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By Richard Cowper in Erzerum, Turkey

"Avalanche!" The cry every mountaineer dreads and coming from right behind my left shoulder.

No time to think. No time to waste. Just ski as fast as I can away from the wall of wet snow sliding down the side of the mountain towards me.

We were in the wilds of eastern Turkey preparing to make one of the first British ski ascents of Mt Ararat - at 5,137m the country's highest mountain and famous in legend as the place where Noah landed with his ark after the flood.

After less than a minute, near silence.

Even the gale-force wind seemed to have stopped. Then the dawning realisation, that although my friend Robert Mulder and I had seen no-one go under, any one of our three companions might have been buried under the thousands of tonnes of heavy wet snow that had filled up the bottom of the steep gulley along which we had been skiing.

We looked for tell-tale signs like skis, bits of clothing or abandoned rucksacks, but nothing was visible on the surface of the great mass of avalanche debris.

On our expedition there were 14 people, all of whom were in the Palandoken area that day, just outside the garrison town of Erzerum, 700 miles east of Istanbul. But only five had been skiing in our close-knit group: myself and Robert and expedition leader David Hamilton, along with ex-soldier Alun Davies and Alpine Ski Club secretary Alasdair Ross. We could not see any of them.

With wind speeds increasing to over 50mph, the spindrift snow blowing in the air meant visibility was extremely poor. The only sensible course of action was to assume that all three had been buried.

Robert and I jettisoned our skis and pulled out our avalanche transceivers, putting them into search mode as we criss-crossed the avalanche fallout area, the size of a football field, hunting for an electronic signal that would indicate the position of a body.

Within two minutes Robert heard a series of bleeps and at that point just under the surface of the snow we could see someone buried vertically, head up, feet down. I pulled out my shovel and after a short period of ferocious digging Alun Davies's head was freed and to my immense relief I could hear him breathing in fast, short gasps

"Breathe more slowly, if you can," I suggested as David arrived from out of the storm to help get rid of the massive weight of snow still compressing Alun's chest. By some miracle David had ridden the surface of the avalanche and managed to cast off both his rucksack and skis, preventing the snow from dragging him under.

David reckoned that a group of four other members of our expedition, led by Dr Rodney Franklin, had successfully skied through the same gulley about five minutes before we had entered it. This meant that the only person known to be missing was our companion Alasdair Ross.

I started a new electronic search with a sinking feeling and about 12 minutes after the avalanche had occurred I found a second signal, coming from agonisingly deep below the surface.

Realising time was running out I shouted: "I need help. Time is vital. We must get him out as soon as possible".

I knew from experience that the first 20 minutes in an avalanche rescue often makes the difference between life and death. But the hard-set snow was so unbelievably heavy and the angle so difficult that it took several of us many minutes to complete the strenuous, and heartrending task of digging Alasdair out.

When at last we managed to free his head and chest, it seemed to both me and Dr Franklin, who had arrived from below, that Alasdair must have died from asphyxiation almost the moment the avalanche struck.

I will never forget Alasdair's face when at last we got him out. He looked so tranquil and, at the same time, like a waxwork. Only the night before I had sat next to him at dinner and we had chatted with animation of past ski trips and adventures the evening through.

An army team arrived and took over the rescue, placing Alasdair on a stretcher. The avalanche had occurred just over 100metres from the safety of a military post.

At last I was able to gather my thoughts and I remember thinking: "Pride comes before a fall!" Only the day before I had been cock-a-hoop after a personal success on my very first mountain adventure in Turkey. Robert Mulder and I had arrived late in the Palandoken range and from the top of the main ski station we cast our eyes to the horizon at the steepest and seemingly most unclimbable of mountains and then to each other's surprise set off at speed towards it with unreasoned optimism.

Six hours later we were taking off our skis and the skins attached to them, to climb the final steep summit pyramid of what the lone Kurdish family living in its shadow had called Yavkaz Kayuz (the Impossible Peak).

