Friends have paid tribute to three young climbers killed in an avalanche who, they said, died doing what they loved.

Phd students Christopher Bell and Tom Chesters, and junior doctor Una Finnegan, were swept 1,000ft to their deaths while descending from a mountain in Glencoe, in the Scottish Highlands, on Saturday afternoon.

Another woman, who was part of their group, was also killed. She has not been named as her extended family is still being informed. A 24-year-old woman remains in a critical condition after suffering severe head injuries. One other man who was on the trek managed to survive by leaping from the collapsing sheet of snow and hammering an ice axe into firmer ground.

Mr Bell, 24, from Blackpool, Lancashire, was studying for a Phd in ocean mapping in Oban, while 28-year-old Mr Chesters had been living in Leeds and working towards his qualification at Hull University. Their friend Sam Morris, 35, 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.

The male survivor of the six-person group has expressed his "sadness and deep regret". "All in the group loved the mountains and are experienced winter walkers," he said in a statement. "My sincere thanks goes to the members of the public, mountain rescue teams and other emergency services who assisted."

Deputy head of Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team Andy Nelson said the avalanche would have unfolded in "a split second".