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Italian man falls 1,000 feet, becomes 2nd man to die on Mount McKinley this climbing season

Posted: May 17, 2011 - 8:00pm

ANCHORAGE — An Italian climber who tumbled to his death on North America’s highest mountain was not using ropes and snow anchors as advised on a deceptively dangerous section of trail on Mount McKinley, a ranger said Tuesday.

Luciano Colombo fell 1,000 feet to his death Monday while traversing Denali Pass, a 45-degree slope near 18,000 feet on the West Buttress route, used by most climbers to reach the top of the 20,320-foot mountain in Alaska.

The 67-year-old climber failed to take advice from National Park Service rangers to use ropes and snow anchors along the slope, which was covered with hard snow and windblown.

Climbers further down the mountain in a high camp at 17,200 feet saw Colombo fall. The weather at the time was sunny. There was little wind.

John Leonard, a National Park Service district ranger who has summited Mount McKinley four times, said climbers tend to underestimate the steepness of Denali Pass. In a mandatory pre-climb interview, they are advised both verbally and in written materials to use ropes and snow anchors in that section of the trail.

Leonard said climbers tend to underestimate the steepness of the pass. About a decade ago another climber fell in almost exactly the same spot, he said.

“There is a significant amount of exposure up high and even something as little as a small stumble or trip can lead to a fatal accident,” Leonard said. “The accident yesterday, that has been repeated a number of times over the years.”

Last Thursday, a Swiss climber was found dead on the mountain after his climbing party was involved in a fall climbing a ridge near the summit. Beat Niederer, 38, of St. Gallen, Switzerland, showed no signs of life when found near 18,000 feet. There also were no visible signs of trauma, raising the likelihood that he succumbed to Mount McKinley’s notorious cold temperatures.

Three other members of Niederer’s climbing party were rescued. One of them had a broken leg, another a broken rib and all three were suffering from frostbite.

The rescue was delayed more than 12 hours because of 70 mph winds that prevented a high-altitude helicopter from reaching the climbers. Temperatures with wind chill at the time were between 50 and 60 degrees below zero.

Despite the two deaths so early in the climbing season, Leonard said nothing unusual is happening on Mount McKinley. McKinley is being McKinley, he said.

“Because of the environment, there is very, very little room for error, especially on the upper reaches of the mountain,” he said “Small things compound upon themselves, with the cold temperatures, high winds, changing weather, extreme altitude, fatigue factor, especially on the summit attempts. If you find yourself in a trouble spot, it is hard to get yourself out of it.”

While most American climbers will “rope up” through Denali Pass, that is not the case with the Europeans, Leonard said. They tend not to use snow anchors to secure themselves to the mountain and rope up together.

When Colombo fell, he was ahead of his two fellow climbers and was not roped to them. He died of traumatic injuries.

Mountaineering ranger Dave Weber has summited Mount McKinley three times. He said climbers tend to underestimate the mountain because it is not a technically difficult climb. They fail to appreciate how cold it can get and how quickly the weather can change.

“I think it often can catch people off-guards,” Weber said.

Since 1932, 110 people have died on Mount McKinley, including two deaths last year.

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