ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A shallow avalanche on Alaska’s Mount McKinley may not have killed four Japanese climbers, but the slide pushed them into a crevasse more than 100 feet deep, the National Park Service said Sunday.
Spokeswoman Kris Fister said Sunday from Talkeetna that the search for the climbers was permanently suspended after a mountaineering ranger found the climbing rope in debris at the bottom of the crevasse.
“We believe this is their final resting place,” Fister said.
Yoshiaki Kato, 64, Masako Suda, 50, Michiko Suzuki, 56, and Tamao Suzuki, 63, are missing and presumed dead.
The avalanche early Wednesday morning also pushed Hitoshi Ogi, 69, into the crevasse. Ogi climbed 60 feet out of the crevasse and reached a base camp Thursday afternoon.
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 11,800 feet, which has a 35-degee 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 June 8 and the day of the fall five days later because of falling snow and wind that limited visibility, Fister said.
The avalanche measured 200 feet wide and 800 feet top to bottom, Fister said. It created a snow pile averaging 3-4 feet deep.
A 10-person ground crew searched for the climbers Saturday and at first concentrated on the avalanche debris. The patrol included a rescue dog and its handler. Probes turned up no sign of the missing climbers.
“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 100 feet down, he dug through ice debris and spotted rope.
It matched about 60 feet 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 he found going through the compacted ice and snow debris to be difficult.
The danger of falling ice made it too dangerous to continue an attempt to recover bodies, Fister said.