The annual climbing season in the Alaska Range is still about a month away, but Denali National Park and Preserve is reporting the first, high-altitude rescue of the year.
The Park’s Talkeetna-based, A-Star, high-altitude helicopter Sunday hoisted 42-year-old Mastoshi Kuriaki from a camp near 8,600 feet on the West Ridge of 14,573-foot Mount Hunter.
The rescue came after the Alaska National Air National Guard spent the weekend in a valiant effort to reach the Japanese climber.
With the park service’s helicopter not yet on scene in Talkeetna last week, the federal agency reported it Friday turned to an Air Guard Pave Hawk helicopter and fixed-wing HC-130 from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson outside of Anchorage to find and retrieve Kuriaki from a camp high on Hunter.
Hunter is a peak about 8 miles south of Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America. Fukuoka, Japan-based Kuriaki is a highly experienced Alaska Range mountaineer who was reported to be on day 75 of what he had planned as a 65-day solo expedition when he made a decision to call for help.
A statement from the park reported its Communications Center picked up on SOS from Kuriaki’s one-way, GPS emergency tracking device at about 7:30 a.m. on Friday. By 10 a.m. that morning, the Air Guard had a Pave Hawk helicopter from the 210th Rescue Squadron and an HC-130 plane from the 211th Rescue Squadron along with a team of pararescuemen from the 212th Rescue headed for the mountain.
Inclement weather kept the Pave Hawk and the PJs from reaching Kuriaki, but the Hc-130 circling above the scene was able to raise the climber on the aircraft radio he was carrying, according to the park service. Kuriaki reported he was down to two days worth of food with water for only three or four days, but safe in a snow shelter.
The problem, he said, was that he was stuck where he was of because of avalanche dangers all around. An big storm in late March pushed unusually warm and wet weather into the southern Alaska Range. About four-feet of snow came down in the space of a week.
They weather kept the Air Guard from reaching Kuriaki for two days, and by Sunday the park’s A-Star was in Talkeetna. With the weather improving, A-Star pilot Andy Hermansky was able to locate Kuriaki and lower a rescue basket to him at around noon. He climbed in and Hermansky short-hauled the climber to the Kahiltna Glacier where park mountianeering rangers Chris Erickson and David Weber were waiting to assist.
Everyone was then flowing safely back to Talkeetna.
The park said Kuriaki was making his ninth, solo winter attempt on Hunter in winter. He soloed to the top of the 20,310-foot Denali in the winter of 1998 and claimed the first, solo winter ascent of 17,400-Mount Foraker — Denali’s sister peak — in 2007. In all Kuriaki has launched 17 solo winter expeditions in the range, according to the park.