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Alaska officials halt search for Japanese climbers

Associated Press Modified: June 18, 2012 at 4:45 am •  Published: June 18, 2012

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The search for four Japanese climbers who were caught in an avalanche on Alaska's Mount McKinley has been halted, with authorities calling the site their final resting place.

The National Park Service said Sunday that a shallow avalanche on the mountain may not have killed the climbers, but the slide pushed them into a crevasse more than 100 feet deep.

The search for them was permanently suspended after a mountaineering ranger found the climbing rope in debris at the bottom of the crevasse, spokeswoman Kris Fister said Sunday from Talkeetna.

"We believe this is their final resting place," Fister said.

The four were identified as Yoshiaki Kato, 64, Masako Suda, 50, Michiko Suzuki 56, and 63-year-old Tamao Suzuki, 63.

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.

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