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ANCHORAGE - Japanese mountaineer Yoshitomi Okura climbs North America's highest mountain each year and installs a new weather station to defend the honor of three friends - blown off Mount McKinley during a winter climb.
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An autopsy showed the climbers - among the 96 people who have died on Mount McKinley since the first deaths were recorded in 1932 - were flash frozen by the ferociously cold winds. Their bodies were recovered only because a rope they used to tie themselves together snagged on ice.
"You could see how they were blown down from the high camp. They were just lying there like they were blowing like flags in the wind," said Roger Robinson, lead mountaineering ranger at Denali National Park and Preserve, home to the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in Alaska.
"The wind had to have come back. They were found roped together below camp," he said. "They were probably so hypothermic they couldn't hold on anymore."
Okura chose the spot where his friends fell in 1989, and where Naomi Uemura, one of Japan's most famous adventurers, vanished during the first solo winter climb in February 1984, to install a weather station in 1990.
The 55-year-old climber has been back to the weather station every year since with other members of the Japan Alpine Club to reinstall a new weather station - the old ones damaged and sometimes obliterated by wind and ice. The endeavor is called the Mount McKinley Weather Station Project.
"He is trying to prove that there are very strong winds up there and those guys were very experienced climbers, and it was not an accident caused by inexperience," said Tohru Saito, a liaison with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who for the fifth time accompanied Okura on his climb. IARC funds the project.
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The weather station sits on a ridge above Denali Pass at 18,700 feet near the mountain's summit. It is one of the windiest places on Earth, with winds unofficially clocked at 188 mph in January 2003. When climbers reached the weather station that year, they found a snapped 14-inch long, half-inch diameter antenna. Now, the antennas are made 2 inches shorter with twice the thickness and are encased in a tough Teflon tube.
Where the weather station sits is also one of the colder places on Earth. On Feb. 3, 1991, the weather station recorded an unofficial temperature of minus-73 degrees. The weather station, among the three highest in the world, measures temperature, barometric pressure and wind speed. The other high-altitude stations are on Mount Mauna Loa in Hawaii and in the Andes in South America.
This year, eight climbers began their ascent on June 8 in what Okura said was snowy weather most of the way. They reached the weather station on June 23, installed the new equipment and then summitted the same day, before descending and arriving at base camp June 26.
"It was snowing every day. It was completely whiteout a lot of times," Saito said, translating for Okura. "It was so snowy he couldn't find the right way to go sometimes."
Climbers have long known about the horrendous weather on Mount McKinley, but documenting just how bad has been a challenge. During Okura's early climbs, McKinley's winds more often than not destroyed the weather station.
The goal now is to build a weather station that will remain functional and transmit accurate data for more than a year.
"The first six years there were times when nothing was up there. You would go up there and find out there is nothing there, so you are very disappointed or sad that there is nothing," Okura said through the translator.
Climbers this year carried about $20,000 worth of weather station equipment up in two small, black cases. Together, they weighed 44 pounds - less than the 150 pounds of equipment that Okura and the climbing team hauled up the mountain in the early 1990s.
This year's more robust weather station, built by Climatec Inc. of Tokyo, consists of separate components, so if one fails the others can continue to collect data. The instruments include temperature, barometric and two types of wind sensors, a spinning three-cup model and an ultrasonic sensor with no moving parts.
The weather station contains a data logger, also made by Climatec, which records data every 10 minutes. That data is transmitted hourly and goes from the weather station to a receiving station in nearby Cantwell, and from there via the telephone lines to the Geophysical Institute at UAF. It is being posted on the Internet at www.iarc.uaf.edu/mt-mckinley/.
Kevin Abnett, president of Polartronix in Fairbanks, the company that built the telemetric system for sending real-time data to UAF, has designed equipment for some pretty harsh environments, including devices to measure the Earth's magnetic field at Antarctica and a seismic station on an Alaska volcano.
Nothing yet compares to McKinley, he said.
If the winds don't destroy the equipment, it's usually the ice. If the equipment survives those, static electricity or cosmic radiation can zap the electronics, he said.
"This is the toughest environment I've seen yet," Abnett said.