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4 dead, 2 injured in 48 hours on McKinley

Craig Medred

Two more climbers were reported dead on McKinley Thursday, less than 24 hours after climbers from Canada and Japan were killed in an avalanche near Kahiltna Glacier base camp, according to Denali National Park and Preserve rangers.

Late Wednesday, a four-person rope team fell at about 18,000 feet. Alaska Air National Guard pararescuers responded and confirmed that two had died and two others were severely injured.

One of the injured responded; the other was reportedly having difficulty breathing and was "non-responsive," rangers reported.

The bad news comes a day after National Park Service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin reported that that two climbers--33-year-old Canadian Jiro Kurihara and 28-year-old Japanese Junya Shiraishi--were discovered in avalanche debris near the base of Mt. Frances.

Kurihara and Shiraishi had journeyed to Talkeetna and then on into the Alaska Range near the end of April to climb McKinley and attempt a new route on the west face of 10,450-foot Frances, a peak just north of the busy 7,200-foot Kahiltna base camp. They left base camp on Saturday expecting to spend only a few days bagging the summit of Frances.

When they failed to return as scheduled on Monday, park rangers skied out from Kahiltna to look for them. The rangers took a spotting scope expecting to spy the two men somewhere on the slopes of Frances. However they saw nothing and returned to camp.

The absence of any sign of the climbers led the Park Service to launch its A-Star B3 search helicopter to look for the men on Tuesday. Mountaineering rangers on board the aircraft quickly spotted an avalanche, and subsequently -- McLaughlin reported -- identified one body lying in avalanche debris with a partially buried rope attached.

Rangers flew back to the area early Wednesday to recover the visible body. The rope led them to the other climber. Both bodies were flown off the mountain.

McLaughlin reported Kurihara and Shiraishi had been in the Alaska Range since April 27. They had abandoned an early plan to climb McKinley's challenging Cassin Ridge, but had then safely climbed to the 20,320-foot summit of North America's tallest mountain via the popular West Buttress route.

The West Buttress offers the easiest line to the mountain's summit, but two climbers have died there already this year. Beat Niederer, 38, of St. Gallen, Switzerland perished after his guided rope team took a fall near 20,000 feet, and 67-year-old Italian Luciano Colombo from Mandello died after slipping at 18,200-foot Denali Pass and tumbling approximately 1,000 feet.

Their deaths were preceded by that of 39-year-old Chris Lackey, a Texas executive who died after successfully completing a difficult mixed climb up rock and ice on the 10,300-foot Moose's Tooth. He was camped with other climbers near the base of the Tooth when their camp was hit by an ice fall. Four climbers survived and dug Lackey out of the debris, but he perished before he could be airlifted to a hospital.

McLaughlin said park records indicate Kurihara and Shiraishi are the first to die on Mount Frances.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.