ANCHORAGE - Two climbers from Washington died after falling 1,900 feet while descending Mount McKinley, a spokesman for the National Park Service said.
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Mizuki Takahashi, 36, from Lake Forest Park, was found dead where she fell Thursday evening. Her climbing partner, Brian Massey, a 27-year-old firefighter from North Bend, was critically injured and died while still on the mountain Friday morning.
The accident occurred near the weather station at 19,000 feet on the West Buttress Route of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak.
The pair were roped together when they tumbled down a 40-degree slope of ice and snow to a point just below High Camp at about 17,000 feet, said Daryl Miller, south district ranger. A mountaineering ranger witnessed the fall and immediately went to the aid of the climbers.
The deaths are the first on McKinley for this year's climbing season, which began last month and goes until midsummer. Last year, a Korean climber died on the mountain. The year before, two brothers from Ohio died.
Park authorities said they do not know the cause of Thursday's fall. The pair was roped together but, as far as authorities can discern, they were not anchored to the mountain.
Miller did not know if the pair made it to the summit before trying to reach the West Buttress.
The climbers ascended the upper West Rib route and were traversing across the top of the Messner Couloir to near the weather station on the West Buttress route when they fell, Miller said.
Climbers on the West Rib route often go to the McKinley summit and then come down the West Buttress. Trying to reach the Buttress using the route Massey and Takahashi chose across the Messner is far less common.
Rangers were puzzled why the pair chose to come down the route they did. "I don't know why," Miller said. "It seemed much harder."
Miller said it is possible the pair altered their course because of high winds at that altitude.
"It's fair to say that we'll never know for sure," he said. "But there's one theory that they were trying to come down under the ridge out of the wind, and they could see camp and they decided to just descend from that point instead of traversing all the way down to 18,200."
It's possible one slipped and fell into the other, or that one slipped and pulled the other down because they were roped together. The latter is a scenario all too common when climbers in a hurry fail to put in anchors and take the precaution of belaying each other across dangerous areas on the rope.
Miller said that in his 25 years of climbing the mountain and 15 years of working on McKinley, he's never heard of anyone falling at the site where the two fell.
Takahashi and Massey suffered a great deal of trauma in their slide down more than six football fields, Miller said.
Heavy clouds and darkness prevented lifting the unconscious Massey off the mountain Thursday night. A paramedic cared for him overnight but ran out of oxygen early Friday morning. Miller said his oxygen intake was good but the trauma to his body was severe; he didn't believe the lack of supplemental oxygen made a difference.
Massey died at the ranger station on the mountain at about 8:30 a.m. Friday.
Massey and Takahashi connected over the Internet with a third climbing partner and planned the trip, Miller said. The third partner was not with them at the time of the accident. That partner, not identified by the park service, elected to stay at a lower elevation when the two left the 14,200-foot level for the summit on Tuesday.
The trio flew to base camp on May 6 and were scheduled to leave May 31.
The bodies remained with park authorities at 17,000 feet late Friday. The park service said high winds were preventing a recovery of the bodies.
McKinley is girding for the peak of the climbing season in several weeks. There were about 300 climbers on the mountain at the time of the accident and about 40 at the 17,000-foot area of the mountain, Miller said.