Searchers Tracing Missing Climber's Route

Searchers Tracing Missing Climber's Route

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- A Utah man attempting a solo climb of Mount Sanford did not return to a designated rendezvous point, and searchers have found no trace of him.

Jason Harper, 28, set out May 4 to climb the 16,237-foot peak in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, National Park Service spokesman Smitty Parratt said.

For the past two days, searchers in airplanes and an infrared radar-equipped Air National Guard helicopter have traced the route Harper was supposed to take and an alternate route, but have not located Harper.

Harper was carrying about 40 pounds of food, skis and climbing gear, but no tent, Parratt said. He was dropped off at 3,000 feet on the mountain, 20 miles northwest of the summit, at an area known as Windy Ridge.

Harper planned to climb Sheep Glacier to the summit and return in five days. Parratt said most climbers start earlier in the year and take seven to 11 days on the same route.

Pilot Harley McMahan, of the Gakona-based McMahan Guide and Flying Service, told park service officials that Harper asked to be picked up on May 7. McMahan told the climber he couldn't pick him up until Sunday, May 9.

But Harper did not appear at the designated time, McMahan said. After searching the area, both on foot and then in his airplane, and seeing no sign of the climber, McMahan thought Harper might have misunderstood the rendezvous date to be the following Sunday, May 16.

But by Wednesday, remembering how little food and gear Harper carried, McMahan notified the Park Service that the climber was overdue, said his daughter, Rebecca McMahan.

"He's been out every day since then, looking for tracks," she said.

A search of Harper's vehicle turned up a plane ticket to Salt Lake City for May 12, which confirmed that he planned to be picked up the previous weekend, Parratt said.

National Park Service pilots searched the mountain Wednesday, looking at Harper's expected route as well as a potential alternative route down.

The airplanes were joined Thursday by an Air National Guard Blackhawk H-60 search helicopter equipped with forward-looking infrared radar.

The chopper flew the entire route, up Sheep Glacier to the summit, but saw nothing, Parratt said.

A high-altitude rescue helicopter normally used on Mount McKinley could be pressed into service if needed, he said.

Harper grew up in Salt Lake City and has climbed frequently in Alaska since 1998, including five weeks in the Wrangell Mountains in 2000, Parratt said.

The climber spent last winter in Valdez.

"He was very experienced and fit," Parratt said.

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

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