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Italian climber dies on Mount McKinley

Eric Christopher Adams,Craig Medred

A second foreign climber has died on Mount McKinley in less than a week, according to a Monday statement from the National Park Service.

Luciano Colombo, a 67-year-old from Mandello, Italy, died "of traumatic injuries" suffered in a fall of approximately 1,000 feet on North America's tallest mountain sometime around 10 a.m., said a press release from Denali National Park and Preserve spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin.

Colombo was descending near Denali Pass after an attempt at the summit. He is not the first to fall near the 18,000-foot pass. Chief mountaineering ranger John Leonard noted park rangers have in recent years been encouraging climbers to put in some sort of running protection on the descent from the pass to safely stop a fall, but not all climbers do that.

The area below the pass is deceptive, Leonard said. It does not look dangerously steep, but it is windblown and icy. If someone trips and falls, they can quickly accelerate to a speed beyond which it is impossible to the use an ice ax to stop the fall.

Historically, many deadly McKinley climbing falls have come on the descent. It is harder for climbers to see where they are putting their feet when going downhill. It is easier to trip on the point of a crampon when going downhill. And descending climbers are sometimes distracted by the excitement of having made the summit, or the disapointment of having been forced to turn back.

Colombo's accident was witnessed by mountaineers at the 17,200-foot-high camp where climbers organize their final assault on McKinley's summit. Colombo was with two companions when he fell along the steep, windblown route. 

"He was traveling ahead of his two teammates and was unroped at the time of the fall," McLaughlin said.

Weather at the time of Colombo's fatal fall was clear with calm winds.

On Friday, May 13, Denali National Park rangers reported the climbing season's first fatality on McKinley. A 38-year-old Swiss man became separated from his expedition team in high winds near 18,000 feet after one of three other climbing companions suffered a broken leg. There is some thought now that Beat Niederer might have been suffering from undetected injuries suffered in the original fall that broke the leg of Irishman Jerry O'Sullivan. Neiderer, O'Sullivan and another climber were descending on a rope team with Alaska guide Dave Staeheli when someone fell and pulled the whole, four-person rope team down a slope near 19,000 feet. 

Staeheli treated O'Sullivan's injuries after that accident, got the injured man into a bivy sack, gave up his parka to the injured Irishman to keep him warm overnight, and then rushed lightly clothed for the 17,200 camp in 60 to 70 mph winds and 20-degree below zero cold. Staeheli suffered frostbite on the way. He arrived in camp expecting to find Niederer there, but the Swiss had somehow become separated from companion Lawrence Cutler from New York.

Niederer's body was found the next day when rescuers went to retrieve O'Sullivan, who is now recovering in an Anchorage hospital thanks to the efforts of Staelheli and pilot Andy Hermansky who flew an Aerostar B3 helicopter to 19,000 feet, dropped a basket to O'Sullivan, and then hoisted the injured climber to safety. A Park Service investigation of the accident is underway.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com or Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com.