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Mont Blanc avalanche: 'Scary and tragic' (+video)

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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 both internationally certified mountain guides, based in Leysin, Switzerland.

"It's pretty shocking. I mean, the guiding community here is pretty tight-knit — there's probably about 400 guides in Chamonix. Everybody will have known somebody who was in the hut last night," said Stuart Macdonald, a British guide who directs Avalanche Academy Ltd. in Chamonix and knew Payne.

"Everyone's really feeling it," McDonald said.

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 global epicenter for serious alpine climbing, hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924.

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 (4,000 meters) high on 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.

Witnesses said 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 the incline was very, very steep on this northern face," Col. Bertrand Francois of the Haute-Savoie police told reporters.

It was not immediately known if that climber was among the dead.

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