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Mountaineer on quest to summit 7 tallest mountains dies on McKinley

Craig Medred

An Austrian guide who hoped to ski down North America's tallest mountain appears to have abandoned that dream only to then fall to his death.

The National Park Service, which has been searching for 41-year-old Juergen Kanzian since Wednesday, said his body was spotted Thursday evening near 15,300 feet in a steep couloir known as the "Orient Express" that rises above the 14,200 medical camp on Mount McKinley. The gully of snow, ice and rock earned its nickname long ago because of the many Asian climbers who fell to their deaths there.

The area has claimed many climbers since. Kanzian appears to have fallen thousands of feet to his death after stashing his skis and putting on his crampons in a bid for McKinley's 20,320-foot summit. He'd earlier told other climbers he met on the route that he planned to ski down McKinley, but he'd clearly given up on that plan, according to Maureen McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for Denali National Park and Preserve.

His skis and his backpack were clearly stashed in a rock outcropping near the edge of an area called the Football Field, near an elevation of about 19,000 feet on the route to the summit. Why he diverted from his original plan or how he fell is unknown, she added; no other climbers witnessed the accident. But there have been an unusual number of accidents associated with climbers slipping on ice high on the mountain this year and then tumbling to their deaths.

Problems started in early May when a rope team of four led by an experienced Alaska guide slipped and fell near the summit. One climber broke his leg in that fall. He was eventually saved in a daring rescue, but another climber struggling to make it back to high camp at 17,200 feet after the accident died. Less than a week later, an Italian climber slipped in the same area fell to his death. And then came a slip, tumble and fall that killed a Seattle climbing guide and one of her clients.

"Sad stuff -- all of this," McLaughlin said.

Back home in Koetschach-Mauthen, Austria, Kanzian was a certified mountaineering and ski guide who taught Alpine safety. An Austrian website indicates his journey to McKinley was the fourth step in a plan to climb the seven tallest summits on Earth. He had already bagged Russia's Mount Elbrus and Tanzania's Kilimanjaro, as well as South America's Aconcagua, which is higher than McKinley but lacks that mountain's challenging Arctic weather conditions.

Kanzian's body, at this time, is still on McKinley. The parks service said rangers at the 14,200-foot camp found it using a high-powered spotting scope, and the parks high-altitude A-Star B3 helicopter then flew over Kanzian to see if there was any sign of life. It was then his backpack and skis were discovered in the rocks more than 4,000 feet -- about four-fifths of a mile -- above his body.

"Kanzian's body will be recovered when conditions permit,'' a park service release said. "This mountaineering fatality is the sixth on Mt. McKinley in 2011; three other climbing-related deaths occurred on or near other peaks in Denali National Park and Preserve this season."