EXPOSURE, WEATHER, CLIMBING ALONE
Alaska, Mount McKinley
Naomi Uemura (43) was a Japanese explorer and climber who had completed many solo dog sled treks and mountaineering expeditions throughout the world. On August 26, 1970, he became the first person to make a successful solo climb of Mount McKinley—via the West Buttress route.
In 1984, he returned to Mount McKinley to attempt the first winter solo ascent of Mount McKinley—via the same route that he had climbed in 1970.
On February 1, he began his climb alone from the Kahiltna Base Camp. Talkeetna Air Taxi pilots monitored his progress occasionally over the next ten days. On February 12, Uemura’s 43rd birthday, he had his climb to the summit. Lowell Thomas of Talkeetna Air Taxi flew up to the summit area and spotted Uemura at 1400, still about 600 meters below the summit. Uemura radioed the Thomas party that he expected to reach the summit about 1600 that afternoon. Thomas and his passengers returned to the mountain at 1600 and spotted Uemura at the 800 meter level and still climbing up. Darkness prevented any further flights to the mountain that night.
The next morning, Thomas again flew to the mountain with some of Uemura’s companions as passengers. Although they were never able to see Uemura, they did have a brief radio contact with him. Uemura’s radio transmissions were difficult to understand, but he was able to pass on that he had reached the summit at 1850 the night before, that he had then descended for three hours to a camp, that he was tired but okay, and that he wished to be picked up at the base camp on February 15. Thomas and his party were unable to determine which camp Uemura had descended to, but assumed he had probably reached Denali Pass (5500 meters) or the 5300 meter camp.
Initial Concerns: Doug Geeting of Talkeetna Air Taxi flew into the Kahiltna Base Camp on February 15 to pick up Uemura, but when he arrived at the camp, there was no sign that Uemura had been there since the start of the climb. Geeting flew up the West Buttress route searching for Uemura but saw no sign of him. Geeting reported that at the time of his flight the weather around the mountain had been clear, but that the winds were very turbulent and a cloud cap was forming over the summit. He speculated that Uemura had approximately two days of food and fuel left, and that he was probably in a snow cave at 5200 meters waiting for the strong winds to stop. Inside a snow cave he probably could not have heard Geeting’s airplane flying overhead. Geeting and Thomas both flew again on the afternoon of February 15, but they saw no sign of Uemura.
On the morning of February 16, Geeting and Thomas again returned to the mountain—Geeting flying alone and Thomas with an observer (Harry Johnson) along. The weather continued to be windy and turbulent. After a period of searching, Geeting spotted what he believed to be Uemura waving from a snow cave at the 5000 meter level on the West Buttress. Geeting later stated that he flew around the site several times, and that on most of his passes he saw Uemura slide his head and upper body up out of the snow cave and wave his arms. Since Geeting and Uemura had agreed prior to the climb that Uemura would make no movement if he needed help, Geeting assumed that Uemura was in fact in good condition but was pinned down on the ridge by the very strong winds. The winds and turbulence prevented Geeting from getting near enough to the ridge for a closeup look at Uemura. Thomas and Johnson in the second aircraft were not able to see what Geeting had seen. Geeting and Thomas returned to Talkeetna, where I met them to discuss what they had seen. We all agreed that there was still some concern about Uemura because of his low food and fuel supplies, but that he should still be able to make it down to the Kahiltna Base Camp on his own as soon as the weather improved. A rescue at that time would not have been possible in any case, because the wind and turbulence precluded any chance of flying a helicopter to the spot where Uemura was seen. The weather was barely marginal for flying a fixed wing aircraft high over the ridge. To hover near or land a helicopter on the ridge was impossible. Uemura had to descend on his own.
For the next three days the weather remained generally poor. Geeting and Thomas continued flying to the mountain (approximately two hours each day) to search for Uemura, but they were never able to spot him. They did spot Uemura’s snowshoes in the 4300 meter basin where he had left them on his ascent and they continued to see the solo pole at the 2600 meter level. But the bad weather made effective searching difficult to impossible for most of the time. From February 13-19 there was no time when the weather was good enough for a helicopter to fly in a search of the upper part of the mountain.
Because Uemura’s snowshoes were seen at the 4350 meter level, it was assumed that he had to still be above that level. Since Geeting had seen him at 5000 meters on February 15, it was assumed that he had to be somewhere between that elevation and his snowshoes at 4350 meters.
As long as the weather remained poor, it was assumed that Uemura was simply holed up in a snow cave somewhere waiting for the weather to improve before he continued his descent. No one was certain how much food and fuel he would have had with him by this time, and there are several food and fuel caches on the upper part of the mountain that Uemura should have been able to find. Therefore, although there was concern about his food and fuel, it was felt that he would be able to manage. There was little to do but trust in Uemura’s exceptional ability to take care of himself—and wait for an improvement in the weather.
The Search: A break in the weather finally arrived on February 20. The weather all around the mountain and the Talkeetna area was clear and the winds appeared to be calm. Both Geeting and Thomas were up and flying to the mountain as soon as there was enough daylight for effective searching. Between them they flew a total of over five hours that morning. They were able to search the entire area of the West Buttress route from the Kahiltna Base Camp to the summit. All areas were searched several times, but at no time did they see any sign of Uemura descending the mountain or any sign of Uemura’s tracks in the snow. Concern for Uemura escalated greatly during the morning because in the excellent weather, Uemura should have been traveling down the mountain if he were capable. And if he were traveling down the mountain, Geeting and/or Thomas would have seen him. Therefore, the concern during that morning changed rapidly from a worry about his food and fuel supplies to a near-certain feeling that Uemura was seriously disabled or already dead.
