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Clouds hamper search for missing climbers

Dan Joling
The Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska ” Cloudy weather kept a high altitude helicopter on the ground Wednesday, frustrating attempts to find two climbers missing on Mount Foraker.

“We haven’t been able to do anything today. The clouds have prevented that,” said Kris Fister, spokeswoman for Denali National Park and Preserve.

Park officials were hoping for a break in the clouds at 8,000 feet so that they could continue looking for Sue Nott, 36, of Vail, and Karen McNeill, 37, of Canmore, Alberta, on the 17,400-foot mountain.

Fister, speaking from park offices in Talkeetna, 60 miles southeast of the mountain, said a weak weather system had moved in, bringing clouds to the south side of the Alaska Range as well as the search area.

The Park Service’s contracted high altitude Lama helicopter was back in service Wednesday. It was not available Tuesday because of restrictions that required the pilot to rest.

Fister said they hoped to get the helicopter in the air by Wednesday night, taking advantage of the extended daylight hours. If the weather prevented that, the plan was to try again today.

However, with each passing day the chances that the two women are alive is diminished, Fister said. It is believed the two have been without food and fuel for seven days and perhaps as many as 10 days, she said.

“Given the harsh conditions up there, it makes the possibility that they have survived less and less with each passing day,” Fister said.

Clouds on Tuesday prevented two Army Chinook helicopters from reaching the summit. Another private helicopter hired by the Park Service was able to reach the 14,000-foot level and searched mountain routes and gullies with no success.

The crew also looked at an avalanche debris pile where one of the climber’s packs was found but noted nothing new, Fister said.

Wednesday was the seventh day of the search for the experienced climbers.

Searchers last week had spotted tracks at the 15,500-foot to 15,800-foot level, but they appeared to just end. Park Service officials said they had no indication that Nott and McNeill had approached the summit.

But on Monday night, photographs confirmed footprints at 16,400 feet, extending hope that the women were at the higher elevation.

Fister said searchers theorize that the two climbers may have purposely burrowed themselves into a sheltered spot, such as a crevasse, to reduce their exposure to the wind and cold.

Temperatures likely are dropping below zero at night on the mountain’s higher elevations, she said.

Fister said the agency’s search efforts would continue until the areas of highest probability were searched as thoroughly as possible.

Nott and McNeill left their base camp May 12, and began their climb of the ascent route, the Infinite Spur, on May 14. The climbers had told people at base camp that they expected to complete the route in 10 days.

The search was launched Thursday night. Mount Foraker is 12 miles southwest of Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak.

A ripped backpack believed to be Nott’s, a radio and sleeping bag were spotted Friday in an avalanche debris field and a helicopter crew on Sunday spotted a yellow bag, black fleece hat and pink nylon jacket in the same area.


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