Search Scaled Back for Missing Utah Climber

Search Scaled Back for Missing Utah Climber

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ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The search for a Utah man who went missing while attempting a solo climb of a mountain in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska was scaled back Sunday.

Jason Harper, 28, of Salt Lake City, set out May 4 to climb Mount Sanford, a 16,237-foot peak in the 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest national park in the country. The park contains 9 of the 16 highest peaks in the United States, including Mount Sanford.

Harper planned to climb Sheep Glacier to the summit and return in five days. He was dropped off at Windy Ridge on the slopes of Mount Sanford by McMahan Guide and Flying Services in Gakona. The area is at the 3,000-foot level, about 20 miles northwest of the summit. From the drop-off, it's about 20 miles to the summit over a vertical climb of 12,000 feet.

Harper carried 40 pounds of food, skis and climbing gear, but no tent.

When the pilot returned May 9 to pick up Harper, he was not at the designated spot, according to the National Park Service.

Searchers on Saturday found a cache of food and equipment, and a snow cave that Harper likely rested in on May 5, National Park Service spokesman Smitty Parratt said Sunday.

The snow cave, probably left over from some Japanese climbers, had collapsed and was not easy to spot at first. It was about 9,000 feet from the summit.

Two climbing parties, one above the ice fall and one below, spent the night on the mountain so they could continue the search Sunday.

The search resumed at 7 a.m. but strong winds of between 20 and 30 mph and deteriorating weather forced the search to be suspended a few hours later. The six searchers who had spent the night on the mountain were lifted off, Parratt said.

Search efforts now would be scaled back. A helicopter that was being used to look for Harper was returned to its home base in Denali National Park and Preserve. A state trooper helicopter also was being recalled, Parratt said.

Harper's father and brother, who joined in the aerial and ground search, were headed to Anchorage and likely would be returning to Utah, Parratt said. Several of Harper's friends also had helped in the search.

"Maybe we'll never know for sure what happened," Parratt said.

Pilots had flown the route between where Harper's cache was found by the side of the route and the summit dozens of times in recent days.

Searchers on the ground had scoured parts of the route, especially those areas where Harper may have encountered difficulty or fallen into a crevasse.

They found no clues as to what happened, Parratt said.

He said it's possible that Harper became lost and veered off the normal route or fell in a crevasse. Searchers paid extra attention to a particularly treacherous ice fall area.

"A lot of crevasses are there," Parratt said.

As the season progresses and the weather warms, the crevasses where Harper was climbing will continue to open up, Parratt said. He said the Park Service will ask any other climbing teams or pilots flying over the area to keep an eye out for him.

Most climbers start earlier in the year and take seven to 11 days on the same route.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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