Court continues.

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