Two Phd students and a junior doctor were among four people killed in an avalanche in the Scottish Highlands.

Una Rachel Finnegan, 25, from County Antrim, Northern Ireland, Christopher William Bell, 24, from Blackpool, Lancashire, and Tom Chesters, 28, who was living in Leeds, were killed while walking near Glencoe yesterday, Northern Constabulary said.

Ms Finnegan was a junior doctor who had been living in Edinburgh, Mr Bell was studying for a Phd in ocean mapping in Oban and Mr Chesters was a Phd student at Hull University.

A second woman was also killed in the accident, although her next of kin have asked for her name to be withheld until her extended family have been informed.

A 24-year-old woman from the Durham area remains in critical condition in hospital.

Another man survived the incident, but has asked for his name to be withheld.

The party were experienced hillwalkers who were said to have been well equipped for their winter trek across Bidean Nam Bian, a mountain near Glencoe.

The group started their descent down a steep incline on the south side of the valley at around 2pm yesterday, when a sheet of snow gave way beneath them and carried them 1,000ft to the bottom of the mountain at speeds estimated to be up to 50mph.

All of the missing climbers were found within four hours of the alarm being raised.

The woman has been moved to the Southern General in Glasgow and remains in a critical condition, Northern Constabulary said. Members of her family were with her today.

The only walker to escape relatively unharmed jumped free of the collapsing sheet of snow and hammered an ice axe into firmer ground.

In a statement released earlier today, he spoke of his "sadness and deep regret" at the loss of his friends.

"All in the group loved the mountains and are experienced winter walkers," he said.

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

Deputy head of Glencoe Mountain Rescue 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 1,000ft below, under between 1.5 and two metres of snow.

"It's a brutal experience. There are enormous forces at work and you are being twisted about at high speed."

The tragedy has deeply affected mountain rescue staff, emergency services and members of the local community.

Mr Nelson added: "This is bound to be upsetting for all of the mountain rescue crews.

"We all walk on the same terrain and we are all outdoor lovers, so it is quite close to home.

"You have to get on with what you are doing, but it does affect everyone and at the end of the day they all go home and deal with it in their own way."

Prayers were said at St Munda's Church in nearby Ballachulish this morning.

The Rev Moira Herkes, who led a service, told the congregation: "We include in our prayers thoughts for the deceased in yesterday's tragic accident on the mountain and their families.

"Somehow life must continue. We accept the challenges of nature as part of our living."

She added: "We also pray for the people who are injured, both physically an emotionally.

"And we give our thanks to those prepared to risk their lives in the saving of others, and do so with a sense of commitment and through thinking beyond themselves."

Northern Constabulary area commander Chief Inspector Derek Paterson expressed his sadness at the loss of four lives, and praised the efforts of rescue crews and member of the public who assisted.

He said: "Avalanches are largely very rare, and I think the latest figures show that they account for about 2% of all mountain incidents.

"Another point I would stress is that the trend for avalanche casualties has reduced steadily since the 1980s, so it is something that is thankfully become more infrequent."

Glencoe Mountain Rescue has urged people not to let yesterday's incident discourage them from visiting Glencoe, but to proceed with caution, check weather and avalanche reports, monitor the hill and plan their route carefully.