Gary Cole, 06-19-69

Climber's remains found on McKinley
ID: Officials think man died in 1969.

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: June 30, 2004)

The body of a man who died high on Mount McKinley decades ago was discovered by climbers over the weekend after it began to emerge from the snow, the National Park Service said Tuesday.

The Park Service has not identified the body but has narrowed the possibilities and believes the most likely is a 32-year-old Wyoming man who died of acute mountain sickness in 1969, the agency said.

"We're pretty sure we know who it is, but we don't know for certain," Daryl Miller, the South District ranger for Denali National Park, said from his office in Talkeetna.

The body was being lowered Tuesday from the 17,200-foot high camp on the mountain's West Buttress route, where it was found, to the 14,200-foot basin, Miller said.

As soon as weather allows, it will be flown to Talkeetna and turned over to Alaska State Troopers, he said. That was not likely to happen before today.

The state medical examiner has asked for the body, and the Park Service was eager to have an official confirmation of the man's identity, Miller said.

Once the body is identified, troopers will try to locate members of his family.

Of the 93 people who have died on McKinley since 1932 -- the last one an American killed Sunday by falling rocks -- the bodies of 35 remain on the mountain, according to Park Service records.

The whereabouts of many of the 35 are a mystery. Others were known to have fallen into specific crevasses or on slopes where they could not be recovered.

In several cases, the climbers' bodies were deliberately buried in crevasses or in snow graves dug high on the 20,320-foot peak because it was too dangerous to bring them down.

Climbers discovered the man's body Friday, said Kris Fister, a Denali Park spokeswoman. While poking around for supplies in a well-used cache at the camp, they noticed what looked like climbing gear in the snow 20 feet away, Fister said.

Miller said the climbers thought the material was evidence of another cache and were going to cover it with snow until they saw it was a foot clothed in a sock.

The body was dug out by park rangers. The mountain at 17,000 feet is perpetually frozen, and the man's body is fairly well preserved, Miller said. No identification was found, but the man's clothes had not yet been searched, he said.

The body is not that of Naomi Uemura, the renowned Japanese adventurer who vanished on a solo climb in February 1984, Miller said.

Uemera was believed to have summitted, becoming the first to reach the top alone in winter, but he disappeared on the way down, apparently before reaching the high camp where his diary and other belongings were found. No one has ever seen his body.

According to Denali Park records, of the 35 climbers' bodies on the peak, the only one known to have been buried in the area of Friday's discovery was Gary Cole, of Cody, Wyo., who died June 19, 1969.

Rumors persist that a small plane crashed on the peak in 1960 and the pilot and passenger were buried adjacent to the high camp. The account of the crash could not be confirmed Tuesday.

One of Cole's partners on the climb of 35 years ago, when told where the body was found, said, "That's him."

"It sounds like the wind just eroded the snow off the top of it," said Walter Vennum of Sebastopol, Calif. Vennum, a 63-year-old geology professor and active mountaineer, was 28 in 1969.

"I'll never forget that trip, for obvious reasons," he said.

Vennum lost contact with the other four members of the party soon after a memorial for Cole a year after his death.

In phone interviews Tuesday, Vennum and a second member of the group, Henry Noldan, told of how Cole, an engineer, succumbed quickly to a buildup of fluid in the lungs and had to be left on the mountain.

"He had passed away and we had left him in a cave that was at 17,200 feet, and some of the other climbers went back up and buried him," said Noldan, a 74-year-old retired federal worker living in Wilmington, N.C.

Days earlier, the party left the 14,200-foot basin for the upper camp intending to return after caching supplies, Vennum said. But a storm struck, and they were forced to stay in an ice cave at 17,200 feet.

"When the storm broke the next day, we went for the summit," Vennum said. But Cole was vomiting and decided to stay back. A friend of his, another climber from Wyoming, stayed in the cave with him.

The others went to the summit but had problems on the way down, including bad weather and signs of cerebral edema -- fluid on the brain -- in Vennum, he said. They did not return to the high camp until about 9 a.m. the next day, 24 hours later.

They collapsed and slept for about six hours, Vennum said. On waking, they found Cole unconscious and heard gurgling in his lungs. The weather was foul, but they got out a plea for help.

An Army helicopter from Fort Richardson with a surgeon aboard tried but failed to reach the team on June 18, according to a newspaper account.

