Four Japanese climbers feared dead after avalanche on Mount McKinley
National Park Service, Kevin Wright, Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Four Japanese mountain climbers are believed dead following an avalanche early Thursday morning on North America’s tallest peak.
The 800-foot slide came at about 2 a.m. as the five-person team was roped together, descending a popular route down Mount McKinley, according to the National Park Service. Four of the climbers, all in their 50s and 60s, disappeared in the snow.
The lone survivor is a 69-year-old man who fell about 60 feet down a crevasse — a deep crack in the ice — but scrambled to safety with no significant injuries.
“The rope had broken so he was separated from the rest of his team members,” said Maureen McLaughlin, a Park Service spokeswoman in Talkeetna.
The slide appears to be the most deadly single accident on the mountain since four Canadian climbers were killed in a 1992 fall high on the mountain, according to Park Service records.
The avalanche began at about 11,800 feet, according to the Park Service. It was about 200 feet wide, piling roughly three to four feet of snow and debris on the glacier, McLaughlin said.
The survivor, Hitoshi Ogi, was the last climber on the rope line and the highest on the mountain when his friends vanished. He walked and climbed to the surface of the crevasse following the fall, McLaughlin said. When he found no sign of his companions he spent much of the day making his way another 4,600 feet down the mountain reporting the accident at the Kahiltna base camp shortly after 4 p.m.
“I don’t know if he had a radio. He lost quite a bit of his gear in the crevasse,” McLaughlin said.
“His hand was wrapped up and I’m not sure if that was frostbite or injury,” she said.
A subsequent aerial search by Park Service rangers that evening found no sign of the missing climbers or their gear.
A team of about 10 searchers, including an avalanche rescue dog named Sisu, was on the mountain Saturday looking for the remains of the other four climbers, McLaughlin said. They are presumed dead because of the time that has passed since the slide.
The missing climbers, two men and two women, were identified as Yoshiaki Kato, 64, Masako Suda, 50, Michiko Suzuki, 56, and Tamao Suzuki, 63.
All are from Miyagi Prefecture, Japan, and members of a Japanese alpine club called Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation. McLaughlin said she did not know if Michiko Suzuki and Tamao Suzuki were husband and wife.
The Consular Office of Japan in Anchorage worked to provide information to the climbers’ families following the accident, an official with the office said Saturday.
All five mountaineers appeared to be making their first attempt to climb the 20,320-foot peak, according to the Park Service. Some of the group listed prior experience on peaks such as Kilimanjaro and Mount Fuji, McLaughlin said.
The climbers were descending an area known as Motorcycle Hill on the main route of Mount McKinley’s West Buttress.
“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 some avalanche activity,” she said. McLaughlin was not aware of any previous avalanche deaths in the area.
Another slide was reported earlier in the week higher on Denali, at about 15,500 feet, she said. That avalanche resulted in injuries but no deaths.
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