MILAN — An avalanche struck high in the Italian Alps on Saturday, killing six backcountry skiers as others looked on in horror as a swath of snow hundreds of meters wide cascaded down.
Helicopters ferried both the survivors and the bodies back to the valley floor from the avalanche site, located just hundreds of meters (yards) shy of Monte Nevoso's 3,358-meter (11,017-foot) peak. The mountain is not far from the Austrian border in Italy's Alto Adige region.
The dead were among a group of expert backcountry skiers climbing above tree line to the mountain crest and then skiing down. The cause of the midday avalanche was not immediately known.
Police in Bolzano and Brunico confirmed the deaths while the news agency ANSA, quoting rescuers, said one other person was injured in the avalanche and eight others survived unharmed. It said the group included Austrians and Italians.
Financial police Brig. Albert Castlunger said the survivors had summoned rescuers, who responded with three helicopters and dozens of search-and-rescue workers who used poles and rescue dogs to probe the snow for more possible victims.
The high altitude and the number of people involved complicated the rescue, Rafael Kostner, the head of the rescue operation, told ANSA.
"The helicopters are having difficulty safely reaching altitudes above 3,000 meters," Kostner said. "They fly with very little fuel and all unnecessary gear is left on the ground."
Bolzano province's avalanche report forecast the avalanche risk for Saturday as moderate, a two on a scale of 1-to-5. It said avalanches were possible on leeward slopes near ridges with the risk rising throughout the day.