Deaths on Alaska mountain show search challenges

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By RACHEL D'ORO, Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Four Japanese climbers swept into a crevasse by an avalanche are among 120 people who have perished on Alaska's Mount McKinley, and their deaths bring to 44 the number of bodies remaining on North America's tallest mountain.

Searchers say sometimes recovering a body is simply too hazardous. Other times the final resting place on the 20,320-foot mountain is unknown. The remains of those who have died over the past 80 years are well hidden from sight, according to officials at Denali National Park and Preserve, where McKinley is located.

"It is always our first consideration to recover the remains of those who have died up there. Obviously, it is for closure of family members," spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin said. "In terms of recovery, we make the decision to leave remains on the mountain only in the event where the danger to those recovering the bodies is too great."

National Park Service officials announced Sunday morning that the search for the bodies of Yoshiaki Kato, 64, of Wakuya; Masako Suda, 50, of Kami-gun; Michiko Suzuki, 56, of Furukawa and 63-year-old Tamao Suzuki, 63, of Sendai, was suspended after a mountaineering ranger lowered himself 100 feet into the same crevasse the party's lone survivor, 69-year-old Hitoshi Ogi, fell into after the avalanche Wednesday.

Ogi, of Sendai, climbed 60 feet out of the crevasse and reached a base camp Thursday afternoon. He sustained a minor hand injury and was flown off the mountain.

Officials say the risk of falling ice made it too dangerous to continue the search for the fallen members of the Japanese alpine club Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation.

Ogi had been attached by climbing rope to the others as they descended in an avalanche-prone section of the West Buttress Route at about 11,800 feet. The rope broke in the avalanche and fall.

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

The first two known McKinley deaths occurred in 1932, according to records maintained by the Park Service. The body of one of the climbers who died in 1932 remains on the mountain.

In some falls where no one survives, rescuers might have a general idea where to look, but that could still involve covering a vast section of the mountain with an aerial search. This time, the search was hastened by information imparted by Ogi.

"Since we had more information than we often do, we were able to localize the search more densely," McLaughlin said. "It doesn't mean it's less challenging. It's just a different kind of challenge."

The avalanche measured 200 feet wide and 800 feet top to bottom and created a snow pile averaging only 3-4 feet deep.

The search initially concentrated on probing the avalanche debris, which also had fallen into the crevasse. Then mountaineering ranger Tucker Chenoweth descended into the crevasse and spotted gear. At 100 feet down, he dug through ice debris and spotted rope, which matched about 60 feet of rope attached to Ogi. Hoping to reach the other roped-in climbers, the ranger continued to dig but found the going difficult through the compacted ice and snow debris.

Park officials said the danger of falling ice made it too risky to continue an attempt to recover bodies.

The bodies of two other Japanese climbers who disappeared in 2008 were found the following year, thanks to high-resolution images captured during an unrelated search for another missing climber. But though visible in the images, the frozen bodies of Tatsuro Yamada of Saitama-Ken, Japan, and Yuto Inoue of Tokyo remain roped together at the 19,800-foot level because of the risk involved in the extremely steep and rocky location.

The photographs were taken during a search for Gerald Myers, a chiropractor from Centennial, Colo. Myers was last seen in May 2009 after he left his climbing partners at 14,200 feet to make a solo attempt to summit McKinley.

His body has never been found.

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