Missing climbers in Alaska likely triggered avalanche, fell

·2 min read
This undated photo provided by the National Park Service show the West Ridge climbing route of Moose's Tooth, a 10,300-foot peak in Denali National Park where officials are looking for two climbers. The two climbers missing in Alaska likely triggered a small avalanche while climbing and fell, coming to rest in a heavily crevassed glacier at the bottom of the slide path, officials said Tuesday, May 9, 2023. (National Park Service via AP) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Two mountain climbers missing in Alaska likely triggered a small avalanche, and officials said Tuesday the projected path of their suspected fall would end at a heavily crevassed glacier.

“That is the area we are focusing our aerial search efforts in the days to come,” Denali National Park and Preserve spokesperson Maureen Gualtieri said.

Eli Michel, 34, of Columbia City, Indiana, and Nafiun Awal, 32, of Seattle, are presumed to have fallen Friday while climbing the West Ridge route of Moose’s Tooth — a 10,300-foot (3,140-meter) mountain in Ruth Gorge, about 12 miles (19 kilometers) southeast of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, park officials said.

No aerial search was planned Tuesday because of low visibility and snowfall in the gorge.

The two men last contacted friends via a satellite communication device at about 5 a.m. Friday. Two days later, friends contacted park officials when they hadn’t heard back from the climbers.

Mountaineering rangers used a contract helicopter to fly over the area for about 8 hours between Sunday and Monday. Ground searches on the glacier both days included a ranger harnessed to the helicopter’s short-haul rope to help protect the ranger from falling into a crevasse.

On Sunday, the first day of the search, rangers found the climbers' unattended tent and ski tracks that led to the base of the West Ridge climbing route.

At that location, they found the men’s skis, indicating they had switched to crampons for the climb. Rangers followed the boot tracks to the avalanche.

“The avalanche itself looks to be a comparatively small one in terms of snow volume, so we are not seeing a large debris pile at the base,” Gualtieri said. “Whatever debris there was, it appears to have been deposited into the various large crevasses on the glacier.”

Among items found in the avalanche path were two ice axes high in the debris field and a climbing helmet down lower. Gualtieri said that indicates the two climbers possibly lost the items as they fell.

The national park is about 230 miles (370 kilometers) north of Anchorage.