During the morning, both Talkeetna Air Taxi’s two aircraft (Geeting’s and Thomas’) were chartered by the National Park Service for its use during the search effort. Also, a Bell 212 helicopter from ERA Helicopters in Anchorage (Ron Smith, pilot) was chartered by the National Park Service and brought to Talkeetna for the duration of the search.
Smith departed Talkeetna before noon on February 20, with me on board as the only passenger. We flew directly to the Kahiltna Base Camp, where we landed and picked up two volunteer climbers, Eiho Otani and James Wickwire. Otani had been at the base camp for approximately one week and Wickwire had flown in to the base camp the day before. Wickwire and Otani were dropped off at 4350 meters and I flew to 5000 meters and searched unsuccessfully for evidence of Uemura’s snow cave.
The good weather lasted only one day. From February 21-25, the weather precluded any chance of effective air searches. During this period, Wickwire and Otani were able to climb to 4950 meters and discovered a snow cave that had been used by Uemura. Numerous attempts were made to search from the air, but weather prevented effective operations. On February 26, weather improved enough to pick up Wickwire and Otani at 4350 meters, but not to search the upper portions of the route.
Suspending the Search: After discussing the search in detail with Wickwire and Otani, the National Park Service decided at approximately noon on February 26 to suspend the active search for Uemura. The decision was based on the following factors:
Because Uemura was not climbing down the mountain during the good weather on February 20, it was presumed that he was seriously disabled or dead at the time. With an additional week of poor weather after February 20, it was felt that there was no longer even a remote possiblity that Uemura could still be alive.
Based on Uemura’s snowshoes and personal belongings found at 4350 meters and Geeting’s reported sighting of Uemura at 5000 meters (probably actually 4950 meters), on February 16, it remained most likely that Uemura was at or between those two levels. Wickwire and Otani were able to search that area on the ground and found no evidence of Uemura other than the items reported above.
Wickwire and Otani found Uemura’s personal diary at the 4350 meter camp, where Uemura had left it on his ascent. In the diary Uemura mentioned having problems with his crampons while climbing at Windy Corner. Wickwire and Otani found the snow conditions between about 4600 meters and 4950 meters to be very difficult and dangerous, with crusty snow and ice over a hard ice. Based on the information known at the time, Wickwire felt that the most likely explanation of Uemura’s fate was that he slipped and fell on that steep slope. If that is in fact what happened, his body may be buried in a crevasse lower down on the slope or it may have slid to the bottom of the slope and been buried by falling or drifting snow.
Although the weather improved enough on February 26 to recover Wickwire and Otani from the mountain, it never improved enough for a close helicopter flight of the upper part of the mouontain. Clouds obscured the mountain from about 5200 meters up to and over the summit.
Because there was no longer any hope of finding Uemura alive, it was felt that the risks of further searchings from the air or with ground teams were no longer justified.
The helicopter was released by the National Park Service and returned to Anchorage during the afternoon of February 26. Both aircraft belonging to Talkeetna Air Taxi were released at the same time.
Further Efforts: A climbing team sponsored by the Meiji University Alpine Club of Japan arrived in Talkeetna on February 26 to continue the search effort. Four of these climbers flew to the Kahiltna Base Camp a few days later and spent about two weeks on the mountain. They were able to reach the 5250 meter level and found a snow cave there that contained a number of items that definitely belonged to Uemura. From this finding, the climbers assumed that Uemura had not descended below 5250 meters, but was in fact somewhere at or above that elevation. They were not able to find any further clues and returned to Talkeetna on March 11.
A second, larger group from Japan (twelve from Meiji University plus two others) returned to the mountain in April. They flew onto the mountain on April 21 and found a Japanese flag at the summit but no sign of Uemura. (Source: Robert Gerhard, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)
Until the first Meiji University expedition in March, it was presumed that Uemura had died somewhere between 4950 meters and 4350 meters—probably due to a fall on steep and difficult snow and ice conditions.
When the Meiji group found Uemura’s belongings at 5250 meters, however, doubt was cast on the earlier suppositions. Several different conclusions are possible:
That Uemura abandoned the equipment at 5250 meters and descended to the 4950 meter snow cave where Geeting reported seeing him on February 16.
That Uemura missed his 5250 meter snow cave while descending in poor visibility and high winds and continued down to his 4950 meter snow cave. If he did this, he might have been forced to abandon the equipment at 5250 meters, or he might have attempted to climb back up to the level some time after February 16.
That Geeting did not in fact see Uemura on February 16. The weather on that day was extremely windy and turbulent, so Geeting was not able to fly in close to the ridge, though he felt certain both at the time and later that he had seen Uemura. If in fact his sighting was in error, then it is possible that Uemura’s death could have taken place anywhere between the 4350 meter level and the summit.
It seems that Uemura was tired or traveling slowly for some other reason on the day that he went to the summit. At 1400 on that day he reported that he thought he would reach the summit at 1600. Yet at 1600 he was still almost three hours away from the summit. If he were tired or disabled by the altitude, and then was pinned down high on the mountain (Denali Pass or above) by severe weather, his chances of survival would be slim if the bad weather persisted.
In summary, then, the two most likely possibilities are that Uemura died in an accident between 4350 meters and 4950 meters or that he died somewhere above Denali Pass. (Source: Robert Gerhard, Mountaineering Ranger, Denali National Park)