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Mount McKinley Avalanche: 4 Japanese Climbers Presumed Dead

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — 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 63-year-old 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, Fisher said. It created a snow pile averaging only 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 a 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 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.

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 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 spokeswoman 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.

Park Service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin said Hitoshi Ogi, 69, survived the fall. He was able to climb out.

The other four fell into the avalanche debris and haven't been seen since. The climbers are presumed dead by either snow burial or injuries suffered in falls

Snowfall and wind have impeded a search for the missing climbers.

Ogi spoke to Park Service employees after the event. He said the climbers were descending the mountain together when the avalanche began, McLaughlin said. They sped up, trying to get down the mountain faster, but the rope connecting them broke when the avalanche struck.

Ogi was the lowest person on the rope team. He looked for the other four but couldn't find them.

"He wasn't sure of all the events," McLaughlin said, adding that Ogi spoke through a translator and was exhausted.

The four missing climbers include 64-year-old Yoshiaki Kato, 50-year-old Masako Suda, 56-year-old Michiko Suzuki, and 63-year-old Tamao Suzuki.

There was new snow on the route, but the weather on Thursday was calm, McLaughlin said.

"Where the avalanche occurred, the vast majority (of the new snow) was not on the main route," McLaughlin said. "A small sliver of it was, and that's what took them."

McLaughlin called the avalanche, "an unlucky, random event."

"Avalanches do occur in this vicinity, but it's not common, she said.

The climbers were attempting the busiest route, West Buttress, during the height of mountaineering season. Climbers attempted the route on 92 percent of attempts on Mount McKinley in 2011.

The Park Service said in a news release that nearly 400 people were on the Alaska mountain on Saturday.

Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, is North America's tallest peak. While not a particularly tall peak by global standards, its latitude makes for far thinner air than is found in mountains closer to the equator. That, combined with the weather and temperatures, makes it a particularly dangerous climb.

Four people died on the mountain in 2009 and again in 2010. At least five people died in 2011 on Mount McKinley.

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Follow reporter Nigel Duara on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nigelduara

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