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Four Japanese climbers presumed dead after Mt. McKinley avalanche

June 16, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson
  • Mt. McKinley in Alaska
Mt. McKinley in Alaska (Becky Bohrer / Associated…)

Four Japanese climbers are believed to be dead days after an avalanche roared down Alaska’s Mt. McKinley and swept the group off a steep slope, the U.S. National Park Service said Saturday.

As the crew of five inched down the tallest peak in North America early Thursday morning, a wave of snow 80 stories tall crashed over them, snapping the rope that kept the group connected and burying four of the climbers, said John Leonard, Denali National Park’s chief mountaineering ranger.

An avalanche dog and 10 rangers continued to search for bodies Saturday in debris and 2 feet of fresh snow.

“It’s been two days and we haven’t found them,” Leonard said. “There’s just no chance.”

The lone survivor, Hitoshi Ogi, 69, had taken up the rear during the group’s descent on the West Buttress, the peak’s most common climbing route. The avalanche knocked him into a crevasse 60 feet away. When he climbed out, his group was nowhere to be seen, he told rangers.

His solo descent to get help spanned 14 hours and 4,600 feet.

The avalanche, strong enough to destroy a small building, was the mountain’s deadliest accident since four Canadians were killed in 1992, park service records indicate.

Mt. McKinley has some of the worst mountain weather in the world, Leonard said. Winds howl up to 80 mph. Temperatures frequently dip below minus 40. Climbers sometimes hike in white-out conditions, meaning they can see only a few feet.

“As far as nature goes, it’s a black-and-white world,” Leonard said. “It can be miserable. But it’s quite a view.”

Mountaineering season runs from late April to late July. Almost 400 people are currently attempting the climb, which is always grueling. Climbers hike for 18 miles with 120 pounds of gear distributed among back- packs and hand sleds, veteran hiker Alan Arnette said.

The accident raised this season’s death toll to six, and the total deaths to 140. Most stem from weather or falls on icy inclines. Fewer than 10 have been caused by avalanches.

Heavy snowfall and strong winds — conditions that contributed to the avalanche — have made climbing Mt. McKinley more difficult than usual. About 37% of the climbers have reached its 20,320-foot summit.

The missing are Yoshiaki Kato, 64; Masako Suda, 50; Michiko Suzuki, 56; and Ta- mao Suzuki, 63. They were members of the Myagi Work- ers Alpine Federation. This was their first Mt. McKinley attempt. The group had been on the mountain just shy of three weeks.

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Follow Laura on Twitter or Google+. Email: laura.nelson@latimes.com

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