A rescuer and a search dog look for four Japanese climbers on Alaska's… (National Park Service /…)
A broken rope is the only clue to the location of four Japanese climbers who vanished in an avalanche on Alaska's Mt. McKinley last week.
And that rope — discovered in a pile of compacted ice and snow by a National Park Service mountaineer, almost 100 feet below the surface of a glacial crevasse on America’s tallest mountain — may be all that remains of the climbers for a while.
After the rope's discovery, it became too dangerous to keep digging, so the search for the lost climbers — Yoshiaki Kato, 64, Masako Suda, 50, Michiko Suzuki, 56, and Tamao Suzuki, 63, of the Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation — has been called off "permanently," officials said Sunday afternoon.
The climbers were already presumed dead while the search was underway.
"The frayed rope told us that we had found their final resting place, but the recovery effort was stopped because of the threat to the safety of the search team," park service spokeswoman Kris Fister told the Los Angeles Times.
Six climbers have died on 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley so far this year, where heavy snow and high winds in recent weeks have prevented roughly two-thirds of climbers from reaching the peak, according to the park service.
The Japanese expedition leaves a sole survivor, Hitoshi Ogi, who was tied to his fellow climbers by a rope that broke — and perhaps saved his life by doing so — when a sudden avalanche at 11,800 feet swept the team into the crevasse on the mountain’s West Buttress last Wednesday.
"I kept looking for more than two hours, thinking some may have been buried or fallen into a nearby crevasse," Hitoshi said in an interview that appeared on the Japan Times website Saturday.
Hitoshi, 69, had injured his hand, but managed to climb out of the crevasse and spent a day making a lonely 4,000-foot descent to Kahiltna Basecamp, where he reported the incident.
Searchers wearing bright-colored clothing — accompanied by a search dog with wrapped paws to track through the mountain snow — matched Hitoshi’s broken rope with the rope found in the crevasse.
Fister said the park service would work through the Japanese consul in Anchorage if the victims' families want an overview of the search effort or if they want to fly over the avalanche site.
Otherwise, there's not much more the park service can do.
"Unfortunately, there are some climbers that we never find, and others, such as in this case, we cannot recover due to the threat to the safety of the rescuers," Fister told the Los Angeles Times.
There are now 44 bodies on Mt. McKinley, Fister said.
[For the record, 5:22 p.m., June 17: An earlier version of this post said Hitoshi commented to the Associated Press on Saturday. Instead, his comment appeared on the Japan Times website in a report credited to the AP and the Kyodo News Service.]