A FRIEND of three British mountaineers who died on a Spanish mountain said last night their families were appalled by official claims the men were badly equipped.

Colin Riddiough, 46, and Paul Dick, 56, both from Brotton, and John Plews, 32, of Redcar, all east Cleveland, died after becoming trapped in a snowstorm on the south face of the Mulhacen mountain at the weekend.

Mr Riddiough's son, Stephen, 30, risked his life by walking through a snowstorm for help - but rescuers arrived too late.

Mr Riddiough lived five doors from Mr Dick and the pair were firm friends.

Spanish authorities said the group had ignored bad weather warnings before setting out and appeared to be ill-equipped for the expedition on a mountain where temperatures can plunge to -20C (-4F).

The Spanish Civil Guard said the group may have been caught out by a sudden change in the weather on Mulhacen, the Iberian peninsula's highest peak, which overlooks the Costa del Sol.

But friends of the men insisted last night that they were not badly equipped.

A colleague of Colin Riddiough, who was a former Army PE instructor and ran an outdoor pursuits club, defended his survival skills.

Chris Gibson, a spokes-man for Cleveland Potash mine, where Mr Riddiough had worked for 16 years, said he was a meticulous planner, experienced, had the latest equipment and had run climbing trips to the Sierra Nevada, in Spain, three times in recent years.

He said: "We are aware that the Spanish are trying to rubbish the equipment they had.

"Colin was a sergeant in the Army, a PE instructor, so he was fully versed in health and safety."

In 1999 he climbed Britain's highest peaks: Ben Nevis, in Scotland, Scafell Pike, in the Lake District, and Snowdon, in Wales, in 29hrs 2min, to raise money for a local school.

Mr Gibson added: "They were wearing thermals, had snow shoes, they had high protection sleeping bags.

"The route was well-known to them, they knew where the refuges were.

"On that basis, it is a complete shock to us.

"I have been to visit his family and they are appalled by this - they know the equipment they had with them.

"I have no doubts that they were well-equipped, knowing Colin and knowing how thorough he was.

"It is a mystery why the authorities are saying this."

Alan Hinkes, one of Britain's greatest mountaineers, spoke of his sadness last night.

Mr Hinkes, who became the first Briton to conquer the world's 14 highest peaks, said the friends may have been fooled by treacherous winter weather that can change in a matter of minutes.

The 51-year-old, from Romanby, near Northallerton, North Yorkshire, has climbed in the Spanish mountains, and said: "Unfortunately, these things can happen and these type of areas need to be treated with respect.

"It is winter - that is the crucial thing to remember.

"You could go walking in the Lake District or anywhere in Britain and find yourself in trouble and you need to be prepared for the worst - sometimes weather comes in worse than you expect.

"People forget that bad weather is the norm. You see the postcards and the pictures are sunny."

Warm tributes were paid to Mr Riddiough, a local councillor. He was married to Pauline and had a daughter, Suzanne, as well as a son. Stephen works in IT for Cleveland Potash, where his father was a mechanical fitter.

Mr Gibson said Stephen was physically fine but devastated by the tragedy.

Redcar and Cleveland borough councillor Brian Hogg said everyone was deeply shocked at the news.

He said: "Everyone knew Colin. He was a man who did an awful lot of charity work."

His friend, John Plews, was a webmaster at Teesside University, where staff were shocked by the loss of a well-liked colleague who had a warm sense of humour.

University vice-chancellor Professor Graham Henderson said: "John was an outstanding colleague and a much-liked and valued member of staff. Our deepest sympathies are with John's family."

Mr Dick had a son, Michael, who is in his late 20s, and a daughter, Rebecca, in her early 20s.

He had worked in Saudi Arabia for several years, and until recently had been working at a Tesco store in Redcar.