Meanwhile, the men had found an oxygen bottle at what was known as the medical cache and were able to revive Cole for a time, Vennum said.

"But the oxygen ran out, and that was the end of him," he said.

The helicopter returned June 19. When its crew learned Cole had died, they returned without trying to land, Vennum said.

"We were all so exhausted, we couldn't take him down the mountain," Noldan said. The five climbers descended to 14,200 feet, leaving Cole in the ice cave.

Climbing technology and techniques would allow a recovery from high camp today, but not 35 years ago, Miller said.

Cole was married and had two young children, according to his former partners. His wife was contacted by the Park Service during the ordeal. She said her husband would not want to be taken down from the mountain if it would endanger others, according to Henry's wife, Helena Noldan.

So other climbers at 14,200 feet returned to the high camp and buried him.

Attempts Tuesday to learn what has happened to Cole's wife and children over the years were unsuccessful.

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at or 257-4582.

Climber who died 35 years ago to be buried again
Woman's intervention allows Park Service to heed family's wishes

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 1, 2004)

A wife's memories of her husband's wedding ring and wristwatch after 35 years resolved a thorny question for her and the National Park Service on Wednesday. They also brought some relief for the woman, who had been faced with an uncomfortable decision about a man -- a husband and father -- who perished in June 1969 but whose buried body suddenly became exposed in a well-used camp high on Mount McKinley. The Park Service decided Wednesday that the body of Gary Cole, who died from pulmonary edema and had been buried in a snow pit at the 17,200-foot level of the West Buttress route, will be reburied today, deep in a glacier below and well off the trail.

That wasn't the case a day earlier, when McKinley rangers prepared to have it flown off the mountain as soon as weather allowed. Denali National Park officials suspected the dead climber was Cole, but they had no official confirmation. They were to leave that to the state medical examiner and Alaska State Troopers.

But Judy Cole intervened, and the Park Service and troopers could not have been happier.

"I talked to Judy, and she was relieved," said Daryl Miller, Denali Park's South District ranger. "It's a good ending."

"That's the best of all choices," Judy Cole said from her home in Cody, Wyo.

Cole is 62 and works as a registered nurse. In 1969, she and Gary were living in Cody with their two children, a girl of almost 5 and a boy of almost 3.

Gary was an electrical engineer, "an incredibly practical, down-to-earth, sensible man," Judy said.

Gary and five other men, ages 21 to 39, teamed up to climb McKinley and to be subjects in a study of the effects of altitude on the body conducted by the Institute of Arctic Biology in Fairbanks, said Bob Watkins of Santa Fe, N.M., who led the expedition.

Cole, however, got sick at 17,200 feet, at the last camp before climbers on the West Buttress make for the 20,320-foot summit. He was vomiting but fairly lucid the day four of the climbers left camp to blaze a trail and possibly go to the top, Watkins, who's 73, said Wednesday.

They did not get back until about 24 hours later and learned that Cole was unconscious and suffering from obvious pulmonary edema, a buildup of fluid in the lungs. He was given medication and oxygen but died the next day.

The weather was nasty, and the others -- the only ones on the mountain anywhere near that altitude -- were in no shape to bring him down. They descended to the basin at 14,200 feet and were there when Judy Cole learned of her husband's death.

A minister and a high school friend came to her house to tell her, she said. Almost immediately, she was on the phone with Park Service officials. She heard that Gary had let his companions know he would prefer to be left on the mountain if by chance he were to die.

He had once expressed the same thought to her, Judy said. She decided his body would stay on McKinley.

At the 14,200-foot basin, people connected to the institute performing tests on the team members climbed up to bury Gary, according to Watkins.

"Any time you have to bury anybody in the mountains, you have to remember that the body can be dug up. Animals can dig it up," Watkins said. "They claimed they dug down three or four feet. He died in a sleeping bag, and they buried him in a sleeping bag. They pulled the drawstring over his head."

"They covered him with rocks and said there was no reason not to believe he wouldn't be there forever," Judy said. She has a photo of the grave.

The next year, Watkins returned with a commemorative plaque, paid for by donations from other team members. He said he dug down about two feet over Gary's grave to bury the plaque.

On Friday, a group of climbers at 17,200 feet saw material in the snow close to a well-used cache and believed it to be another buried cache. It turned out to be a foot in a sock and part of a sleeping bag. The remains had been carefully covered with rocks, the Park Service said.

