Prayers were said in the Scottish Highlands today for four climbers who were swept to their deaths in an avalanche. Two survived the accident, though one woman lies critically ill in hospital.

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The climbers were among a party of six on Bidean Nam Bian, a mountain near Glencoe.

It is believed they were descending from a peak on the south side of the valley when the snow-covered slope they were crossing broke away, engulfing five of them and sending them hundreds of feet down the mountain.

Glencoe and Lochaber mountain rescue teams and police were scrambled and following a major search two men and two women were found dead, buried beneath the snow.

Three of those who died have been named by Northern Constabulary.

They are Una Rachel Finnegan, 25, from County Antrim, Tom Chesters, 28, who was living in Leeds and 24-year-old Christopher Bell, from Blackpool.

Mr Bell was a Phd student studying Ocean Mapping in Oban, Northern Constabulary said.

Another man who stayed with the teams to help the search survived, while a 24 year old woman, from the Durham area, is in Belford hospital in Fort William with serious head injuries.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has called it "an appalling tragedy", saying "to lose four people from a party of six is truly devastating".

He thanked the police and mountain rescue teams, adding: "Our immediate thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who have been lost."
Police are expected to interview the surviving man today to find out exactly what happened during the tragedy.

The woman has been moved to the Southern General in Glasgow and remains in a critical condition, Northern Constabulary said. Members of her family are with her.

The next of kin of those who died have been told and their names are expected to be released later, it added.

Superintendent Philip MacRae said: "Our thoughts are with the families and all those who are affected by this tragic incident. 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. They have now been informed and we have family liaison officers in place.

"I would like to express my thanks to the members of the Glencoe and Lochaber Mountain Rescue teams who assisted with the emergency phase of this incident. I am grateful for their expertise and rapid response."

Jonathan Hart, chairman of the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, said: "This was a tragic event and I speak on behalf of all the mountain rescue team members involved when I say our hearts go out to the casualties and the families of all those involved.

"People come from all over the UK and the world to experience and enjoy the mountain scenery and sports in this part of Scotland. Mountain rescue teams train for these kind of incidents and indeed there was a national Scottish Mountain Rescue course on this weekend on Avalanche Rescue, taking place in the Nevis range.

"Everything possible was done, as part of an outstanding multi-agency response, to increase the opportunities for survival of the casualties and take them off the mountain before the hours of darkness. It is very sad that there has been such a tragic outcome."

The Rev Moira Herkes, who led a service at St Munda's Church in nearby Ballachulish, told the congregation: "We include in our prayers thoughts for the deceased in yesterday's tragic accident on the mountain and their families. Somehow life must continue. We accept the challenges of nature as part of our living."

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