The achievement had been made doubly satisfying because of our firm belief we would never get to the mountain at all in the time available, let alone manage to climb the precipitous rocks to the top.

In the gathering dusk we had a sensational ski down into the main valley. Six and a half hours to the summit. Less than 20 minutes down.

On the way back we visited our Kurdish friends in their snug underground farmhouse for tea, before heading back to meet our companions in Erzerum.

The next day, the day of the avalanche, all 14 members of the expedition, led by the Scottish ski mountaineer David Hamilton, were back among the peaks of Palandoken continuing the programme to get fit for our main objective, the ascent of Mt Ararat, a giant volcano close to the Iranian and Armenian borders.

For much of the last 35 years it has been out of bounds due to a series of wars in the area and the claim by the Armenians that it belonged to them and not to Turkey.

As we set off the wind was, if anything, stronger than the evening before, constantly blowing us over on our skis. It was surprisingly warm with worrying patches of orange in the snow, sand blown by the hot wind all the way from the Sahara. We could see the occasional tell-tale sloughs of snow on slopes of 30 degrees and above. Perfect avalanche conditions.

Just before we got to the bridge close to our Kurdish friends' farmhouse, some of us wondered aloud whether any sane ski mountaineer would be out in such conditions. Looking back, the weather was so wild and so warm that we should have all stayed at home. But we were here on the trip of a lifetime, trying to cram in as much adventure as possible and we were all so keen to get ready for the big mountain.

We nevertheless decided to cut short our day and forego climbing any peaks. We opted for a long circular traverse back to our starting point. But his semi-cautious approach did not pay off. Less than an hour later one of our group of five set off the wet slab avalanche that was to end Alasdair's death.

At 59, unmarried and with no children, he was a fanatical skier who loved indulging his passion in the wilder parts of the world. Unfortunately, when we got him out he had stopped breathing and all attempts to resuscitate him failed.

By the time darkness fell and Alasdair was on his way to the mortuary in Erzerum the wind on the mountain was gusting over 90mph, ripping the roofs off several local buildings in one of the worst storms of the winter.

Those of us closely involved in the rescue then made a lengthy report to the nearby army post and it was only when showing his passport to a friendly intelligence officer that David Hamilton realised that the greatest tragedy ever to take place on an expedition run by him had occurred on his own birthday.

That evening we all gathered in our hotel to decide whether to abandon the expedition altogether or whether to continue. It was the stoic and, perhaps wise, ex-soldier Alun Davies, who so narrowly escaped death himself, who carried the day.

"After I was buried somehow I accepted the inevitability of death. It's the second time I have been avalanched in three years. But there was still a faint hope and by some miracle I was rescued.

"Alasdair was not so lucky. But he lived for the mountains. It's a risk we all take. I am a soldier and I have seen death. There is nothing to be gained by being maudlin, giving up and going home. He would not have wanted that. Let's all go and get drunk and tell stories about him. Tomorrow we continue!"

The next day half of the expedition members decided their heart was no longer in it and made arrangements to return home immediately. The others, including myself, decided to carry on.

Everyone's reasons for staying or going were very personal and not easy to define.

As president of the Alpine ski club Rupert Hoare decided he had to attend Alasdair's funeral. Others felt there would be no joy left in the struggle against the elements when a friend had died. Some had felt they had to talk to Alasdair's relations to try and ease their grief. Some simply felt fear in the patently dangerous conditions in the Turkish mountains.

All I can say is I don't think I would want anyone to stop an expedition for me and would prefer my companions to drink large amounts of local spirits and tell stories of my most outrageous or defining moments.

Two weeks later four of the six who continued made it to the top of Mt Ararat after a storm had cast a blanket of snow over the great dormant volcano, though nobody was able to ski the final 1,000m.

No-one pretended it had been a successful expedition. 

May 14  2004