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Search ends for four Japanese climbers on Mount McKinley


National Park Service / AP

Crews search for four Japanese climbers on Alaska's Mount McKinley on Saturday.

Crews have suspended efforts to recover the bodies of four Japanese climbers killed in an avalanche on Alaska's Mount McKinley, the National Park Service said Sunday.

A two-day ground search of the debris path from the avalanche turned up clues Saturday indicating the likely location of four deceased climbers, a Denali National Park spokeswoman said.

A mountaineering ranger lowered himself into the same crevasse that the party's one survivor fell into. The ranger probed through avalanche debris 100 feet beneath the glacier's surface and found a broken rope that matched that of the Japanese team. He began to dig further, but encountered heavily compacted ice and snow debris.

NBC's Veronica de la Cruz reports.

"Due to the danger of ice fall within the crevasse, it was decided to permanently suspend the recovery efforts," the park service said in a press release.  

Rangers also now say that the avalanche, which happened at approximately 11,800 feet on the West Buttress, occurred early Wednesday morning, not Thursday. The lone survivor, 69-year-old Hitoshi Ogi, reached a base camp to report the avalanche Thursday afternoon. He suffered only a minor hand injury.

The climbers were part of a five-member Miyagi Workers Alpine Federation expedition. All were from the Miyagi Prefecture in Japan, the park service said.

Those killed were identified as Yoshiaki Kato, 64; Masako Suda, 50; Michiko Suzuki, 56; and Tamao Suzuki, 63.

National Park Service / Reuters

A rescue worker and dog search the debris field from the deadly avalanche.

The climbers -- three men and two women -- were descending and roped together at the time of the accident. Ogi was the last person on the rope, and thus was the closest to the surface when the team fell into the crevasse, said park spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin.

Mount McKinley, also referred to as Denali, is the tallest peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,320 feet. The McKinley climbing season runs from late April until early July. Typically, 1,200 to 1,300 people attempt the peak each season.

There have six climbing fatalities on McKinley this season, according to the park service. Since 1932, a total of 120 climbers have perished on the mountain, 12 due to avalanches. This week's four avalanche fatalities were the first to occur on the popular West Buttress route.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this story.

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