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Alaska: Search for Japanese climbers off

18 June 2012, 14:19

 Anchorage - The search for four Japanese climbers who were caught in an avalanche on Alaska's Mount McKinley has been called off, with authorities calling the site their final resting place.

The National Park Service said on Sunday that a shallow avalanche on the mountain may not have killed the climbers, but the slide pushed them into a crevasse more than 30m deep.

The search for them was permanently suspended after a mountaineering ranger found the climbing rope in debris at the bottom of the crevasse, spokesperson Kris Fister said Sunday from Talkeetna.

"We believe this is their final resting place," Fister said.

The four were identified as Yoshiaki Kato, aged 64, Masako Suda, aged 50, Michiko Suzuki aged 56, and 63-year-old Tamao Suzuki.

The avalanche early on Wednesday morning also pushed Hitoshi Ogi, aged 69, into the crevasse. Ogi climbed 18m out of the crevasse and reached a base camp on Thursday afternoon.

Avalanche danger

Ogi had been attached to the other members of the team by climbing rope as they descended in an avalanche-prone section of the West Buttress Route. The rope broke in the avalanche and fall.

The group was on a section known as Motorcycle Hill at about 3 600m, which has a 35° slope. Climbers who take a required briefing on the mountain are warned of the avalanche danger there.

"This is the first time there have been fatalities," Fister said.

The avalanche likely was set up by new snow falling on rock or hardened snow and ice, Fister said. No climber reached the summit between 8 June and the day of the fall five days later because of falling snow and wind that limited visibility, Fister said.

The avalanche measured 60m wide and 245m top to bottom, Fisher said. It created a snow pile averaging only about a metre deep.

A 10-person ground crew searched for the climbers on Saturday and at first concentrated on the avalanche debris. The patrol included a rescue dog and a handler. Probes turned up no sign of the missing climbers.

Grim sign

"We weren't certain originally," Fister said. "That's why we were probing through the snowfield itself. Then when we had the chance to go further into the same crevasse that he [Ogi] had fallen into, they started going further in, probing. Again, there was a lot of ice debris that had fallen into it."

Park Service mountaineering ranger Tucker Chenoweth found a grim sign of the doomed climbing team in the crevasse. Ogi had emerged from the crevasse with much of his gear missing, and Chenoweth spotted equipment as he descended.

At 30m down, he dug through ice debris and spotted rope.

It matched about 18m of rope that remained attached to Ogi, and which he had carried with him on his descent from the crevasse to the base camp.

Chenoweth continued to dig, hoping to reach the other roped-in climbers, but found the going difficult through the compacted ice and snow debris.

The danger of falling ice made it too dangerous to continue an attempt to recover bodies, Fister said.

120 deaths

All the climbers were members of the Japanese alpine club Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation.

Ogi suffered a minor hand injury, according to the Park Service. He was flown off the mountain on Thursday.

The deaths bring to six the number of fatalities on the mountain during the summer climbing season.

Since 1932, 120 people have died on the mountain. A dozen died in avalanches.

Park Service spokesperson Maureen McLaughlin said by phone from Talkeetna that the Japanese climbers bring to 44 the number of bodies that remain on North America's tallest mountain.

Some, she said, were in similar circumstances where it was too dangerous to mount a recovery effort. Others have never been found.


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