updated 6/12/2009 8:29:22 PM ET 2009-06-13T00:29:22

Two experienced climbers have fallen to their deaths on Alaska's Mount McKinley.

National Park Service rangers have recovered the bodies of 39-year-John Mislow of Newton, Mass., and 36-year-old Andrew Swanson of Minneapolis.

The climbers, both doctors, were roped together when they fell Thursday afternoon along Messner Couloir, a steep, hourglass-shaped snow gully on the 20,320-foot mountain, North America's tallest peak. The climbing partners began an ascent of the mountain's West Rib route on May 30.

Park Service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin said many factors about the fall remain unknown, including its starting point and whether the climbers were descending or still ascending the mountain, which is in Denali National Park and Preserve. Climbers are not required to disclose their descent route, although some choose to. Mislow and Swanson did not.

Rangers hope to learn more after viewing photographs in cameras belonging to the climbers, as well as from interviews with other climbers.

McLaughlin said the men fell at least 2,000 feet to Messner Couloir's base at 14,500 feet. Other climbers saw at least part of the fall, she said.

Rangers at the 14,200-foot camp were notified by radio within minutes of the accident. Three skiers in the vicinity were first to reach the climbers.

The deaths were confirmed by rangers, including medics, who were following close behind. The bodies were recovered by helicopter Thursday evening.

The deaths bring to four the number of fatalities at McKinley this climbing season, which runs through early July. There were four deaths in the entire season last year. The most deadly season was in 1992, a bad storm year, when 11 people died on the mountain, McLaughlin said. Many years there are no fatalities.

"We certainly prefer zero," McLaughlin said. "Four -- it feels high."

In early May, 61-year-old climber William Hearn of Fairport, N.Y., collapsed after this team reached 13,500 feet and was pronounced dead soon after. On May 19, 41-year-old Gerald Myers, a chiropractor from Centennial, Colo., vanished after he left his climbing partners at 14,200 feet to make a solo summit attempt. His body has not been found, but McLaughlin said he is presumed dead. Searchers looking for him located the bodies of two Japanese climbers who went missing last year.

Rangers say Mislow and Swanson were seasoned mountaineers. In 2000, the two received the Denali Pro Award in recognition of setting the highest standards of mountaineering for safety, self-sufficiency and assistance to fellow climbers.

The two helped several teams in distress that year and assisted with visitor protection projects, McLaughlin said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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