A British father plunged to his death in the Alps while desperately searching for his 12-year-old son who had been killed in a fall minutes earlier.
Police believe the panic-stricken father, who had been hiking with his son in the snow on Mont Blanc, was on the phone to emergency services asking for help when he lost his footing.
The 48-year-old man managed to tell rescuers his son had fallen out of sight down a couloir — a deep gully — but communication was cut off before he could give the location.
An attempt to speak to him again is understood to have left rescuers able to hear only his footsteps and laboured breathing as he trudged through the snow in a frantic state on Saturday.
They kept calling back but went straight to answerphone — and it is believed that by then he had plunged into the same gully as his son.
Interpol were later able to contact the man’s wife in Buckingham, Buckinghamshire, and, using a photograph the pair had sent her from the mountain earlier in the day, pinpoint their whereabouts.
Mountain police eventually reached them early on Sunday morning, but both the man and his son were dead.
It appeared the father had tried to save his son alone but had also fallen. Their bodies were found at 7.40am on Sunday, more than 16 hours after the father’s call, during the fourth aerial search.
The son had fallen about 298 metres. The father was discovered about 45 metres above him. They were at an altitude of 1,524 metres on the 4,810-metre mountain.
Police said the pair were wearing normal walking boots on a route rarely dared in winter where crampons and proper climbing gear are essential.
Captain Patrice Ribes of the mountain police said on Sunday in the French ski resort of Chamonix: “We think the man fell while he was on the phone to the police. We think he called immediately after his son had fallen and that he fell very shortly after. It all happened very quickly.”
The pair had arrived in the Chamonix valley on Saturday morning. They had hired a car from Geneva and telephone records show the father called his wife in Buckingham at 10am.
They had planned to spend the weekend in the resort and had booked, via the internet, the two-star hotel Les Melezes in the nearby town of Les Houches.
According to police the area they had chosen to hike, called La Jonction, at Bossons is a popular summer route rather than suitable for winter or early spring. There are steep escarpments and the path is often covered with snow and ice at this time of the year.
Captain Ribes said: “It is a dangerous, deep, snowy hike. It is not a route that is chosen much at this time of the year, especially without snowshoes.
“In the winter you cannot see the path, it is hidden by snow.
“The accident is being investigated and it will determine the circumstances of the accident, as well as the level of preparation of the hiker and his experience. The father and son should have had proper mountain equipment — crampons and climbing gear.”
It was just before 3pm on Saturday when the emergency centre in Annecy received the frantic call from the father.
Francis Bianchi, the sub-prefect of Bonneville, said: “The man spoke in English and said he was in Les Bossons in the commune of Les Houches and that his son had fallen. He did not say anything else.
“The call was immediately transferred to the mountain police in Chamonix.
“They repeatedly asked him questions. They could hear him and he was panicked.
“He did not reply to their questions. And then it cut off. It was dramatic. They kept trying to call him back but it went straight through to the answerphone.”
Meanwhile police had already alerted the helicopter rescue, but the area is vast.
Three sweeps were carried out, including with infrared cameras after dark.
On Saturday evening the man’s wife was contacted and her help was used to direct a fourth helicopter search on Sunday morning, despite high winds. It was then the bodies were spotted.
Bianchi said: “They were found 50 metres apart. They had fallen down the very steep Couloir des Pyramides over rocks and on to the glacier below.” Mayor of Chamonix Eric Fournier said it was vital to take full precautions when venturing on to the mountain.
The mayor’s assistant Jean Louis Verdier, a keen mountaineer, said of the route taken by the pair: “I have turned back in springtime before. It is icy. It is not a winter hike.”
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We can confirm the death of two British nationals in the French Alps and are providing consular assistance to the family at this difficult time.”
On average around 100 people a year die in similar tragedies in the Mont Blanc area.
Last July, three Britons were among nine mountaineers swept to their deaths by an avalanche on Mont Maudit in the Mont Blanc range. [Daily Mail]