A triggering mechanism responsible for the explosive onset of edge localised modes (ELMs) in fusion plasmas is identified by performing, for the first time, non-linear magnetohydrodynamic simulations of repetitive type-I ELMs. Briefly prior to the ELM crash, destabilising and stabilising terms are affected at different timescales by an increasingly ergodic magnetic field caused by non-linear interactions between the axisymmetric background plasma and growing non-axisymmetric perturbations. The separation of timescales prompts the explosive, i.e. faster than exponential, growth of an ELM crash which lasts ∼ 500μs. The duration and size of the simulated ELM crashes compare qualitatively well with type-I ELMs in ASDEX Upgrade. As expected for type-I ELMs, a direct proportionality between the heating power in the simulations and the ELM repetition frequency is obtained. The simulations presented here are a major step forward towards predictive modelling of ELMs and of the assessment of mitigation techniques in ITER and other future tokamaks.