A rescue worker helicopter returning from the avalanche site, lands in Chamonix, French Alps, Thursday, July, 12, 2012. An avalanche in the French Alps swept six European climbers to their deaths on a slope leading to Mont Blanc, and left at least nine others injured and several climbers unaccounted for, authorities said. Two climbers were rescued and emergency crews are searching for the missing. A group of 28 climbers from Switzerland, Germany, Spain, France, Denmark and Serbia are believed to be in the expedition caught in the avalanche that was about 4,000 meters (13,1000 feet) high on the north face of Mont Maudit, part of the Mont Blanc range. (AP Photo)
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 were rescued and emergency crews using dogs and helicopters scoured the churned-up, high-altitude area Thursday to search for the missing. Some other climbers managed to turn back from the thundering slide in time, regional authorities in Haute-Savoie said.
The avalanche, which came after unusually wet weather, sent climbers hurtling down steep slopes at the height of the summer climbing season. Police said one of the climbers may have kicked the ice sheet loose.
The dead were from Britain, Germany, Spain and Switzerland, according to the gendarme service in the French mountain town of Chamonix.
A group of climbers from Switzerland, Germany, Spain, France, Denmark and Serbia were 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.
The gendarme service said it was alerted around 5:25 a.m. Thursday to the avalanche. A block of ice some 40 centimeters (15.75 inches) thick broke off and slid down the slope, creating a mass of snow that was 2 meters (6-foot) thick and 50-meters (160 feet) long.
Several dozen gendarmes and other rescuers worked to pull the dead and injured from the mountain and searched for the missing but the risk of a new avalanche complicated their work.
The 11 injured were hospitalized in nearby Sallanches, the gendarme service said.
Early summer storms apparently left behind heavy snow that combined with high winds to form dangerous overhanging avalanche conditions on some of the popular routes around Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe.
"The first elements that we have from testimony are that a climber could have set loose a sheet of ice, and that sheet then pulled down the group of climbers below. I should say that the incline was very, very steep on this northern face," Col. Bertrand François of the Haute-Savoie gendarme service told reporters.
According to recent 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 which turned to snow at 3,000 meters (9,850 feet) high.
Jonas Moestrup from the western Danish city of Randers only 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 scary and tragic."
"(But) it's part of the thrill that something can go wrong," he told Ritzau.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls flew over the site later Thursday, and described "a particularly spectacular block of ice." He said the climbers appeared to be an experienced group, and that the churned-up snow was making the search particularly difficult.
Three Germans and two Spaniards were among the dead, their countries confirmed.
Some of the climbers were with professional guides, others were climbing independently. 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..
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.