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Escaping death on Mount McKinley

Berlin Nelson's climbing partners Joe Fontana, left, and Tim Townsend, center, descend Mount McKinley on June 13. On the way, they encountered a disoriented stranger, right, who is now believed to be Hitoshi Ogi, the sole survivor of a deadly avalanche earlier that day. Berlin Nelson / Special to The Forum

FARGO - He didn't cry for help or urge a rescue. He didn't seem in danger, and indicated in what little English he could manage that he was resting but unharmed - simply a lone climber on the slopes of Mount McKinley, sitting atop his pack.

He had no snowshoes despite a foot and half of fresh powder. His tracks seemed to trace back to a nearby avalanche, meandering as if he had been lost - or searching for something.

He followed Berlin Nelson, the Fargo man who found him, a short way down the mountain, then disappeared.

It wasn't until days later that Nelson learned there had been a deadly accident in the very same area, on the very same day, survived only by a Japanese man who sounded very much like the stranger he encountered.

Now Nelson and his companions, baffled by the encounter, are left to wonder if they missed an opportunity to call for help or start a search for four other Japanese climbers who are now presumed dead.

"It bothers me that we either didn't perceive that there was a problem or he just couldn't communicate with us," said Nelson, a North Dakota State University professor and a McKinley veteran. "We had a satellite phone with us. They would've sent a rescue team immediately."

Though the identity of the climber Nelson encountered has not been confirmed definitively, both Nelson and McKinley park rangers believe him to be Hitoshi Ogi, a 69-year-old Japanese man. Ogi was part of a five-man climbing team swept away by an avalanche early in the morning of June 13.

The avalanche came to rest just 100 meters or so from Nelson's tent at a camp about 11,000 feet up the mountain. It wiped out much of a nearby trail, but Nelson didn't think much of it at the time, and began his descent later that morning.

Ogi, meanwhile, was knocked into a crevasse when his team was hit. He climbed his way out, slept to gather his strength, and made his way back to his own camp to get help - presumably bumping into Nelson along the way.

Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the park, said shock, disorientation, exhaustion, and the language barrier all could have hampered Ogi's to communicate what had happened.

"There are physical impacts and emotional ones as well," she said. "In circumstances like these, it's very rare that someone would survive."

Even when Ogi reached authorities, park rangers had to call for a translator, she said. He has since left to get treatment, and rangers "haven't been able to have long conversations with him," she said.

Ogi, after searching for his lost companions on his own, didn't get back to camp until June 14 - a day after Nelson made his own descent. Nelson said the lost time could have been critical on a mountain known for cold weather and unforgiving conditions.

"Whenever there's an accident on Denali, the most important thing is that the rescue has to be immediate," he said, referring to McKinley by its native name.

It was Nelson's fifth time on the mountain. An avid climber and adventurer, he made the trip with two acquaintances from the Highpointers Club, a national group that promotes scaling the highest points in all 50 states.

He said dozens of people near his campsite could have probed the snow for survivors or bodies. Instead, they may well have walked straight past the missing climbers - or even over them.

After learning of the accident this weekend, Nelson called McKinley park rangers to tell them of his encounter. They said the man matched Ogi's description and timeline.

After learning what Ogi went through, Nelson said, "We thought he must've been completely traumatized."

But the biggest question - perhaps one of life or death - still lingers.

"I wish I could talk to him again to find out why he didn't say anything," Nelson said.