Search for 2 Climbers Missing in Denali National Park & Preserve, AK, Scaled Back | Survival Is Outside the Window of Possibility

CragBrains | | AvalancheAvalanche
Summit of Moose’s Tooth, AK. Credit: KSszilas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The active search for two climbers in Denali National Park and Preserve, AK, was scaled back on Thursday, May 11, six days after the two men were last heard from before starting a climb of the 10,300-foot peak known as the Moose’s Tooth.

Eli Michel, 34, of Columbia City, IN, and Nafiun Awal, 32, of Seattle, WA, set out at 5 AM Friday, May 5, for a climb of the West Ridge, a steep technical route on the Moose’s Tooth characterized by a moderate angle approach to a mix of 60-degree snow, ice, and rock slopes. Based on communications with their friend, the team had intended to climb the route in a single, long push. As is typical, they did not take overnight gear, nor likely more than a day’s supply of food, water, and fuel to minimize weight and move fast.

Boot tracks continue high on the West Ridge into a recent small slab avalanche. An initial search of the area found the team’s unattended tent and ski tracks heading to the base of the route. At that point, the rangers located the team’s cache of skis, where they had switched to crampons for the ascent. No other tracks were observed on Sunday.

Clues collected by mountaineering rangers throughout the search indicate that Michel and Awal were swept off their feet by a small slab avalanche on the evening of Friday, May 5, high on the peak’s West Ridge route. Several items of the climbers’ equipment, including two ice axes, were observed off the climbing route during aerial searches of the 3,200-foot fall line. Multiple ground searches of the heavily crevassed glacier at the bottom of the fall line were conducted via helicopter short-haul to reduce exposure to rockfall and avalanche hazards to rescuers. The two climbers were not found.

Spotters on aerial and ground missions searched both the climbing route and the fall line to the degree that if the climbers were visible on the surface, there is a high probability they would have been discovered.

Considering the severity of the rocky terrain along the 3,200-foot fall line, the team’s limited supplies, temperatures ranging from 5 F to 20 F overnight, and the duration since last contact, search managers have concluded that survival is outside the window of possibility. 

Although the search is being scaled back, Denali mountaineering rangers will continue the aerial search for signs of the two missing climbers throughout the next several months as snow conditions change with the warming temperatures. 

According to Wikipedia, The Moose’s Tooth (or simply Moose’s Tooth, Mooses Tooth) is a rock peak on the east side of the Ruth Gorge in the Central Alaska Range, 15 miles (24 km) southeast of Denali. It is notable for its many large rock faces and its long ice couloirs, which are famous in mountaineering circles and have seen several highly technical ascents. Despite its relatively low elevation, it is a difficult climb.

moose's tooth, alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve
Moose’s Tooth, Denali National Park and Preserve, AK.

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