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Helicopter rescues 3 climbers from 17,200 feet on McKinley

Casey Grove

A helicopter hauled three Danish climbers from 17,200 feet up Mount McKinley on Thursday after an avalanche stopped their summit bid and injured two of them on Sunday, according to the National Park Service.

Mads Knudsen, 30, and Nicolai Bo Silver, 26, suffered leg injuries that stopped them from hiking down the mountain, and Michael Pilegaard, 26, was "relatively uninjured," the Park Service said in a written statement.

The trio set out Sunday climbing toward the top of North America's highest peak -- at 20,320 feet -- on an alternate route up what's called the Autobahn, the slope leading from a high camp at 17,200 feet to Denali Pass at 18,200 feet, the Park Service said in a written statement Thursday.

"They had scouted the route variation the previous day because they were concerned about the high avalanche danger on the standard route," the statement says.

The climbing party triggered an avalanche at about 1 p.m. at 17,600 feet, just as they approached their planned route up the Autobahn, and it pushed them several hundred feet down the slope toward their camp, the Park Service said.

Pilegaard dragged the other two back to camp, where they waited for two days hoping to recover enough to walk down on their own. But on Wednesday morning it was clear they couldn't get down, so the men radioed a flight-seeing plane in the area, owned by Talkeetna Air Taxi, which relayed their call for help to the Park Service.

Denali National Park and Preserve's A-Star B3 helicopter was in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and flew to Talkeetna, the Park Service said. After planning the rescue, the helicopter flew Ranger Kevin Wright up the mountain for a reconnaissance flight, dropped a bag with a communication device, food, fuel and a stove to the climbers, according to the Park Service statement.

The next morning, helicopter pilot Andy Hermansky flew to rescue the injured men, who loaded into a basket on a 125-foot line they rode to a lower camp. Another helicopter flew the hurt climbers from the camp to a hospital in Anchorage, the Park Service said.

"All of the registered climbers are now off the mountain," the Park Service statement says.

Out of 1,223 people who attempted to climb the mountain this season, 498 reached the top, leaving the main 2012 climbing season as the second-lowest summit rate in 25 years, the Park Service said.

Four Japanese climbers were killed in a June avalanche that began at around 11,800 feet. One member of that party survived.

Anchorage Daily News