Another climber on the same guided expedition suffered a broken leg and was rescued Thursday from the 20,320-foot mountain, about 180 miles north of Anchorage.
National Park Service spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin did not immediately identify any of the four climbers.
Park officials said the two climbers, including a guide, were airlifted from the 17,200-foot high camp Friday afternoon after it was determined the two men could not descend safely on their own. Both climbers suffered frostbite on their hands and feet, and the guide reportedly had a broken rib.
Winds as high as 70 mph delayed rescue efforts for much of Thursday, but gusts calmed just before sundown, allowing a helicopter to reach the climbers at 19,500 feet, McLaughlin said. The first of the three climbers rescued was able to scramble into a rescue basket, she said.
The chopper then set mountaineering ranger Kevin Wright down next to the other climber at 18,000 feet and the ranger buckled the unresponsive climber into a sling. The climber showed no signs of life on the trip to base camp.
The death was the first this year on McKinley. Two climbers died last year. The climbing season began unofficially on May 1.
Mountaineering ranger and medic Dave Weber confirmed the climber was dead during the flight Thursday night to nearby Talkeetna for a more thorough medical assessment. He said there were no obvious signs of trauma.
What is known is that conditions were brutal on the mountain when the climbers fell, and they stayed that way for the next 12 to 14 hours while strong winds delayed a rescue, Weber said. The climbing party was high up on the mountain and on an exposed ridge with no shelter when the fall occurred, he said.
It would be difficult to stand or even stay in place in 70 mph winds, Weber said. The wind chill remained between 50 and 60 degrees below zero throughout the night.
"It was brutal conditions out there," Weber said Friday. "It was an extremely hostile environment."
The injured climber who was rescued first was transported to an Anchorage hospital, but no condition report was immediately available.
The climbing team — made up of a guide and three clients on a rope — fell while climbing on the summit ridge, McLaughlin said.
After the fall, the guide secured the injured climber in a sleeping bag in a flat area at 19,500 feet while the other two clients descended. By Thursday morning, the guide and one of the two clients had reached a high camp at 17,200 feet. But the other client — the one later found dead at 18,000 feet — never made it.
The climber with the broken leg was in a wide open snowfield and waved to rescuers in circling aircraft at one point.
The other was in a rocky area and harder to spot, Weber said.