updated 5/1/2008 6:51:05 AM ET 2008-05-01T10:51:05

Rescuers on Thursday found the bodies of five French ski mountaineers who had been missing since they were swept away by an avalanche during an excursion in Italy’s northwestern Alps.

The bodies were spotted by a helicopter shortly after dawn following a suspension of the search overnight because of darkness and bad weather, said officials in the cities of Aosta and Turin.

The group was overrun by the avalanche Wednesday afternoon at an altitude of about 8,000 feet while traveling through the Gran Paradiso National Park, an Alpine area north of Turin and near the French border.

Guide survived
The group’s guide, also a French citizen, was pulled from the snow Wednesday evening after being spotted by a helicopter, said Claudio Rosset, an Alpine rescue official in Aosta.

At the time the guide’s condition did not appear serious and he had been hospitalized in Aosta, Rosset said.

The five bodies were spotted at a bottom of a gorge and had been dragged down some 500 feet by the avalanche, said Massimo De Michela, a rescue official in Turin.

Rescuers were using the helicopter to retrieve the bodies. No details on their identities were immediately available, De Michela said.

The mass of snow descended on the group from Punta Basei, a 10,000-foot peak. Fresh snow had recently fallen on the mountain and the unstable mass is believed to have caused the avalanche, De Michela said.

He said rescue efforts began after owners of the lodge where the group was supposed to spend the night raised the alarm Wednesday. The six mountaineers were hiking more than 7 miles between two mountain lodges in the Gran Paradiso massif , straddling Italy’s Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta regions.

“It’s a beautiful hike,” De Michela said. “It’s a pity it ended so badly.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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