Nine candles lit for France avalanche dead at church service

Nine candles burned on the altar of a church in the French Alps town of Chamonix on Saturday, one for each of the foreign climbers killed by an avalanche two days earlier.

"They left us too quickly, like a flame extinguished too soon by a violent gust of wind before it could give its full light," parish priest Georges Vigliano said at the ecumenical service.

As the candles were lit, the names of the dead -- three Germans, a Swiss, two Spaniards and three Britons -- were read out to the small congregation including friends and family of the dead, and two Danish survivors.

The devastating snowslide is thought to have been caused by the presence of too many people on Mont Maudit ('Cursed Mountain' in French), one of the peaks in the Mont Blanc range.

"Chamonix has a heavy heart, running through the gamut of intense emotions in the face of this enormous tragedy," said Isabelle Pierron, another pastor, adding that the mountain was "unpredictable and unreliable always".

She said that the climbers "were drawing near to one of their dreams but the mountain did not let them follow it through".

"I came here to honour the dead," said Nicole Bozon, a mountain guide who joined the ceremony attended by about 150 people.

Those killed were Germans Stephan Sulla, 40, Corry Mueller, 41, and Pia Lunzenauer, 33, Swiss man Hans Seehlzer, 63, Spaniards Joachim Aguado-Marony, 51, and Esteban Martinez-Jibanez, 39, and Britons Roger Payne, 55, John Taylor, 48, and Stephen Barber, 47.

The bodies of the two Spaniards had already been taken home, Chamonix officials said, and the others would be repatriated on Monday.

The avalanche also injured 12 people in the region's worst climbing accident since August 2008. Experts said the disaster was unpredictable and the climbers had been following all the rules.

Strong winds had built up a layer of snow on a steep slope that slid under the weight of the mountaineers, perhaps after one of them struck it with an ice axe, said local prosecutor Pierre-Yves Michau.

Mont Maudit is the massif's third-highest peak, rising to 4,465 metres (14,650 feet) and is considered one of the more difficult paths to the summit of Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest peak.

The French weather service warned of a "high risk" of avalanches in the upper peaks on Saturday.

On the Italian side of the mountain range meanwhile, a young Spaniard and another mountaineer were found frozen to death Saturday at an altitude of some 4,400 metres, ANSA news agency reported.

The other victim, a woman, was thought to be of east European origin, it said.

The bodies were found near the Dome de Gouter on a mountain marking the border near a path most climbers use to get to the French side of the Mont Blanc range.

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