On Monday, a ranger patrol exhumed the rest of the body.

No sign of the plaque was ever found, said Miller, the mountaineering ranger.

In the 1960s, no more than several dozen climbers passed through the high-camp area in any season, the Park Service said. Today, more than 1,000 climbers annually visit the site.

Clearly, the body could not be reburied there. Park officials decided it would have to brought down, and it would have to be identified before they could contact family members.

Judy Cole learned of the discovery from a friend traveling in Alaska who read a newspaper account Wednesday morning.

She was upset, and so were her children, she said.

"I haven't even been thinking about it all these years," she said. "My daughter said, 'Didn't you think this would happen?' Well, no."

"I hate to have his children go through this mess," she added. "It was hard enough on them as it was, but for them to go through this again ..."

One thing was clear, she said. Gary had wanted to stay on the mountain, and his wishes should be honored.

"The kids agree with me that's where he belongs," she said. "They need to do the right thing, to do what he wanted and what was attempted 35 years ago. If not, my children and I will take this matter in hand and do something."

If necessary, she said early Wednesday, she'd have her husband's body cremated and leave his ashes in the mountains.

Meanwhile, rangers took the details she gave them about Gary's ring and watch and looked closely at the corpse.

"It was a plain white gold band, totally plain, very, very simple," Judy said of the ring. The watch was a Timex, also simple.

"Judy gave me a date and type of the ring," Miller said. "And there's a black watch band, and (the band) has a calendar, and the calendar says June 1969. That just nailed it."

The sleeping bag was of a 1960s vintage, Miller said. Miller, troopers, and Park Service officials at Denali and in consulted. They decided a clear identification had been made and the body could stay, he said.

Where Gary Cole will be reburied has not yet been decided, Miller said. "We'll do it with respect, and we'll bury it very deep."

Officials said they were not aware of any other case where a body was capable of being taken off the mountain but instead was left there. This case was unique.

"Truthfully, there was an element of a moral question here, at least for me," said Pete Armington, Denali's chief ranger. "What it really comes down to is that it just felt in the totality of circumstances that it was the right thing to do."

 Funeral at 14,200 feet: McKinley victim reburied
GARY COLE: Rangers and volunteers attend ceremony for man who died in 1969.

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 2, 2004)

The body of Gary Cole, who died 35 years ago on Mount McKinley, was buried on the mountain at midday Thursday in a quiet ceremony by mountaineering rangers and National Park Service volunteers, an official said.

Rangers dug a grave 12 feet into the snow near the outer edge of a glacial basin at 14,200 feet, below the West Buttress route, said Daryl Miller, South District ranger of Denali National Park.

They lowered Cole's body into the grave and covered it. The spot is well away from the West Buttress trail that more than 80 percent of McKinley climbers take to the top, Miller said.

"It was done with respect," he said.

Cole was 32 when he died of acute mountain sickness in June 1969 while traveling with five other men. His body could not be taken down at the time and was buried in a pit dug into the hard snow near a common camping area at 17,200 feet.

McKinley's strong winds apparently eroded most of the snow covering him, and a foot became visible late last week. His body was exhumed Monday and lowered 3,000 feet to the ranger camp Tuesday.

On Wednesday, his widow, Judy Cole of Cody, Wyo., provided officials with enough details for them to confirm his identification. She expressed her strong wishes that his body remain on the mountain, and the officials agreed.

They picked a spot where the body would stay covered, Miller said. The area annually receives 10 to 20 feet of new snow.

"It will be a minimum of 30 feet under when we come back next year," Miller said. Nothing was removed from the body and nothing added to the grave.

"I'm glad that it's done, and it was done well," Judy Cole said Thursday.

One other result of the week's strange occurrence is that Cole heard from several people she hadn't been in touch with in years.

And the leader of the 1969 expedition, Bob Watkins, called and spoke to her for the first time.

"I had never talked to him before," she said. "I think my children may want to call him" she said. Her son and daughter were both very young when their father died.

Also connecting after many years because of the body's discovery were Walt Vennum and Hank Noldan, two other members of the 1969 trip.

They had last spoken more than two dozen years ago, Vennum said Thursday, a day after he chatted with Noldan "for quite a while."

Judy Cole said the connections and reconnections were the event's silver lining.

"What comes around goes around, and things even out in the end," she said.

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at or 257-4582.