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4 climbers presumed dead in Mt. McKinley avalanche

Authorities coordinating a search effort by 400 people atop Mt. McKinley believe an avalanche most likely claimed the lives of four adult hikers. NBC's Veronica de la Cruz reports.

Four Japanese climbers, two men and two women, are presumed dead after an avalanche swept down Mt. McKinley in Alaska's Denali National Park, the National Park Service said Saturday. One man survived after climbing out of a crevasse he had been thrown into.

The five-person team was roped together when the slide hit at 2 a.m. Thursday on the mountain's West Buttress, in an area known as Motorcycle Hill, the park service said in a statement.

"The five were travelling as one rope team, although the rope broke during the avalanche," the service stated.

Some 400 people were searching the area Saturday, but snow and wind have impeded the effort on North America's tallest mountain.

Hitoshi Ogi, 69, survived with minor injuries, making his way down from the avalanche at 11,000 feet to a base camp at 7,200 feet by 4 p.m. on Thursday.

A helicopter crew deployed that day failed to find any sign of the others, the service said.

Those presumed dead are 64-year-old Yoshiaki Kato; 50-year-old Masako Suda; 56-year-old Michiko Suzuki; and 63-year-old Tamao Suzuki.

Becky Bohrer / AP

Mt. McKinley, where 4 climbers were presumed dead, is North America's tallest mountain.

All are from Miyagi Prefecture -- the same area devastated by the 2011 quake and tsunami -- and were descending the mountain when the avalanche hit.

If confirmed, the deaths would be the worst accident on McKinley since 1992, when four Canadian climbers died.

On May 23, a Finnish man died after falling 2,000 feet while trying to ski down a steep McKinley chute known as the "Orient Express".

The first death of the 2012 McKinley climbing season was on May 18, when a German climber died in a 1,100 foot fall. He was trying to retrieve a backpack that was sliding downhill when he lost his footing and fell.

The climbing season in Denali generally runs from late April until early July. Usually 1,200 to 1,300 people attempt McKinley each year.

"Substantial snowfall and windy conditions in recent weeks have kept most climbers from reaching the top," the service said Saturday. "As of June 16, there are 395 mountaineers attempting routes on Mt. McKinley, the majority on the West Buttress route. Out of the 630 climbers that have already returned from expeditions this season, 234 reported reaching the summit, equating to a 37 percent summit rate."

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