Naomi Uemura, 02-84

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.