By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Two climbers were killed and two others critically injured when the roped group fell at a pass high on Mount McKinley, the National Park Service said on Thursday.
The fall occurred shortly before midnight Wednesday night at Denali Pass, a wind-swept area near the mountain's 18,000-foot level where climbers make a tricky traverse to the 20,320-foot summit.
Climbers resting at the mountain's 17,200-foot high camp saw the four roped individuals fall, the Park Service said. Air National Guard rescuers who were on an unrelated expedition on McKinley brought the injured climbers to high camp for overnight medical care, the Park Service said.
The injured climbers were flown off the mountain Thursday morning to area hospitals, the Park Service said. Names and nationalities were being withheld pending family notification.
The accident occurred near the spot where an unroped Italian climber fell to his death last week and brings this season's Denali National Park climbing death toll to seven. Four of the climbers died on McKinley, North America's tallest peak, and the others died in nearby Alaska Range sites.
"It does certainly feel like we've had a bad year so far. One fatality is too many," said Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for Denali National Park. "Certainly, seven total at this point in time is not how we want to start the season."
Denali Pass, site of fatal falls in the past, is considered one of the risky parts of the standard route up McKinley, with slopes of 35 to 45 degrees, McLaughlin said.
"It's an area that we recommend that all climbers travel roped, and in a fixed position," she said.
McLaughlin said high winds and little recent snowfall have created some hard-packed surfaces on the mountain.
"The reports that we're getting are the conditions are fairly difficult up high, maybe more difficult than average," she said.
Each year, about 1,200 to 1,300 people attempt to climb McKinley and as of Thursday there were 616 climbers on the mountain, McLaughlin said.
The worst year for climbing deaths in Denali National Park was 1992, when 13 died, including 11 on McKinley. That season prompted the Park Service to upgrade its safety and climber-education program.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)