Four people have been killed and a woman is seriously hurt after a group of six climbers were caught up in an avalanche in Glen Coe.
Emergency services were alerted to the accident on Bidean Nam Bian at about 2pm on Saturday and a major search operation involving two mountain rescue teams and police dogs was launched.
Northern Constabulary said four people, two men and two women, were found and have since been pronounced dead.
One male climber, who stayed with the teams to help with the search, is safe and well while a woman is in a serious condition in Belford hospital in Fort William.
John Grieve, leader of Glencoe mountain rescue team, which co-ordinated the search, said the alarm was initially raised by two climbers – who were not part of the group of six – when they discovered one of the casualties lying in the snow.
But, soon after, police were contacted by the male survivor from the climbing party, who told them more people were missing.
Mr Grieve, who is in Spain and was not part of the search, said: “The first call to police was from two other people who had been on the mountain. They found someone lying next to where they were climbing. So, the assumption was that it was just one casualty, but it became clear that there were others missing when they heard from the man who is safe.”
He said the deceased climbers were located using a technique called “probing”, where a metal stick is pushed into the snow.
“I’m not sure how deeply buried they were, but using that technique would suggest it was more than a metre,” Mr Grieve said.
Police said they are making efforts to identify the deceased and to contact their next of kin.
All of the missing climbers were located within four hours of the alarm being raised. The search was also assisted by Lochaber mountain rescue team.
Tributes have already been paid in the wake of the “devastating” natural disaster.
First Minister Alex Salmond said: “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 in these difficult circumstances.”
David Gibson, chief officer and company secretary of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCoS), said: “This was a significant tragedy. The thoughts of the MCoS are with all of those involved and the rescue services up there doing the job they do.
“It is always difficult in these circumstances, but I think the advice we would give to people is to check the weather and avalanche forecasts before setting off, and to assess the risks.”
Mr Gibson said Bidean Nam Bian is a Munro with a number of different climbs.
“It is a fantastic location to go climbing at this time of the year as it is very beautiful,” he added.
Mark Diggins, co-ordinator of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, said Saturday’s avalanche risk was deemed “considerable”, second lowest on a European four-point scale.
The most serious is “very high”, which is extremely rare in Britain.
“An avalanche is possible to be triggered by a single person,” said Mr Diggins. “At the moment it doesn’t look like there’s much snow, it is very localised.
“You’re really getting into areas which are 800 metres up because the wind packs the snow to make it hard.”
Reverend Moira Herkes said she will lead a prayer for those involved in the tragedy during her Sunday service at St Munda’s Church, which serves the communities of Glencoe and Ballachulish.
“They will not be forgotten, that’s for sure,” she said. “This is the worst accident to happen here for many years.
“It is very distressing, because people come here for pleasure and when something like this happens it hurts everyone involved. This is a very beautiful place, but at times it can be very dangerous.”
Anyone who is concerned about relatives climbing in the area are advised to contact Northern Constabulary’s control room on 01463 715555.