A CLIMBER who saw four of his friends swept to their deaths in an avalanche in Glen Coe has spoken of his sadness as rescuers described the tragedy as a "brutal experience".

The man was one of a group of six young walkers – apparently all in their twenties – who were caught up in the disaster on Bidean Nam Bian on Saturday afternoon.

The survivor is believed to have jumped clear of the collapsing snow as four of his friends – including PhD students Christopher Bell, 24, of Blackburn, Lancashire; and Tom Chesters, 28, of Leeds; and junior doctor Una Finnegan, 25, of County Antrim, Northern Ireland – were carried away.

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They had been descending a steep incline when a sheet of snow gave way beneath them and carried them 1000ft to the bottom of the mountain at speeds up to 50mph.

Speaking anonymously yesterday, the survivor said: "Five of my friends and I were descending a mountain in Glen Coe 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.

"My sincere thanks go to members of the public, mountain rescue teams and other emergency services."

A fourth victim of the tragedy remains unnamed by police and a 24-year-old woman from Durham is in a critical condition in hospital. She was airlifted yesterday from Belford Hospital in Fort William to the Southern General in Glasgow.

First Minister Alex Salmond last night described the loss of life as truly devastating.

The deputy leader of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team, Andy Nelson, said the avalanche would have been a brutal experience.

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

"They slid over some very rocky ground and ended up about 1000ft below, under between one-and-a-half and two metres of snow.

"There are enormous forces at work and you are being twisted about at high speed."

He said the tragedy – the worst loss of life in an avalanche in Glen Coe – had deeply affected rescuers, emergency services and the local community.

Last night, as the names of victims were revealed, friends and family paid tribute to the climbers. Mr Bell, a postgraduate at the Scottish Marine Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands, in Oban, had been studying for a PhD in ocean-mapping.

His friend Alicia Robinson wrote on Twitter: "Chris Bell, my dearest friend died yesterday in the tragedy at Glen Coe. He was the most loving, loyal gentleman, friend and brother. Love you."

Sam Morris, 35, a friend of Mr Bell and Mr Chesters, said he was mortified to hear of the men's deaths and described the two men as exceptionally competent, experienced mountaineers.

Speaking from France, where Mr Bell and Mr Chesters used to work with him as mountain bike guides in the Alps, Mr Morris said both were elite outdoor pursuits competitors who spent most of their free time on the mountains.

"It was so few years lived but I know there's not much either one of them would have done differently," he said. "They seized every opportunity.

"They'd do things that people who spend their whole lives sitting behind a desk wish they could have done. When they died they were with the people they loved, doing what they loved."

He said both men were "very knowledgeable about the mountains" but were, tragically, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"They were as trained up and as cautious as you can be," he said. "With the best will in the world, these things are a game of odds."

Mr Morris said Mr Chesters was one of Britain's leading competitive orienteers, while Mr Bell competed in triathlons at an elite level and ranked highly in major national events.

Tributes were also paid to Ms Finnegan, a junior doctor with NHS Fife.

Ms Finnegan was originally from Coleraine in County Londonderry, where her father Dr Owen Finnegan was a well-respected consultant at the Causeway Hospital.

The 25-year-old studied medicine at Newcastle University and took her masters in anthropology of health and illness in Edinburgh, where she had continued to live.

Independent councillor David McClarty said his thoughts and prayers were with the Finnegan family, including Dr Finnegan, who had been a leading campaigner against cuts at local health centre.

"When one hears of a tragedy like this your heart goes out to the families affected, but when you discover that one of them is your own it brings it home to you much worse," he said.

"This young woman, a qualified doctor, had her whole life ahead of her and then it is tragically cut short.

"The family is a Christian one and hopefully they will get some comfort from the fact that she died doing something she enjoyed."

Mark Diggins, head of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, said the warning on the hills for Saturday was that there was a "considerable" risk of an avalanche.

However, he added that hazardous areas were localised and the group could have escaped harm if they had chosen a different route just a few metres either side of the accident site.

He said: "You could indeed have gone round the mountain in many places and not incurred a hazard, but with these small areas of unstable snow, to be able to avoid them needs good visibility, which we just didn't have on Saturday.

"It was a localised hazard, it wasn't stable and this has just been tragic."

He said climbers had been caught in avalanches on the Cairngorms in the days before and after the disaster, but all had escaped.

Mr Salmond added: "This is an appalling tragedy and our immediate thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who have been lost. To lose four people from a party of six is truly devastating. The Scottish Government will provide any support that we can and I would like to thank the police and mountain rescue team for their efforts."