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Recovery efforts suspended for Japanese climbers on Mount McKinley

Craig Medred

Motorcycle Hill is a normally benign slope that rises straight above the 11,000-foot camp on the West Buttress of Alaska's Mount McKinley. On Wednesday, it killed four Japanese climbers in a  reminder of just how dangerous it can be to climb North America's tallest mountain even when it does not appear at all dangerous.

Five members of the Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation were on a truly "walk-up" portion of what veteran climbers consider a walk-up route to McKinley's 20,320-foot summit when four of them died. An unanticipated, 2 a.m. avalanche swept them to their deaths.

Crevasse falls, sometimes scary but almost never deadly, are a somewhat common occurrence on the Hill. Somebody punches a leg through snow over an ice hall, shivers at the thought of what could have been worse, and goes on. Rarely somebody drops through the snow into a shallow crevasse and roped up teammates pull him or her out.

Avalanches are a rare occurrence, so rare McKinley climbing guides don't even mention them as a danger. Author Glenn Randall in the "Mt. McKinley Climber's Handbook" warns against avoiding the seracs -- tippy blocks of ice -- when pitching camp at the base of Motorcycle Hill, but makes no mention of the hill itself. Talkeetna climbing guide Colby Coombs writes in "Denali's West Buttress" that from the 11,000-foot area, Camp Three for most climbers, "the route begins climbing straight up Motorcycle Hill, named after motorcycle competitions that attempt to surmount even steeper hills.'' 

In Coombs' list of "Hazards'' at the end of the "Route Section'' for the climb from the base of the HIll around Windy Corner to the 14,000-foot camp, he writes only of the well-known dangers of Windy Corner itself. Suffice to say, there is little to warn climbers of avalanche dangers on the regularly tramped Hill, but it is steep enough to slide.

It is, in some ways, similar to the southwest slope of heavily climbed Mount Flattop above Anchorage where snowshoer Brian Mulvehill perished in an avalanche in February 2006. That slope, like the Hill, does not look particularly dangerous, but it can be. The 34-year-old Mulevhill and a hiking companion were hiking in an area of significant avalanche danger when they triggered a slide. They were on a wind-loaded slope in the middle of winter.

The Miyagi expedition, on the other, was on McKinley at a time when it is generally considered lower-angled snowslopes have stabilized, and they were traveling at a time of day when avalanches are generally least likely. But it has been an unusually snowy climbing season on the mountain this year. 

That and a little bad luck was all it took. The two combined to kill the Japanese as they descended the Hill safely paying attention to the known danger of crevasses. 

"The five were traveling as one rope team, although the rope broke during the avalanche,'' Maureen McLaughlin, the spokeswoman for the surrounding Denali National Park and Preserve reported. "One team member survived the event. Hitoshi Ogi, age 69 of Miyagi Prefecture, was swept into a crevasse and subsequently climbed out with minor injuries. Ogi was unable to locate his teammates in the avalanche debris. 

"Throughout the day, Ogi descended solo to the Kahiltna Basecamp at 7,200 feet, where he reported the accident shortly after 4:00 pm (Thursday.)"

Why did survivor bypass 11,000-foot camp for help?

Park officials at first thought his companions had been struck by the avalanche early that morning, but later determined -- from interviews with other climbers -- that the avalanche had occurred more than a day earlier.

Why Ogi descended to basecamp instead of going to the 11,000-foot camp to solicit help to search for his friends or to find someone with a satellite phone to summon help is unclear. There are normally dozens of climbers camped at 11,000 feet this time of year. At the moment, McLaughlin said, there are close to 400 climbers spread out among the five or six camps on the West Buttress.

It is unclear if anyone in camp at 11,000 feet witnessed the avalanche. The people there would have been the only ones in position to help. The general rule is that someone buried in an avalanche -- if they survive the initial tumble in the rolling snow -- has about 20 minutes to live. After 20 minutes, survival times rapidly decrease. There is only about a one in three chance of surviving for 45 minutes.

Beyond that time, there are only the lucky few miraculously dug out alive after more than an hour. If any of Ogi's climbing partners survived the initial snowslide, they were almost certainly dead by the time he arrived at basecamp approximately 38 hours after the accident. There was not much park service rangers could do.

"That evening, two NPS rangers flew to the avalanche path in the park’s A-Star B3 helicopter to conduct an aerial hasty search,'' according to McLaughlin. "There was no sign of the missing climbers or their gear in the avalanche debris. In light of the time elapsed, it is presumed that the four perished in the accident"

A two-day search for bodies found little despite the efforts of rangers, volunteer patrol members and a trained search rescue dog with handler. Mountaineering ranger Tucker Chenoweth did descend into the crevasse that caught Ogi during the avalanche. While probing through avalanche debris an estimated 90 feet below the surface of the surrounding glacier, he found the end of a broken rope end that matched that of the one used by Miyagi team. He tried to follow the rope, but heavily compacted ice and snow made the digging near impossible.

"Due to the danger of ice fall within the crevasse," McLauglin said, "it was decided to permanently suspend the recovery efforts."

The dead have been identified as two men -- Yoshiaki Kato, 64 and Tamao Suzuki, 63 -- and two women -- Masako Suda, 50 and Michiko Suzuki, 56. Their deaths bring to a half dozen the fatalities on McKinley this year. Two-hundred-thirty-four climbers have reported reaching the summit. About 630 tried. The 37 percent summit rate is lower than normal, something McLaughlin attributed to "substantial snowfall and windy conditions."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com