Belfast Telegraph

Young climber perishes in avalanche horror

Student doctor is among four lost in climbing tragedy

By Chris Kilpatrick

The family of a Coleraine doctor killed by an avalanche are expected to travel to Scotland on Monday after her remains were recovered.

Una Finnegan was one of four climbers killed in the tragedy on Bidean Nam Bian in Glencoe on Saturday afternoon.

The group of six she was with were swept away by the avalanche and buried under two metres of snow and ice.

The 25-year-old first studied medicine at Newcastle University in England, and then went to the University of Edinburgh to do her Masters in the anthropology of health and illness.

Ms Finnegan previously attended Dalriada School in Ballymoney where, in 2004, she secured 9A*s and 1A in her GCSEs.

She was the daughter of Owen Finnegan, a respected retired doctor in Coleraine, and had a twin sister, two other sisters and a brother.

Ms Finnegan’s family was too distressed to comment on Sunday night. It is understood they will travel to Scotland on Monday morning after the junior doctor’s remains were recovered from the mountain.

Two of the other climbers killed were last night named as 24-year-old Christopher Bell from Blackpool, and Tom Chesters (28), who was living in Leeds.

Five members of a group of six climbers were swept away by tonnes of snow. The four bodies — two men and two women — were recovered following a major search which included two mountain rescue crews and police dogs.

A statement from a man who escaped unscathed was read out at a police media conference On Sunday. In it the survivor said: “On Saturday 19 January 2013, five of my friends and I were descending a mountain in Glencoe in an area known as Church Door Buttress, when the party was swept away by a snow avalanche.

“It is with much sadness and deep regret that some of my friends have died as a result.

“All in the group loved the mountains and are experienced winter walkers.”

They were said to have been carried around 1,000ft down the 3,772ft mountain. It is understood they were making their way down from a peak when the slope they were on gave way.

Two climbers — who were not part of the team caught up in the avalanche — raised the alarm when they discovered a casualty lying in the snow.

Two others — the man and a woman — survived. The woman, a 24-year-old from Durham, remained in a critical condition in hospital last night having sustained head injuries.

The male survivor contacted police to say his friends were missing moments after the avalanche.

East Londonderry MLA David McClarty, a friend of the Finnegan family, spoke of his shock.

“It’s so sad for everyone involved,” he said. “My sympathies go to family of Una and all the families affected by this tragedy.”

Coleraine UUP councillor William McCandless took part in a mountain challenge last year in the same area the avalanche occurred.

He said: “I’ve been in that area myself and there are many unexpected hardships and challenges. My heart goes out to the family following this terrible tragedy. It’s so tragic for such a young life with so much potential to be cut short.”

Bidean Nam Bian is a Munro — a mountain higher than 3,000ft — with a number of different climbing routes.

Mark Diggins, co-ordinator of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, said weather conditions were fairly dry and there had been little snow over the last four days.

He said it was possible for a single climber to trigger an avalanche.

At a church service on Sunday not far from where the tragedy occurred, Rev Moira Harkes of St Munda’s Church spoke of the devastation felt locally.

“It is very distressing, because people come here for pleasure and when something like this happens it hurts everyone involved,” she said. “This is a very beautiful place but at times it can be very dangerous.

“Somehow life must continue. We accept the challenges of nature as part of our living.”

Andy Nelson, deputy head of Glencoe Mountain Rescue, said being caught in an avalanche was “a brutal experience”.

Mr Nelson, who co-ordinated the rescue, said: “Being in an avalanche is literally like standing on a carpet and having it pulled out from underneath you.

“Any thoughts of trying to swim out from out of it is futile. You are on steep ground, essentially standing on a raft of snow that is sliding downhill at speeds of maybe 40mph to 50mph.

“It would have unfolded in a split second, they would have felt the snow moving and then they would have been travelling at a speed that was impossible to stop.

“The man that survived was standing above the snow and we think he actually jumped and got his ice axe into firmer snow. They slid over some very rocky ground and ended up about 1,000 feet below, under between 1.5 and two metres of snow.

“It's a brutal experience. There are enormous forces at work and you are being twisted about at high speed.”

Police Superintendent Philip MacRae said: “Our thoughts are with the families and all those who are affected.

“Members of the climbing party were from different parts of the UK and a priority for us has been to trace and inform all next-of-kin.”

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