Luciano Colombo 2011-05-16

Itali >an climber killed in fall on Mount McKinley

By MIKE CAMPBELL,, Published: May 16th, 2011

Unroped Italian climber Luciano Colombo, 67, slipped while making a steep traverse near Denali Pass and fell 1,000 feet to his death on Mount McKinley Monday morning.

The accident was the second fatality on North America's highest peak in less than a week. On Thursday, Swiss climber Beat Niederer, 38, died at the 18,000-foot level. A cause of Niederer's death has not been established, but several climbers in his party suffered severe frostbite in the wind-whipped, sub-zero cold that battered McKinley last week.

On Monday, several climbers at McKinley's 17,200-foot high camp saw the end of Colombo's fall about 10 a.m.

Ranger Matt Hendrickson with the National Park Service and three fellow patrollers were able to reach Colombo and confirm he was killed. Two of Columbo's teammates were traveling farther ahead at the time of the fall, which happened while descending in clear weather with calm winds. The team had not summited.

Denali Pass can be a treacherous area for McKinley climbers, and park service records indicate that nine climbers have perished there since 1980. That makes it likely the second deadliest place on McKinley behind the Upper West Rib.

Six years ago, twin brothers Jerry and Terry Humphrey, 55, of Ohio fell to their deaths on their way down the treacherous traverse, the only deaths of the 2005 climbing season. Like Colombo, they were not roped together.

"It's fairly steep," said Maureen McLaughlin, a public information officer at the Denali National Park Talkeetna Ranger Station. "We certainly encourage teams to be roped together at that point.

"What makes this a little more treacherous, is that (Colombo's party was) traversing on a diagonal. There have been many falls over the years here."

The park service has installed fixed pickets on this section in recent years to encourage climbers to rope in, she said.

"Footing is something you need to pay particular attention to here," McLaughlin said. "It's very windblown, and there's not too much traction."

The route from the 17,200-foot-high camp to Denali Pass is about three-fourths of a mile. The last several hundred feet are sloped generally 40-45 degrees.

Descending after an exhausting climb often is more difficult than going up, mountaineers say. Eight of the nine people who have died below Denali Pass were on their descent at the time, according to the Park Service.

The now-retired Nick Parker of Anchorage, who guided McKinley climbers for decades and participated in more than 200 rescue missions on the mountain, went to the aid of many who tumbled down the slope below Denali Pass over the years.

"That's a common accident," Parker said. "It's steeper than it looks, it's harder than it looks and you're tired."

A rope linking climbers to one another is not enough by itself to prevent falls, Parker said. If a climber stumbles or slips and begins to slide, he may yank his partners off the slope, too, if no one can arrest the fall.

"Being on a rope is no protection unless you're attached to the mountainside," he said. "Many modern climbers would say that if you're not attached to the mountainside, why be on a rope? There's a good chance you can't self arrest."

Colombo is nearly twice the age of the typical McKinley climber, McLaughlin said, with 34 being average. The oldest ever to reach the summit is a 76-year-old Japanese climber.

"My oldest client was 72," Parker said, "but he ran circles around me. He had two burly sons with him, and he did fine."

The body of Columbo, from the Italian town of Mandello, was taken to the 17,200-foot camp, from where it will be recovered.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.