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Two more climbers die on Denali

Craig Medred

The deceptive pitch of snow and ice at Denali Pass on 20,320-foot Mount McKinley has claimed the lives of two more climbers and left two others seriously injured in what is turning into a particularly deadly season in the Alaska Range.

The latest dead have yet to be identified. Only 10 days ago, Italian Luciano Colombo, 67, slipped at the 18,000-foot pass as he was descending the mountain. He then tumbled and fell nearly 1,000 feet.

By the time Denali National Park and Preserve mountaineering rangers from high camp 17,200 feet got to him, he was dead.

Around 11 p.m. Wednesday night, the Park Service now reports, there was a replay of that fall, but this time it involved a rope team of four climbers. Once again, the accident was witnessed by climbers in high camp. Among those climbers this time were Alaska National Guard pararescue men from the 212th Rescue Squadron in Anchorage. Specially trained to rescue downed pilots behind enemy lines in times of war, they are skilled in both emergency medicine and mountaineering. They were quick to rally to the scene.

The PJs, as they are called, "responded to the fallen climbers and confirmed that two of the four had died in the fall,'' McLaughlin reported. "The other two patients were placed in rescue litters and lowered to the 17,200-foot high camp for emergency medical treatment. One patient was responsive and in stable condition with a broken leg and head injury. The  second patient was non-responsive with labored breathing; the Air National Guard medics at high camp worked throughout the night to maintain the patient’s airway."

Both surviving climbers were evacuated to Anchorage hospitals this morning. Names are being withheld pending the notification of the next of kin.

Denali chief mountaineering ranger John Leonard noted after Colombo's fall that park rangers, who brief climbers before they go onto the mountain, have been encouraging everyone to use some sort of protection at Denali Pass. It is a deceptive area, Leonard said.

It does not appear that steep, but it is very icy and if someone falls they can accelerate so fast it is hard to arrest the fall with an ice ax, a standard mountaineering safety tool. If one person in a rope team falls and fails to get stopped, they can take down the whole team, as is apparently what happened here.

Even what is called a "boot-ax belay" -- the simple, fastest and most meager form of protection -- using an ice ax driven into the snow or a crack in ice could help protect against a fall at the pass. Or climbers can pound in pickets on the way up, and then use them as anchors for a running belay to protect them against falls on the way down.

Too few, however, do. There have been well over 100 falls from the pass since the 1960s.

"Details on the cause of (this) fall are unknown,'' McLaughlin reported. "Weather at the time of the accident was clear with relatively calm winds.  The four-person rope team was beginning the traverse from Denali Pass (down) to the 17,200-foot camp along a 45-degree slope of very hard, windblown snowpack.''

Like Colombo, they were descending. It is the time when deadly falls usually happen on McKinley. The survivors were lucky in that weather conditions allowed the high altitude A-Star B3 helicopter the Park Service has on contract in Talkeetna during the climbing season to reach them at around 4:15 a.m. They were hauled to the Kahilta Glacier base camp near 7,200 feet, where two LifeMed air ambulances were waiting to hurry the injured climbers on to Anchorage.

The climbers are the sixth and seventh to die in and around North America's tallest peak this year in what has been an unusually deadly climbing season.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.