Image: Karen McNeill, Sue Nott
McNeill Family  /  AP
In this photo provided by the McNeill family, Karen McNeill, left, and Sue Nott are seen on Denali in 2004 when the two climbed the Alaskan peak.
updated 6/8/2006 10:05:06 PM ET 2006-06-09T02:05:06

Crews searching for two mountain climbers missing on one of Alaska’s most difficult peaks spotted a torn backpack in an avalanche debris field and fear the women have now been without food and fuel for over a week.

Sue Nott and Karen McNeill, both experienced climbers, started up Mount Foraker on May 14 and planned to complete the route in 10 to 14 days.

The search for the two began on June 1 after an air taxi operator flew the ascent route and didn’t see them on the mountain.

“Given the harsh conditions up there, it makes the possibility that they have survived less and less with each passing day,” said Kris Fister, spokeswoman for Denali National Park and Preserve.

Base camp ‘socked in’
Cloudy weather Thursday grounded the high altitude helicopter being used in the search, and Fister said the base camp where the women started was “socked in.”

A ripped backpack believed to be Nott’s, a radio and sleeping bag were spotted Friday in an avalanche debris field. Nott, 36, of Vail, Colo., and McNeill, 37, of Canmore, Alberta, Canada, had not been communicating on their radio. A helicopter crew on Sunday found a yellow bag, black fleece hat and pink nylon jacket in the same area.

Searchers on Monday spotted footprints at 16,400 feet.

Fister said searchers theorize that the climbers may have burrowed into a sheltered spot, such as a crevasse, to reduce exposure to the wind and subzero temperatures.

Mount Foraker is 12 miles southwest of Denali, North America’s highest peak. The 17,400-foot mountain is considered a difficult and technical climb, attracting far fewer people than Denali, also known as Mount McKinley.

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