Ground Search Suspended For Climbers Hit By Avalanche On Mount McKinley In Denali National Park

Ground crews used probes Saturday to search for four missing climbrers hit by an avalanche on Mount McKinley. NPS photo.

Falling into a crevasse, often a fatal step for a mountaineer, saved a member of a Japanese climbing team on Mount McKinley in Denali National Park, but his four partners apparently were swept to their deaths by an avalanche.

Searchers suspended their efforts Saturday to find traces of the four, who were descending the mountain when the slide hit them about 2 a.m. last Wednesday. Two days of searching the debris path from the avalanche that roared down the West Buttress turned up only clues pointing to likely location of the four missing climbers.

Mr. Yoshiaki Kato, Ms. Masako Suda, Ms. Michiko Suzuki, and Mr. Tamao Suzuki of the Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation expedition are presumed to have died in the avalanche, while one team member, Mr. Hitoshi Ogi, survived the event when he was swept into a crevasse by the slide. He suffered only a minor hand injury, and was able to climb out and descend further down the mountain for help, park officials said Sunday.

The fatal avalanche happened at approximately 11,800-feet on the West Buttress, and was originally believed to have occurred early on the morning June 14. However NPS rangers have since confirmed with both Mr. Ogi and multiple teams on the mountain that the slide occurred during the early morning hours of Wednesday, June 13.

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Handler with search-and-rescue dog. NPS photo.

Mr. Ogi first reported the event to NPS rangers when he arrived at the Kahiltna Basecamp the afternoon of June 14.

An aerial hasty search took place on June 14 followed by an initial four-member NPS ground search the following day. On Saturday, June 16, an expanded 10-person ground crew consisting of NPS rangers, volunteer patrol members, a dog handler, and a trained search and rescue dog probed and further investigated the debris zone.

During the search, NPS mountaineering ranger Tucker Chenoweth descended into the same crevasse that Mr. Ogi had fallen into during the avalanche.

While probing through the debris roughly 30 meters below the glacier surface, Ranger Chenoweth found a broken rope end that matched the MWAF team’s rope. He began to dig further, but encountered heavily compacted ice and snow debris. Due to the danger of ice fall within the crevasse, it was decided to permanently suspend the recovery efforts.

There have six climbing fatalities on Mt. McKinley this season. Since 1932, a total of 120 climbers have perished on the mountain, 12 due to avalanches. This week’s four avalanche fatalities were the first to occur on the popular West Buttress route.