4 Denali missing climbers presumed dead after avalanche

In this Friday, June 15, 2012 photo provided by the National Park Service, climbers hike through the area where an avalanche swept a Japanese climbing team off a hill during their descent from Alaska's Mount McKinley. U.S. National Park Service officials say five people were traveling as a one rope team early Thursday morning as part of a Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation expedition on the Alaska mountain. The NPS said Hitoshi Ogi, 69, survived after falling 60 feet (18 meters) into a crevasse. He was able to climb out. The other four tumbled into the avalanche debris and haven't been seen since. (AP Photo/National Park Service, Kevin Wright)

An avalanche on Mount McKinley swept a Japanese climbing team off a hill as they tried to descend on a rope line, leaving four presumed dead. One climber survived after tumbling 60 feet into a crevasse.

U.S. National Park Service officials say five people were traveling as one rope team early Thursday morning as part of a Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation expedition on the Alaska mountain.

Park Service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin said Hitoshi Ogi, 69, survived the fall. He was able to climb out.

The other four fell into the avalanche debris and haven’t been seen since. The climbers are presumed dead by either snow burial or injuries suffered in falls

Snowfall and wind have impeded a search for the missing climbers.

Ogi spoke to Park Service employees after the event. He said the climbers were descending the mountain together when the avalanche began, McLaughlin said. They sped up, trying to get down the mountain faster, but the rope connecting them broke when the avalanche struck.

Ogi was the lowest person on the rope team. He looked for the other four but couldn’t find them.

“He wasn’t sure of all the events,” McLaughlin said, adding that Ogi spoke through a translator and was exhausted.

The four missing climbers include 64-year-old Yoshiaki Kato, 50-year-old Masako Suda, 56-year-old Michiko Suzuki, and 63-year-old Tamao Suzuki.

There was new snow on the route, but the weather on Thursday was calm, McLaughlin said.

“Where the avalanche occurred, the vast majority (of the new snow) was not on the main route,” McLaughlin said. “A small sliver of it was, and that’s what took them.”

McLaughlin called the avalanche, “an unlucky, random event.”

“Avalanches do occur in this vicinity, but it’s not common, she said.

The climbers were attempting the busiest route, West Buttress, during the height of mountaineering season. Climbers attempted the route on 92 percent of attempts on Mount McKinley in 2011.

The Park Service said in a news release that nearly 400 people were on the Alaska mountain on Saturday.

Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, is North America’s tallest peak. While not a particularly tall peak by global standards, its latitude makes for far thinner air than is found in mountains closer to the equator. That, combined with the weather and temperatures, makes it a particularly dangerous climb.

“It’s about a 35 degree slope, just a gradual climb. Generally snow and ice fields,” McLaughlin said.

While not a particularly treacherous portion of the climb, the area is prone to avalanches, she said.

Another avalanche was reported earlier in the week on Denali at about 15,500 feet, she said. That slide resulted in injuries but no deaths.

So far this season, 234 people have reported reaching the 20,320-foot summit. The weather recently turned against mountaineers, however, and Park Service officials assume the Japanese expedition did not summit.

Winds of 25 to 45 mph and cumulative snowfall of about two feet over the past week or two has thwarted climbers’ attempts to reach the mountaintop, McLaughlin said.

“The same rough weather conditions led to the avalanche conditions,” she said.

Including the Japanese climbers, six people have died on Denali this season.

A Finnish mountaineer skiing down a 40- to 45-degree slope called The Orient Express died May 23 after tumbling 2,000 feet. The 36-year-old landed in a crevasse at 15,850 feet, according to the Park Service.

On May 18, a climber fell more than 1,000 feet to his death after trying to grab a sliding backpack at about 16,200 feet.

Four people died on the mountain in 2009 and again in 2010. At least five people died in 2011 on Mount McKinley.

All told, 140 people have now died while trying to climb Denali since 1932, McLaughlin said.

The Japanese expedition began its climb on or about May 26, according to the Park Service. The average expedition takes about 17 or 18 days, she said.

• McClatchy News Service contributed to this report.

The climbing season on Mount McKinley peaks in late May and early June, she said. As of Saturday, there were 395 climbers on the mountain. Most are on the West Buttress route.

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